Thirty years ago Suzette Sornborger was a college graduate looking for a job — little knowing that her first job would start her on a path of service for the Church, which would mean trading one ministerial job for another, moving from parish to parish, until she would finally be commissioned as a pastoral associate.

“I won’t have the official title until after Sunday,” Sornborger said before her recent commissioning. Although her role at St. Monica Church in Santa Monica won’t change drastically, she has served under the title director of faith formation in the few months leading up to the ceremony. On July 1, Sornborger assumed the role Sister Catherine Ryan held before her retirement.

The term “pastoral associate” can only be given to someone who has been specifically commissioned as such by the bishop of the diocese. Pastoral associates work closely with a parish pastor to oversee decision-making responsibilities and assist in the formation of the congregation. On Nov. 5, Archbishop José H. Gomez commissioned Sornborger and Katie Tassinari as pastoral associates at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Katherine Enright, the director of the office of parish life for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, stressed that the Church needs laymen and women to respond to the call of service, noting, “The call to serve the Body of Christ is [for] everyone who is baptized.”

“I never really imaged myself doing this kind of work when I first got out of college,” Sornborger said. “So you just never know where God wants you, and being a willing listener to forge ahead with that has been such a delight.”

Sornborger and Tassinari were carefully vetted. Pastoral associates must hold a master’s degree in divinity or in pastoral, theological or religious studies and have had years of experience serving in a parish.

Sornborger is part of a group of six church administrators, which include the pastors, who serve the parish’s more than 8,000 families. The group works closely together to manage anything from finances to spiritual care. “Everyone has a voice,” Sornborger said. “It’s a wonderful process.”

The needs of each parish are “wildly different” Enright said, noting that there are many cultures, traditions and ministries that are in need of leadership, especially in light of the ongoing priest shortage. She lists music ministries, bereavement ministries and family catechesis as a few of the many necessary spiritual works in the Church.

As a wife and mother, part of Sornborger’s challenge will be drawing boundaries on the hours she spends on the job. She tries to limit her work schedule to 50 hours per week. “There’s a definite expectation for me to be available as much as the monsignor needs to be available, particularly in spiritual counseling,” she said. 

Since Vatican II, more laywomen have responded to the call to serve the Church, becoming theologians or receiving graduate degrees in divinity studies. Pope Francis is encouraging this movement. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” he wrote, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

Although Pope Francis wants women to take on more responsibilities in the Church (while acknowledging that only men can be ordained priests), he also seems to imply that their specific form of service is yet to be properly determined.

Earlier in 2013, the pope said during a press conference, “The role of women in the church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role. … No! It is something else.”

And so, beginning Nov. 6, Sornborger assumed a new role where she joins other women in discovering how much more they can give.

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