In Sabrina Burton Schultz’s work, no one day resembles the next. Since 2006, she has served as the director of life ministry for the five-county Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, FL. It is an expansive undertaking, and not just geographically. Schultz supports parishes not only in pro-life projects and services, but also in many other human, societal, and environmental concerns, which are all rooted in Catholic social teaching.
“It’s a broad umbrella, and this is what makes it so interesting,” she said. “I never have the same day twice.”
So in one day, she may get a call requesting a speaker for a bereavement group, field a request for advocacy for displaced Haitians seeking protection against deportation, and take a phone meeting about the agenda for a planned workshop on social justice. In her role as director, she leads efforts to abolish the death penalty (legal in Florida); provide humanitarian support for immigrants and refugees; educate non-citizens of their legal rights; and prevent the tragedy of human trafficking. There is a big emphasis on prayer in her ministry, which seeks the Lord’s assistance in the daily struggles faced by God’s holy people.
Individuals, public figures, and media organizations are apt to misunderstand or mislabel aspects of the Catholic life ministry work as parts of either a liberal or conservative agenda, she noted. But that is not the correct paradigm to apply. “When you look at human dignity as the foundation, as well as solidarity with others and a preference for helping the poor and the vulnerable, it gives a starting point, a common understanding,” she explained.
Parishes, pastors, and committees of worshippers are involved in all such efforts, of course. “I don’t have all the gifts,” she stressed. Schultz can often assist by finding talented pastors, teachers, volunteers, and professionals who serve as advocates and teachers. While she is often at work in the evenings and on weekends, she makes a point to reserve at least half the weekend for her family, which includes her husband, Stephen, their two young sons, and their mastiff, Susie.
Schultz entered this career without any pre-conceived plans for the future, she recalled, but with a deep-abiding trust in God’s plan for her life. At Saint Leo, she earned a bachelor’s degree with a dual major in the topics of most interest to her, religious studies and psychology.
That led to positions at two different parishes in the diocese. She gained experience managing religious education programs for all ages, working on parish and diocesan committees, and more. When working at a parish in Tampa, she took time off each summer to study at Boston College, eventually earning a master’s degree in pastoral ministry with a concentration on social justice issues. By 2006, when the diocese was reorganizing, now-retired Bishop Robert N. Lynch ’97 selected Schultz for her current role. (Bishop Gregory Parkes succeeded Bishop Lynch in January 2017, as noted on page 19.)
An upcoming project in her ministry will focus on healing divisions that are caused by differences among people of various political and personal beliefs. The Life Ministry of the Diocese of St. Petersburg is collaborating with Catholic Relief Services to host workshops that train leaders in facilitating civil dialogue. Dialogue sessions will allow participants to connect their beliefs and personal experiences with Church teaching on major issues facing our society, she explained. “Respectful dialogue is often lacking in society. We have to get people to converse in a civil way.” Gathering in a parish hall seems like a good place to start.