Deb Amato: First female chief of staff for the Diocese of Lansing
Trailblazer wasn’t a heading on any of the tabs in Deb Amato’s files of possible ministerial work. Yet, upon her appointment as the first female chief of staff for the Central Service Offices of the Diocese of Lansing, Trailblazer became the most prominent tab. No one was more surprised than she. “I questioned my qualifications, but I was open and trusted God’s lead.” With a chuckle, she adds, “I really thought I was called to be a theology teacher.’
“As a trailblazer, I feel a huge responsibility to lay ministers. I want this to go well. Bishop Boyea is very supportive of lay ministers embracing their baptismal call. I hope priests will look at the bishop’s example of putting a woman in a key leadership role in the diocesan structure and see that parishes can put women with gifts, passion and motivation in key leadership roles as well. Our Church will not survive unless lay people step up.”
Taking the reins from Father Mike Murray, Deb describes her position as twofold: “First, I must understand the bishop’s vision for this building and the diocese at large. Second, I must ensure that everybody working in this building is on board with that vision and moving in the direction of its fulfillment. When I took over, I inherited an awesome staff, a wonderful group of people who are talented, competent and very passionate for the mission – for Jesus. They bring so much joy to my ministry. Father Murray had primed them to work collaboratively and create teams to implement the bishop’s 2012 pastoral letter, and I picked up the baton. We have completed those tasks, so now it’s time to identify new goals. Ultimately, the goal for the diocese is salvation of souls and so our question becomes: ‘How will we work to identify the measurable goals we need to accomplish this task, in Lansing, in 2018?’”
Deb brings both business and pastoral acumen to her position. A former owner of a computer business, Deb’s life direction shifted when she attended a Christ Renews His Parish retreat in 2000. “Prior to attending, I was Catholic by convenience. That retreat weekend was pivotal for me. It was personal and intimate, beginning with the women on the team who embraced every participant like they were the only person there; it was so beautiful and loving. The sacramental presence of Jesus, the music, Mass, reconciliation – all wove together to create an encounter with Jesus I had never experienced before. It was like being wrapped in the loving arms of God. I knew I had to make a decision to either accept Jesus and change, or pretend the encounter never happened.”
Deb chose the former and trained to become part of the next parish Christ Renews His Parish team. She sold her computer business and returned to academia to earn her master’s degree in pastoral studies. She volunteered on the RCIA team at her parish, St. Joe’s in Howell, and slowly took on other ministry roles. Volunteerism grew into part- time work, which evolved into full-time ministry. All the while, Deb was raising her four children and whittling away at completing her master’s program at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
On the advice of her former pastor, in 2010, Deb applied for the position of diocesan director of lay ministry. “It was a miracle I got that job,” marvels Deb. “They wanted someone with a master’s, and I had not yet completed mine. I honestly wasn’t seeking a ministry change, but see how the hand of God drew me in this direction, how other things had to happen first. My work at the parish level was a tremendous gift in preparing me for this work. To be part of the diocesan structure, the Curia, with parish experience, means I can empathize with parish personnel. I have walked their walk. I understand.”
Deb completed her degree in 2012 and continued working as director of lay ministry. In 2015, Bishop Boyea appointed her to chair the newly formed Department of Evangelization and Lay Formation. “None of this was on my radar. I have been open and often pray, ‘God, what do you want me to do with the gifts you have given me, the blessings I have?’ I see this as God driving my car.”
Though happy in her new administrative work at the diocesan level, Deb missed the pastoral interaction she shared with parishioners. Craving connection, Deb became a certified spiritual director and currently meets with a few women. To sate her pastoral yearning, she leads a women’s prayer group at her parish two Saturdays a month, and is involved teaching Called and Gifted workshops.
“I also discovered I had to shift my thinking as to who ‘the people’ are. Rather than people in the pew, I need to connect with the people who report to me. Encouragement is one of my gifts, so I look for opportunities to do that. I walk around the diocesan center at least once a day to chat with people. Relationship is so important.”
Deb often finds herself on the receiving end of that philosophy, as she regularly receives supportive encouragement from her husband of 28 years. She refers to him as a saint who is very excited about her vocational trailblazing. Pausing momentarily, she says, “My first vocation is my marriage, whose sacramental grace fuels all the other things I am doing. You can’t starve that first vocation; I have to be really attentive to that.”
Deb’s other sources of encouragement come from the sacraments, her spiritual director and unceasing prayer. Each day begins with the Liturgy of the Hours, often a rosary on her almost-hour commute and going through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Deb turns to an array of female saints for inspiration: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine, Mother Teresa, and Mary – “all women who followed the hand of God and many times were persecuted yet persevered. They were courageous.’
“Ultimately, everything we do in this life is about calling us to holiness, calling us to be the best version of ourselves, calling us to sainthood. The demands of this role force me to look at the ways I need to grow. I’m talking about virtues like courage and unconditional love. I see this position as what God is doing in my life to help me grow in holiness and be the person God called me to be.’
“This whole experience has been awesome and exciting: awesome in the true sense of awe – larger than life – and exciting because it is trailblazing! I am very humbled and have pinched myself to make sure it is real. I’ve learned it takes baby steps in obedience to the Holy Spirit in order to end up where God intends you to be. You might be surprised if it isn’t what you thought it would be.” Deb recognizes she has been a theology teacher all along. “Honestly, God’s way is way better than I ever imagined!”
A lay ecclesial minister serves in pastoral ministry in the areas of religious education/faith formation, liturgical celebration and social ministry. For more information on lay ministry formatrion, contact Roberta (Bert) Schomberger at 517.342.2521.