Shock happens. In the 2001-2002 school year, the University of Dallas’ then Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies (IRPS) reeled in the wake of resignations submitted by the director and all full-time faculty members. Only a few students remained in the program. Though administrators assured them that their studies could continue, nobody knew what form the curriculum would take.

Today all that is a distant memory. In fact, students and faculty at UD’s newly renamed School of Ministry say it’s a case of “So much has happened but nothing has changed.”

For most of those who have enrolled since the turnaround began in 2002, the School of Ministry is the same old institute they always knew: faithful to the Church, vibrant in the university community and a vital presence in the parishes of the Dallas-Fort Worth Diocese.

It’s just bigger now — much bigger. More than 900 students participate in its programs. And, with many initiatives underway at once, the School of Ministry projects its enrollment to nearly double over the next four years, to 1,600.

The change from IRPS to School of Ministry, announced at a banquet on April 27, reflects “the significant growth that has occurred over the past five years, growth that is projected to continue as we build upon relationships with dioceses, institute new programs and reach out to new students,” UD professor Matthew Ogilvie says. He adds that the new name “doesn’t change anything. It simply recognizes the great work we’ve done and the work we’ll continue to do.”

Brian Schmisek, the School of Ministry’s director, adds that calling the program a “school” rather than an “institute” says that “we’ve grown bigger, first of all, and also that we’re more integrated with the university. ‘Ministry’ reflects our focus on training and formation for deacons and lay ministers. Overall, the new name gives people a better idea of who we are and what it is we’re doing here.”

The name change, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the former IRPS, marks a milestone in several ways. For one thing, it signals a comeback for the institute, which suffered six years ago after the bout of resignations, which triggered a public debate over the Catholic identity of, and long-term vision for, the program — and the university.

Schmisek says that, when he was chosen as the new director in May 2002, he knew that the leadership of the institute needed a new beginning. “I went out and talked to a whole lot of people,” Schmisek recalls. “I wanted to learn the needs of the local church and the diocese.”

As it turned out, both clergy and laity needed and wanted a more in-depth adult faith formation.

“So we created those programs,” Schmisek says. “For example, our Catholic Biblical School responds to a desire for more knowledge and study of the Bible. That was something adult Catholics in the area wanted. We thought we needed to create this Catholic presence, and so we took professors from the university and sent them out into the parishes.”

Informal Fidelity

At present, the biblical school is one of only a few Catholic programs of its kind in the country. It offers courses in both English and Spanish, and online as well as on campus. Students of any age may certify in its four-year program. Last year, more than 620 enrolled, making it the largest of any comparable program at a Catholic university in the United States.

In addition, the School of Ministry now offers five master’s degree programs: theological studies, Catholic school teaching, religious education, pastoral ministry and Catholic school leadership. The faculty — a priest, a Dominican sister and 11 laypeople — will also host a handful of conferences each year, including the school’s first ministry conference to take place in Dallas this September.

No formal system exists at the School of Ministry for ensuring that faculty members teach in accord with the magisterium. Instead, Schmisek says, a rigorous pre-hire screening process weeds out professors who would compromise the school’s authentic Catholic identity. “We do a pretty excellent job of fulfilling the mandate of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he says.

Adds Prof. Ogilvie: “Our policy of working with our bishops means they can feel confident that our teaching ministry is a faithful expression of the Church’s teaching mission.”

This is especially important because the School of Ministry has been entrusted with the formation of deacons for the diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth, as well as offering education and formation programs to other dioceses in eastern Texas.

It all works, Schmisek explains, because both faculty and students tend to self-select from among those with a love for the life of the Church.

“They want to hand on not only knowledge of faith but also, you might say, the heart of the faith,” he says. “They’re people who not only study Catholicism but actually live it out.”

Tammy Amosson, who began her studies at UD early in 2004 and has been taking the School of Ministry’s online courses since that summer, says she has found faithful companionship with her teachers and fellow students.

“The School of Ministry has complemented my roles as wife, mother and lay minister,” she says. “The other day, I overheard my oldest son telling someone that his mom was really smart about Jesus and the Bible. Through my studies I’m teaching my children, by example, the importance of ongoing faith formation and the fact that we never outgrow our quest for understanding.”

Nationwide Reach

Ogilvie and Amosson agree that the School of Ministry’s courses, while offering in-depth knowledge and doctrinal solidity, also adapt well to the lives of their students and especially of the laity.

“In 2004, when I found out I was both pregnant and moving out of Dallas, online classes had just become available through the School of Ministry,” Amosson says. “I was immediately able to continue with my studies, even 300 miles away. As a mom of four, I can set my own schedule and listen to the lectures when the kids are in bed.”

Ogilvie, whose teaching load includes online courses, says he enjoys providing intellectual formation to Catholics in all kinds of situations around the country.

“Our guiding vision for online education has been the question, ‘What do students need today?’” he says. “In being student-centered and oriented to their needs, rather than trying to fit students into pre-existing models, our program now reaches students from all over the United States.”

Schmisek looks at the progress the School of Ministry has made in light of its commission 20 years ago. At that time, Bishop William Friend of Shreveport, La., called on the IRPS to “take a decisive role in the theological formation and continuing education of Catholic leaders.”

Schmisek says, “Today we are meeting the challenge.”

Katy Carl writes from St. Louis.

University of Dallas
School of Ministry
(972) 721-5000