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Fall Ministries

A passion for ministry


By virtue of its entry requirement -- baptism -- lay ministry may be the oldest profession in Christendom. But in the nearly 2,000-year history of the Catholic church, laywomen and men have long taken a backseat to the ordained in terms of power, prestige and pay.

Today, though, the shortage of priests and religious, the call to lay vocations and the ever-deepening theological understanding of the role of the laity since Vatican II (1962-65) have combined to give new purpose and promotion to lay ministers. In calling for a renewal of the church’s mission and of all its ministries, the council envisioned all of God’s people -- priests and laity -- moving on a journey toward a realization of the reign of God.

So it was not surprising to hear Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Kicanas tell 250 lay ministers gathered in Hunt Valley, Md., in May that “you matter mightily to the church.” No one in the room doubted Kicanas, one of seven bishops on the U. S. Bishops’ Subcommittee on Lay Ministry and spiritual adviser to the National Association for Lay Ministry, which marked its 25th anniversary in Maryland. The organization advocates and supports professional lay ministers.

One of the initiatives coming out of the bishops’ subcommittee will be the first regional listening session drawing together lay ministers, clergy, theologians and the bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Forth Worth, Texas, Bishop Joseph Delaney has called the gathering in San Antonio Oct. 1-2.

“What permeates every discussion by the bishops is a fear that promoting lay ministry will lead to a decline in priestly vocations,” said Irene Dymkar, executive director of the Chicago-based National Association for Lay Ministry. She suspects there are many reasons why the priesthood isn’t attracting young men and that lay ministers should not be “scapegoats” for the shortage.

Kicanas told the conference in Maryland that fear of blurring the lines between the ordained and nonordained is unwarranted as “the more lay ministers can be valued and promoted, the more it will prompt vocations to the priesthood.”

Not all bishops feel that way. Often bishops have remarked how surprised they are to discover how genuine are the vocation stories of lay ministers, Dymkar told NCR. The future for lay ministry can only be improved as laypeople pursue relationships with individual bishops and share stories of their own vocation call.

God is calling the laity to minister in and outside his church, said Suzanne Elsesser of Larchmont, N.Y. The Holy Spirit has imbued us with confidence. “We are passionate about our mission.” An enthusiasm for the church among the laity, especially among parents, can boost vocations to the religious life, she said.

Lay ministers are committed to their vocation, she said, and regard it as distinct from work or a job. They want to work in a collaborative setting, whether that be a parish, the chancery or in the secular world. As Elsesser sees it, the primary mission of the laity is “to empower others for marketplace ministry.”

Elsesser, along with Trinitarian Br. Loughlan Sofield of Adelphi, Md., addressed the National Association for Lay Ministry conference, reviewing where the organization had been over its 25-year-history and where it was going.

Some 30,000 Catholics are employed at least 20 hours a week as catechists, parish administrators, directors of religious education, pastoral associates, formation directors, parish life coordinators, parish business managers and catechumenate program coordinators. Lay ministers also work as musicians, liturgists, pastoral counselors, social justice ministers, spiritual directors, parish nurses, lay missionaries and ministers to youth and to the elderly in multiple ministerial settings. Their ranks quintuple when the number of laity working in Catholic hospitals, schools, nursing homes, soup kitchens, with AIDS victims and as chaplains to prisoners, the sick, college students, travelers and seafarers is added.

About 9,000 of the 35,583 Catholics currently enrolled in lay ministry formation programs will conclude their education or receive diocesan certification this year and thus be eligible for full- or part-time ministry positions. Elsesser, who is the regional director of the Ignatian Lay Volunteer Corps in the Bronx, favors mentoring programs and internships to assure that these graduates are recruited into church work.

Many lay ministers have found themselves unable to get work commensurate with their skills, experience and education or to retain jobs, especially when a new pastor arrives. Frequently those with families and school loans can’t live off a lay minister’s pay.

Dymkar often finds priests fearful that lay ministers are “trying to take over, rather than just trying to use their God-given skills to serve God’s people.” She finds this and the living wage question (see compensation story) to be serious justice topics for lay ministers -- issues that could send young lay ministers into other fields.

Addressing insecurities

A “sign of light” filters through, however. She sees it in the close association that the National Association for Lay Ministry has with the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. Together the two groups have produced a video, A Call to Collaborative Ministry. Members of both organizations work hard to address the core insecurities some priests feel around lay ministers.

