OPENING THE DOOR Bishop Barnes made a concerted effort to include women in leadership positions and decision-making in the Diocese. PICTURED: Bishop Barnes and Maria Echeverria, now Vice Chancellor, in 2000.
By Anneliese Esparza
When Bishop Barnes joined the Diocese as Auxiliary Bishop in 1992, most leadership positions in the Diocese were occupied by men. Upon assuming the role of ordinary bishop a few years later, Bishop Barnes used his position to give women a seat at the decision-making table and empower them to lead as chancellors, vice chancellors, pastoral coordinators and department directors.
“Things are very different now than they were when I first started. Most of the women were secretaries and now we are in leadership [positions],” said Vice Chancellor Maria Echeverria, a longtime diocesan employee who was hired to be then-Auxiliary Bishop Barnes’ secretary in 1992.
“At the time, most of the people, the directors, anyone who had any leadership position, were men. And the very few women that were directors, or in any type of leadership, were nuns. There were no laywomen in the Curia or anything like that,” said Echeverria.
“[Bishop Barnes] felt that the faces of those that we serve were not represented, meaning most of the people at the table were men, and most of them were of European descent. He started looking to fill the table that makes the decisions to show the faces of the people we serve ... little by little he started questioning, why aren’t they at the table? Why aren’t they helping us make decisions when half of the Diocese is women? Why aren’t they here to speak for themselves?” said Echeverria.
Under the previous bishop, Bishop Philip Straling, there was a Women’s Commission that met with him periodically to share their viewpoints to aid in his decision making. However, Bishop Barnes took it a step further by allowing women to not just give indirect input to the decision-makers, but to be part of the team of decision-makers themselves.
For Bishop Barnes, having women as part of the decision-making table is invaluable. “Women see the world differently, experience the world differently as mothers, as single women, as wives and daughters. And so that perspective needs to be heard. If a decision is going to be made that affects everyone, that perspective needs to be heard,” said Bishop Barnes.
“I don’t think we get the whole picture just listening to one gender. If we are a community as a church, every person through their own experiences and every gender has a different approach to things, a different view,” he said.
One leadership role that Bishop Barnes appointed several women to was that of the pastoral coordinator of a parish. According to canon law, the bishop can designate a qualified deacon, religious or layperson to lead a parish administratively if a pastor is not available. The majority of individuals who served as pastoral coordinators in the Diocese were women, either lay or religious.
One such woman was Laura Lopez, who was the pastoral coordinator of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Indio, from 2008-2016 and who is now the Director of the Department of Pastoral Planning.
When Lopez arrived, she said that some parishioners did express their disappointment with having a laywoman as their parish leader. Nonetheless, she made an effort to lead by cooperation with the entire community. “I opened the door to all the community members to share their gifts, time, and resources while inviting their involvement in the parish’s planning and decision-making process,” she said.
Lopez said that Bishop Barnes’ support has opened doors for women, giving them opportunities they didn’t have before.
“I am forever grateful to Bishop Barnes’ dedicated initiatives to invite women to diocesan positions; however, I believe Bishop Barnes’ legacy should continue to challenge us to include women at the decision-making table,” she said.
A number of “firsts” in the area of women in leadership occurred under Bishop Barnes’ tenure. First, Theresa Montminy became the Diocese’s first laywoman Chancellor in 2009, serving after two religious sisters had occupied the position.
In 2005, Maria Echeverria became the first Latina laywoman in the country to serve as Vice Chancellor.
Currently, the Diocese’s Chancellor is a woman (Sister Leticia Salazar, ODN), as is one of the Diocese’s two Vice Chancellors (Maria Echeverria). Women make up approximately 50 percent of the department/office directors in the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
With all the progress that has been made in this Diocese, Bishop Barnes believes that there is more that can be done to promote female leaders in the Church. “I think there’s a lot of ways to go yet; there are a lot of positions in the Church that are open for women that we have not in the past promoted women to,” he said. “And so I think a lot more has to happen, I think there needs to be a lot better understanding between the way women and men see things.”