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Lay ministry emerges as a new vocation

NCR Staff

Imagine a sunny spring day in the not-too-distant future, set in a diocese of your choice. Family, friends and assorted Catholic people of note mill around outside the cathedral, making the small talk that precedes any major liturgy. Slowly they file in and fill the pews, glancing through a program and listening to the strains of organ music, waiting for things to get underway.

Eventually the procession moves down the center aisle with the bishop, in all his bejeweled splendor, at the rear. As the ceremony unfolds, candidates -- having completed their studies in theology, ministry and pastoral skills -- are asked to present themselves. The bishop prays over them and deputizes them for their service to the church.

Then, the new ministers step off the altar to the warm embraces of their children, husbands and wives.

Children? Husbands?

Welcome to the future of Catholic America. This isn’t an ordination -- it’s a commissioning liturgy for lay ministers. And while it’s still purely imaginary, the possibility of such a ceremony for the lay men and women who serve the church in professional capacities -- such as directors of religious education and pastoral associates -- is presently under consideration by the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee on lay ministry. It’s part of an effort by the bishops to come to terms, both theologically and practically, with the phenomenon of professional lay ministry in the U.S. church.

If you haven’t been paying attention, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of the changes underway. While debates over women’s ordination and celibacy seem to be frozen in time, out in the trenches the nature of pastoral ministry is undergoing a quiet revolution. Laity are now co-piloting in a host of areas where priests used to fly solo. Lay people are catechizing, counseling, consoling, leading people in prayer and worship, even running entire parishes.

Though the Vatican recently issued an instruction on lay ministry aimed at curbing perceived “abuses” (NCR, Dec. 5) -- a document widely seen as an attempt to slow the trend toward lay collaboration in the delivery of pastoral care -- most observers agree that regardless of what Rome may decree, lay ministry is here to stay.

Sign of the times

Well before the Vatican document, the U.S. bishops launched a three-year study, due to make its final recommendations in November 1999. The leading idea seems to be that professional lay ministry is not a stopgap response to priest shortages, but a genuine sign of the times -- an entirely new vocation whose place in the ecclesial scheme of things falls short of holy orders, but beyond the general baptismal obligation to serve.

To some extent, the bishops are rushing to catch up with events. By 1991, there were 21,500 lay ministers working at least 20 hours a week for the church. That number is growing rapidly; by 1996, there were 26,300, a 20 percent increase. Even more remarkable, the number of people preparing for these careers has surged from around 10,000 just a decade ago to more than 20,000 today. The makeup of the field is also being transformed. In 1991, 40 percent of lay ministers were religious sisters -- technically lay people, but perceived by many Catholics as quasi-clergy. By 1996, only 25 percent were sisters, meaning three-fourths are laity in the commonly recognized sense of the term.

Lay professionals are also assuming increasingly responsible roles. There are more than 3,000 pastoral associates working in parishes today who have some kind of overall authority -- making the sort of personnel, budgeting and facilities decisions formerly reserved to those in Roman collars.

For cynics who despair of grassroots change in the church, lay ministry is the ultimate sign of contradiction. It’s a new kind of vocation that promises to integrate lay leadership in the life of the church in a way never before envisioned. It amounts to a bottom-up solution to the twin challenges of an explosion in the demands facing parishes for services and a new crop of lay Catholics who feel a call to minister.

The task for the bishops, according both to the experts advising them and to the professionals themselves, is to devise a theological framework that affirms and embraces this reality and to develop support systems that ensure its health.

The major theological challenge is to figure out where lay ministry “fits,” according to Msgr. Philip Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center, one of three consultants to the lay ministry subcommittee.

“The question is, is there a new form of ministry here that needs formal acknowledgment by the church, a real vocation?” Murnion told NCR, suggesting that the answer is probably yes. In that sense, he said, lay ministry represents a whole new type of vocation -- not holy orders, but not just good works either.

