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Gathering celebrates lay ministry in nation’s parishes

Special Report Writer
Hunt Valley, Md.

A little-known organization that represents a workforce of over 100,000 Catholic adults in the U.S. church held its 25th anniversary conference on Pentecost weekend just outside Baltimore. A quarter of the 1,000 members of the National Association for Lay Ministry showed up. Two hundred and fifty trained lay leaders from across the nation and a few from Canada came to celebrate the idea that the Holy Spirit has seen the future of the church and that future is lay.

Distress over the shortage of priests in the 21st century church was less evident than was the excitement over the diverse roles that lay women and men are filling in today’s parishes, seminaries and diocesan offices. Pastoral associates, formation directors, parish life coordinators and parish business managers are carrying out ministries once the exclusive domain of priests.

Some 30,000 Catholics are employed at least 20 hours a week in these ministries. Add to them the numbers working in hospitals, schools, prisons, soup kitchens, nursing homes and other Catholic agencies and the workforce totals well over 100,000, said Irene Dymkar, director of the Chicago-based National Association for Lay Ministry.

The association supports, educates and advocates for lay ministers, its board chair Dennis Beeman told NCR. As an umbrella group, he said, most of its potential members join associations representing such ministries as music, youth, liturgy, teaching and nursing.

Besides the laborers already in the vineyard, currently 35,583 Catholics are enrolled in 314 training programs nationwide. These range from diocesan certification classes to graduate programs in seminaries and universities. According Mercy Sr. Amy Hoey, project coordinator for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Laity and its Subcommittee on Lay Ministry, enrollment is up 14 percent over last year. Women training for lay ministry positions outnumber men two to one, as did their number at the association’s conference May 31-June 3.

The largest group of potential lay leaders now in classes is age 40-59. However, 30 percent of aspirants are under 40. Hispanics represent 22 percent of those currently in formation classes. Three-quarters of those preparing for lay ministry jobs already serve the church in volunteer ministries while 10 percent of aspirants are in half-time ministries and 16 percent in full-time ministries, Hoey said.

Hoey said she saw major gains for women in lay ministry during the 1990s. She cited a March consultation of women in diocesan leadership that drew 130 women to Chicago. Forty percent of the women who attended reported directly to a bishop, she said.

Two-thirds of all U.S. dioceses have some kind of lay formation programs in place, Beeman said. In late 1999 the bishops’ Subcommittee on Lay Ministry published a report, Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State of the Questions.

Following four years of conducting surveys and focus groups, the bishops found the six areas of greatest interest and concern to those involved with lay ministry were: the term “lay minister”; a theology of lay ministry; the preparation of such ministers; the relationship between lay and ordained ministers; compensation and human resources issues; and multicultural issues.

These topics surfaced throughout the conference. Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Chicago urged the laity, bishops and priests to pull together. “Unless the church gets its act together and the bishops and laity pull together, our proclamation makes no sense and has no strength.”

Kicanas, who serves on the Subcommittee on Lay Ministry and is the National Association for Lay Ministry’s episcopal adviser, said that “bickering and battling has consumed our energy” and kept Catholics from “going out into the deep” as Christ commanded his disciples. He said he hoped the association would help overcome fears that surface when the increasing role of the laity is discussed.

Many worry that a greater role for lay ministers will blur the lines between the ordained and non-ordained, but Kicanas held that “the more lay ministers can be valued and promoted, the more it will prompt vocations to the priesthood.” To those who fear that greater lay involvement in the structure of the church will mean less lay engagement in the marketplace, the bishop noted that the church and the secular world are not in competition, but complimentary.

The argument that accredited and compensated laity -- those with credentials and letters after their name and a church salary -- will make ministry look more like a career than a vocation can be countered, Kicanas said, by upholding examples of lay ministers “who are doing an exemplary job and being a true follower of Jesus.”

Hoey referred participants to a recent address by Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., who proposed that lay ministers be integrated into a diocesan “ministerium.”(This address is published in the April 5 issue of Origins, the Catholic News Service document service.) This group would include all who exercise an official ecclesial ministry in the local church, whether ordained or not. A ministerium would allow a bishop to foster relations with all lay ministers in the same way as he has ties with his priests and deacons. It would also help lay ministers “avoid the temptation of individualism and parochialism,” Clark said.

Bishop Joseph Delaney of Fort Worth, Texas, who with Kicanas was the only other prelate at the conference, said that he has been using the ministerium concept for 15 of his 20 years as bishop in Fort Worth. “The ministerium brings everyone in full-time ministry together as confreres in affirming the continuing mission of the church,” he said.

“Far from hearing stories of desperation and anger, I hear enthusiasm” about the role that lay ministers are playing, said the Massachusetts native who added that he was “extraordinarily optimistic about the future of lay ministry.” Delaney plans to share that energy with bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas when they convene a meeting about lay ministry Oct. 1 and 2 in San Antonio.

“We can’t wait until we have a theology of lay ministry developed to get started,” said the bishop who chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Subcommittee on Lay Ministry.

He cited Rome’s 1997 Interdicasterial Instructions on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. “The Vatican document is positive. It doesn’t critique anything we’re doing.”

Despite Delaney’s optimism and Kicanas’ hope for a “win-win” situation among clergy and lay ministers, Beeman pointed to vexing problems still to be overcome. Much of the lay resentment against priests is based “on power and salary issues,” he said.

In South Carolina half of the lay ministry jobs have been filled by men and women who have retired there with good benefit packages, he said. The other half is filled by women religious. Although both groups are well trained and doing good work as lay ministers, “it begs the question of whether one has to be independently wealthy” or avowedly poor “to qualify for work in lay ministry. … Some bishops think that since nuns work for next to nothing, so should lay people,” said Beeman, who is director of Christian Formation for the Richmond, Va., diocese.

While recent studies by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York show a high degree of job satisfaction among those employed in pastoral ministry, a quarter of the religious and 55.3 percent of laypersons surveyed said that there could come a time when they could no longer afford to work for the church. This problem needs to be addressed, Trinitarian Br. Loughlan Sofield of Chicago told NCR.

Sofield, one of the founders of the National Association for Lay Ministry, has worked in over 100 U.S. dioceses and overseas, conducting programs on clergy education and ministry enrichment. “The face of ecclesial lay ministry has to change in terms of culture, gender and youth,” he said. Such alterations will also mean changes for priests and for seminaries, he said.

Executive director Dymkar said, “There’s more than enough work for all in the church if we really want to do it. What’s 25 years in God’s time? We have a God who watched dinosaurs eat grass.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001