Dymkar noted that at least 10 percent of the National Association for Lay Ministry’s 1,000 members are clergy. “They exude confidence in who they are as priests and are not threatened by lay ministers.”

An ongoing question among the emerging lay ministers is what to call themselves. Both Elsesser and Sofield favor the term “lay ministry.” Elsesser thought that the older term, “the ministry of the laity,” could also be used when speaking of those engaged in church work. However, increasingly many in the hierarchy as well as the laity prefer the terms “lay ecclesial ministry” and “lay ecclesial minister.”

The terms were used throughout the 1999 report of the Bishops’ Subcommittee on Lay Ministry, titled Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State of the Questions. Dennis Beeman, who chairs the National Association for Lay Ministry’s board, thinks “lay ecclesial ministry” ought to define a corps of professional, educated and spiritually formed laypersons and not simply all baptized persons. For Beeman, director of Christian Formation in the Richmond, Va., diocese, Christians might better be called disciples by virtue of their initiation into Christian life at baptism. Some persons with particular gifts and skills are called to be ministers, he told NCR.

Sofield hoped that future lay ministers would “resist the pull of becoming too ‘ecclesio-centric.’ ” The author of Collaboration: Uniting our Gifts in Ministry believes there is too much engagement with internal church matters, too little with the church as mission. He referred to the U.S. bishops’ 1995 pastoral, “Called and Gifted in the Third Millennium,” calling the document “not prophetic, but subversive.” It declares that everyone is called to the ministry and gifted by God. “It’s sinful for a person or an institution not to let the other person use his or her gifts,” the brother said.

Yet Sofield pointed to a research project he’d done with 32 leaders in business and law. The persons studied view their work in the world as their ministry, he said, but they don’t believe the church supports them in their ministry. Members of the group were “disillusioned with their church because when they attend church meetings, conversations aren’t about how we can change the world but about who will do what.”

Questions about lay minister’s identity will continue, Dymkar predicted. “Lay ministers don’t know who they are. Across the United States there is no uniformity of role definition or title and no standardization of educational and formation requirements. As a result, lay ministers cannot easily move to another diocese, or even at times to another role in the same diocese.”

However, the National Association for Lay Ministry and the national catechetical and national youth ministry federations are developing competency standards that they can present for approval before the bishops’ Commission on Certification and Accreditation. The bishops’ own Subcommittee on Lay Ministry remains a springboard for discussion of what lay ministry is.

Rite of passage

Lay ministers have often expressed the need to hold commissioning ceremonies to give them a rite of passage into their chosen vocation. Dymkar, a lawyer, remembers her own swearing in and admission to the New York State Bar. She wonders why “lay ministers often don’t know when their ministry began or if it is valid.” The National Association for Lay Ministry, along with Mercy Sr. Amy Hoey, who is project coordinator for the bishops’ Committee on the Laity, hope to develop prayers and rituals to recognize the roles of lay ministers.

The unequal access to education for lay ministers poses an obstacle for many. Dymkar invited anyone to stand in line in the bookstore of the Chicago Catholic Theological Union and watch a seminarian or nun sign for books while the layperson “shells out” $100 of his or her own money. With the high cost of many graduate schools, a lay student without a scholarship can pay in excess of $30,000 in tuition for a master’s in divinity degree, plus room and board.

The good news, Sofield said, is that the University of Notre Dame offers a free master’s in divinity program to anyone accepted who can move to South Bend, Ind. More than 500 have gone through the program, and some 50 have given at least a year of their life to mission, he said.

Across the country, funding for education is slowly becoming more available. Two-thirds of all dioceses have some kind of lay formation program in place. In many areas, dioceses are beginning to share the costs of graduate school tuition in return for a commitment from the student to serve the local church upon graduation.

Although more than 300 formation programs exist for the laity nationwide, lay ministers often have to “piece together our spiritual formation,” Elsesser said. She wanted more retreats, days of recollection and regional meetings of laity for spiritual sharing.

Many lay leaders who spoke with NCR by telephone or in person at the Maryland conference expressed great hope for the coming role of lay ministers. “I am extraordinarily optimistic about the future of lay ministry,” Bishop Delaney said.

“We cannot be ignored,” Dymkar said. “There are too many of us” -- she estimates well over 100,000. “We are everywhere -- in parishes, diocesan offices, hospitals, schools and wherever God calls us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned.”

She said that lay ministers will continue to support each other and “strive to define ourselves, rather than look for affirmation from the institutional church. We have come too far in our faith journey. There is no turning back.”

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001