According to subcommittee staff, one central theological issue is deputation -- by whose authority do lay ministers derive their vocation? The notion being pushed by advisers and professionals is that lay ministers receive their authority from the bishop, through -- but not from -- the pastor.

Bishop James Hoffman of Toledo, Ohio, in introducing the Roman document at the bishops’ conference in November, suggested that the emerging American approach would be consistent with Rome’s instructions because it stresses deputation.

“I hope we will be clear as to how lay ministers are linked to the bishop, in the same way that diocesan clergy and vowed religious are linked to the bishop,” said Immaculate Conception Seminary’s Zeni Fox, another consultant to the subcommittee. By clarifying that lay ministry flows from the bishop as priestly ministry does, Fox argues it will seem less like an ad hoc response to priest shortages and will emerge as a formal office in the church.

Further, advocates argue that linking lay ministers to the diocese will make them less susceptible to changes in salary and working conditions when pastors turn over.

There appears to be agreement among members of the subcommittee that the vocation of lay ministry belongs somewhere between holy orders and baptism. How to formalize it? Murnion argued that recovering earlier church traditions might help.

A broader sense

“We used to have a broader sense of vocation with the minor orders,” Murnion said, referring to the offices of lector, acolyte and exorcist, for which seminarians of earlier generations were commissioned prior to ordination. “Maybe lay ministry should be treated analogously.”

That’s precisely the argument made by Fox, who suggested in her 1997 book New Ecclesial Ministry (Sheed and Ward) that the U.S. bishops petition Rome to make lay ministry an official role similar to lector and acolyte. “The problem is that these roles have traditionally been reserved exclusively for men, she told NCR. But I think that could be overcome if were clear that this new office is not a stepping stone to the priesthood, but an authentic vocation in its own right.”

Whatever the specific theological niche thats identified, many lay ministers say they would benefit from a public ceremony that puts an official stamp of approval on their work.

A public ritual would be a way for the church to say that this work is critical, that it has nothing to do with priest shortages -- that were lay ministers because we want to be and because the church recognizes us, said Donna Young Whitley, the pastoral coordinator of St. Olafs Parish in Williamsburg, Va.

Such validation becomes especially important for lay people who dont enjoy the same immediate credibility within the church as priests and, to some extent, other vowed religious. “I dont have the title of Father or Sister, Young Whitley said, so it often seems that I have to work much harder to prove myself, to get people to accept that this is work Im supposed to be doing.

Actually, that’s the bottom line for many lay ministers. Theyre less concerned with the theological fine print than with arriving at something that says loudly and clearly that they have the support of the church.

The pastor gets an installation ceremony, I get nothing, said Holy Names Sister Louise Bond, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry. We have a call to do this, and were trained and formed to do it. We need a way to communicate that to the broader community.”

In many parishes, lay ministers work shoulder-to-shoulder with priests, delivering pastoral services, making decisions and collaborating on the charting of future directions for the community. In other places, however, theres an obvious, if implied, pecking order.

Lay ministers want to work in collaborative situations, where theres mutuality, Bond said. We have tremendous differences in these situations around the country.” She hopes the bishops will send the message that lay ministers are serious, professional practitioners who can expect to be taken seriously by their ordained colleagues.

Even the use of the term colleague, however, worries those who fear the distinction between the lay and ordained states is being eroded. The area where this concern shows up in especially pressing form is in the liturgy, where priests have a unique sacramental role - and where confusion about that role is most likely to develop.

What exactly is that danger? When a lay person conducts a Communion service, sometimes you get people saying, I like Sisters Mass, Ó said a church official. The fear is that people will get confused about who does what.”

This scenario takes on special resonance in parishes without a resident priest. If the lay minister convokes the people to worship, leads the prayers, does everything else and then just steps off the stage while a priest performs the consecration, people can end up asking, What do we need the priest for? Ó the official said.

According to Murnion, making lay ministry a more formal, official and recognized office in the church will help provide the needed clarity. As we become more clear as to what exactly lay ministry is, I think the special character of the ordained will also become more clear for people, he said.

