‘This institute is quenching a thirst in my spirit I didn’t even know I had’: The Lydia Institute provides a new ministry for professional women

For years, Mary Maher, a Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi, watched the women in her life struggle to find a work-life balance, generously sacrificing themselves for the needs of their families and others, but lacking the time and space to address their own personal needs, particularly in the areas of self-care and spiritual formation. They’re pouring themselves out in service for others, Mary would think, but who is pouring into them? And how can I help? Yet when she would search for opportunities for small groups, faith communities, or spirituality events that might be of benefit, Mary consistently found that the meetings and activities didn’t suit or work into the schedules of the women she knew who worked outside of the home. Not finding a ministry specifically designed for the professional women in her life, Mary set out, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to create one herself.

The Doctor of Ministry degree at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Chicago provided Mary the perfect opportunity. A professional degree designed to have direct application in pastoral outreach, the Doctor of Ministry combines research and analysis with the creation of real-life ministry to address a particular situation or need within the Church. “A Doctor of Ministry is about contributing to the practice of ministry, and lets Mary share the wisdom of what she has done and analyzed with the wider university community, and with the Church as well,” says Dr. Paul Hilliard, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at St. Mary of the Lake. “It is a very learned way of teaching us all how to better cooperate in the salvation of the whole world.”

When Mary began her Doctor of Ministry degree, she started to explore the spiritual needs unique to busy professional women, and how they might be better met in pastoral ministry within the Church. “For years, I watched my sisters and friends juggling multiple roles and responsibilities, spread pretty thin between work and home, their big generous hearts pulled in a million directions,” says Mary. “I felt such a desire to support them, and when I started digging into this theme and doing a little research, I quickly realized that my sisters and friends are not alone. There are overstretched, undernourished working women and professionals from coast to coast and around the globe.”

Mary’s research into the spiritual lives and needs of professional women confirmed her original concerns. While women make up 50% of the technical and professional workforce in America (including in corporate leadership, where they hold 52% of all managerial roles), only about 20% of them regularly attend religious services. And although 69% of women surveyed state they believe in God, and 59% profess religion to be important, the majority of them acknowledge that they have never attended a prayer or scripture group and are not actively engaged in parish life. “There’s a disconnect,” says Mary, “there’s a belief in God, but in the day-to-day, there isn’t an expression of that, for whatever reason.”

“Working women carry a heavy load – they are often times pulled and pressured, with no time to pray, and it is God they need more than anything else, yet often they go without the appropriate spiritual support for themselves,” says Mary, who in her research found that most of the ministries currently available in the Church were neither designed for nor marketed towards professional women. “More often than not, as Church leaders, we don’t notice that they’re missing from our small groups and our activities, or we notice that they’re missing, but we don’t know what to do about it. And I believe that as a Church we can do better.”

This was the challenge that Mary’s doctoral thesis project set out to address – to create a ministry that appealed to and was specifically designed for busy professional women and their unique spiritual needs. The result is The Lydia Institute, a faith-based community that provides professional women with opportunities for intentional spiritual development, Christian leadership training, and personal connection and mentoring, by offering scripture series, prayer experiences, retreats and personal spiritual coaching. “The Lydia Institute seeks to equip women for leadership in society and in the Church so that they can imbue with Gospel values their families, their workspaces, and their communities,” says Mary.

The inspiration for the project, and the namesake and patron of the Institute, is Lydia, a first century businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloth, who is considered to be the first European convert to Christianity and was vital in helping St. Paul establish and grow the Philippian Church. For Mary, Lydia is an icon of faith, a woman of worship and work, and a powerful example of purpose and passion. The feminine servant leadership embodied by Lydia became the model for the Institute and the subject of  its pilot project, a six-week small group scripture series titled “Biblical Womanhood and Feminine Leadership,” which studied some of the women in scripture who had, by living from their unique identities as beloved and beautiful daughters of God at the service of his plan, made a real impact on salvation history. “The goal of the series was to give these women a personal experience of God’s love, and of the Church as a place that they could consider their spiritual home, as a place where they could be cared for and nourished.” Mary ran this first program during Lent of 2019 with 14 professional women who were seeking purpose and peace in their lives, but were not actively engaged in the Church at the time. Each session included time for fellowship over wine and cheese, 30 minutes of scripture study and discussion, and space for sharing, reflection, and personal prayer. 

The response to the pilot project was overwhelming – the series was a transformative experience for each one of the women who participated. “This Institute is quenching a thirst in my spirit I didn’t even know I had,” stated one participant. “After 25 years as a Catholic, this is the first time I have felt like I belong in the Church,” said another. All of the women who participated expressed an increase in inner peace and a call to make real changes in their lives, especially in making time for daily prayer, but it was one participant whose experience particularly touched Mary:

“One woman said, ‘I arrived feeling like my life was a mess. In prayer time, I felt God the Father offering me his son, Jesus, as the answer to my problems and a way out of the mess.’ Just for that one woman alone, just for that one woman who received the gift of Jesus and knew there was a way forward for her, this project was worth it.”

Since that pilot series, The Lydia Institute has run several scripture studies – in-person and online –  including fall, winter, and Lenten series that reached over 100 professional women over the past six months, helping them find their purpose within the Word of God in a profound and personal way. 

Although Mary’s doctoral project is complete – she recently successfully defended her thesis, titled “The Lydia Institute: A Ministry for the Professional Woman,” and obtained her Doctor of Ministry degree – her work has just begun. The Lydia Institute will become a part of the Renew My Church program, a pastoral revitalization initiative out of the archdiocese of Chicago with whom Mary is working as an associate director of the Building the New Reality Phase. She is currently working on creating a five-week training course for future leaders within the Lydia Institute and collaborating with women from other dioceses who feel called to start a Lydia chapter in their own area.

And Mary knows that there are many more professional women to pray for, minister to, and invite to share their unique gifts with the Church. “There is incredible potential for holiness and mission that lies deep in the heart of every professional woman, those women out there that I pray this Institute will reach someday, and my prayer is that the Lydia Institute will be a place where professional women can encounter the love of Christ and take the light of the Gospel everywhere they go,” says Mary. “The mission of the Lydia Institute is to engage working women in the life and mission of the Church… one heart, one home, one office at a time.” 

Mary has been a Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi for almost 24 years, and is currently serving in pastoral ministry in the archdiocese of Chicago. To find out more about The Lydia Institute and their upcoming events and series, visit their website at lydiainstitute.org.

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