What lay ministers seem to be saying is that they want to be treated as partners, not replacements. They don’t want to be confused with priests any more than priests want to be confused with laity. I donÕt want to be a priest, said Young Whitley. I have no desire for that, and I think it detracts from the validity of the lay vocation. But I do want priests to regard me as an equal, to support what Im doing, she said.

Like any other vocation, lay ministry in the Catholic church requires mastery of a certain body of knowledge and skills. The challenge is to ensure that people entering the field have the appropriate training -- and that people who want that training can afford it.

Several professional organizations -- such as the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, which works with religious educators, and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry -- have developed standards for their fields in recent years, which have received official acknowledgment from the bishops Commission on Certification and Accreditation. Though these programs do not directly certify people in the field, they do provide a framework for use in designing training programs at the diocesan and parish levels.

The bishops subcommittee and leaders in lay ministry are presently working toward identifying a common list of competencies that unite the various specialties -- such as religious education, liturgy and youth ministry -- so that a lay minister who plays multiple roles will not end up having to become certified three or four different times. We want this to be something that supports lay ministers, not that makes their lives more difficult, Bond said.

Even the best set of standards and competencies in the world, though, has little impact if pastors dont use it in the hiring process. “Theres a sense that many pastors will just hire people they know or who are right at hand without much concern about their qualifications, Bond said.

The National Association for Lay Ministrys statement No Turning Back went further, charging that the failure of church leaders to insist on appropriate training “constitutes a kind of malpractice, which, if tolerated, may prevent lay ministry from achieving a secure place in the Catholic ministerial universe.

As responsibility begins to shift from the parish to the diocese for recruiting and approving lay ministers, experts hope more attention will be given to preparation. If weÕre going to do this, the dioceses have to play some role. We have to add diocesan responsibility, Murnion said. More and more were moving in that direction.”

Paying for it

All of this reflection on how to design and assess training, however, is moot if aspiring ministers cant afford it. At the Loyola University of New Orleans Institute for Ministry Extension program -- or LIMEX, the countrys largest training program for lay ministers -- over the full course of the three- to four-year program, a student pays $6,500 in tuition, not counting costs for books, supplies, transportation and lost earnings from the time devoted to study.

The main difficulty most graduate programs face is that tuition is going up and our lay students have to pay their own way, while men studying for the priesthood or the diaconate typically are supported by their diocese or religious community, said Barbara Fleischer. By and large lay people are left on their own to pay for serving the church.

Bond suggested the church should play a role in supporting lay ministers training. “If a man goes to the seminary, there will be dollars to support him. If a woman enters religious life, usually theres money for her too. I would love to see the church find a way to sponsor or support the training of lay ministers, she said.

There are models emerging for how this might be accomplished. The Indianapolis archdiocese offers loans to laity in training programs, some portion of which is forgiven for each year of service they devote to work in the church. The Columbus, Ohio, diocese awards scholarships to prospective lay ministers. ItÕs another mark that were taking this phenomenon seriously, Bond said.

A related point is that pastors must be willing to pay the additional salary it takes to attract someone with the right background. “Theres an attitude sometimes that well take an unqualified person for less to save dollars, rather than the person with the best credentials, Bond said. When two people go out for a parish job, its often the one willing to work for free who will get it. That has to change.”

Multicultural issues

Though much formal research on lay ministry is lacking, both Murnion and Fox report that their own surveys support the conclusion that minorities are significantly underserved by lay ministers relative to the size of their populations. There just arent that many lay ministers in minority communities, Fox said. TheyÕre definitely underrepresented. Figuring out why that is -- and what to do it about it -- is a serious challenge.

Even knowing whether its a problem at all is more difficult than it seems. Murnion notes that some observers wonder whether these ministries arent being performed in other ways in minority communities -- whether people are being catechized, fed, visited when sick, and so on, but not by people who formally identify themselves as lay ministers. ItÕs a complicated discussion,” Murnion said, and right now we dont know enough about whats going on.

Still, Fox argued that the lack of lay ministers in minority communities should not be reduced simply to cultural differences, because doing so obscures the issues of economic justice involved. My own study showed that where parishes are poor they don’t typically have many lay ministers. So its as much economic as it is cultural, Fox said.

Training is another concern. Maybe the graduate school model is not the right fit for the Hispanic community. We need to take a look at this, Fox said. She suggested that more informal -- and perhaps more cost-effective -- solutions might be considered.

We dont have any answers yet, said one official on the bishops’ conference staff. What we dont want to do is to impose a white Anglo model. We have to develop models that work for the entire church.

How much is the church willing to pay to attract and support good people? Answering that question involves putting grand theological statements about lay ministry into action -- in other words, putting money where the ecclesiastical mouth is.

Murnions research reveals that the average salary for full-time ministers ranges from $13,000 to $20,000, which a significant number of lay ministers say is a problem for meeting their own needs and those of their families or, in the case of vowed religious, their congregations. One participant in a listening session sponsored by the National Association for Lay Ministry put the frustration this way: “I personally contend, if I continue to work for the church, I am convinced I will die in poverty.

Such concerns have a special resonance since the American bishops have issued several statements about workers rights and economic justice. The bishops have said it, Bond said. Now it’s a matter of putting it into practice.

What complicates the issue is that, despite low wages, lay ministers told both Murnion and Fox that salaries were not why they got into this work, nor their biggest frustration.

While a willingness to work for less may be noble, it also leaves lay ministers vulnerable to exploitation. We need to salary people at appropriate levels because they deserve it and because its the right thing to do, Bond said, not because they’ll stop working if we dont.Ó

Moreover, lay ministers working in parishes face a special kind of exposure when pastors turn over. We have to protect people, in terms of salary and employment, so they cant just be tossed out the window when a new pastor comes in, Murnion said.

A related issue is the portability of benefits. If lay ministers move from one diocese to another -- relocating to seek new challenges or respond to new opportunities, as professionals often do -- will their benefits follow them? The church in Michigan has developed a plan that allows a benefits package to stay with employees, no matter which diocese they serve. Experts hope that a similar approach can be developed on the national level.

Bond identified two other human resource issues facing lay ministers. The first is continuing education. If a parish has continuing education funds for a priest or a deacon, why not for lay ministers? she said.

The other point concerns release time for spiritual formation.The lay minister deserves time for retreats just as priests and sisters do,” Bond said. Often theyre told, YouÕre just a lay person. But they need it if theyre going to minister with any credibility.”


Given the mistrust about lay ministry many perceived in the Vatican instruction, with its litany of supposed abuses and its clampdown approach, it may be surprising to see lay ministers and their advocates so enthusiastic about more interference from the bishops in the form of their three-year study. At face value, the whole enterprise seems to be about definition and, ultimately, control from above. Yet people in the field seem optimistic.

If the bishops were having these conversations by themselves, meeting behind closed doors, I might be concerned, Bond said. But theyre not doing this in isolation. Theyve brought us into the process.”

Fox agreed, praising the bishops consultations with theologians and lay ministers. TheyÕve proceeded in a dialogic way, emphasizing collaboration and bringing in the groups themselves. Fox noted, for example, that to date all the standards for lay ministry issued on behalf of the bishops conference have been written by lay ministry associations.

Bond argued that to resent intrusion from the bishops would be to undercut the very message the lay ministers want to send. If weÕre calling the ordained to collegiality, we have to model it too,” she said. If we want the bishops and the clergy to treat us as partners, we have to meet them halfway.

Anyway, Im looking to see the institution acknowledge the vocation of lay ministry, she said, “not because I think theres some magic to approval from the bishops, but because I dont want to see church history written exclusively from the point of view of the ordained, she said.

If we went the other way, proceeding on our own without caring about what the bishops or the priests think, wed be running away from the conflicts,” she said. “But its in conflict that we find growth.”

National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998