This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

The lay apostolate in a clerical church

Some may see the work of lay ministers as a practical necessity in these times of the priest shortage. It is, as Paul Lakeland, chair of the department of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, put it, “an idea that a good friend of mine refers to as the apostolate of the second string -- you know, the laity are on the bench and occasionally you have to call one in emergency.”

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association for Lay Ministry held in June in Kansas City, Mo., Lakeland gave one example: “What is a Eucharistic minister? Is she a living sign that the Mass is a liturgical act of the whole faithful people? Or is she an expedient to be set aside if there are enough priests available to distribute Communion?”

For Lakeland, “the crucial point is not that our times are short of priests, and so laity can and must take up the slack, but that because our times are short of priests, it becomes progressively clearer that the apostolic activity in its fullness requires the involvement of the laity. The relative profusion of priests in the past has served to hide the apostolicity of the laity.”

That calling to ministry by virtue of baptism is not lost when a priest is ordained, Lakeland said. “These days we might say the default is lay. The priest is first a layman, then a priest.”

Laity who work for the church must deal with the tensions present in what Zeni Fox, an expert on lay ecclesial ministry who teaches at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, called a “lay-clergy divide.” Fox recalled a heated discussion about religious education she had with a newly ordained priest at a parish where she once worked. He finally told her, “If I were the pastor in this parish, you wouldn’t have a job here. In fact, if I were the bishop in this diocese, you wouldn’t have a job here.”

Fox said, “The expectation was that he knew what religious education should be. … But I had an expectation to be treated as a peer, based on my competency, my education, my longevity in the role.”

For the effective collaboration that is needed, she said, trust is key -- and the idea held by both parties that power is shared. Then there is genuine consultation, in which people have a voice, the power to influence decisions, “although they do not make the decision,” Fox said. “That takes a lot of asceticism on both sides of the equation: for genuine openness and listening, and for genuine acceptance of the limitations of not making the decisions.”

Thomas Lucking encountered that lay-clergy divide when he moved from a corporate career to lay ministry, as he writes in his essay in this special section on ministry. The church’s theology-based leadership system, he says, gives rise to clericalism and neglects sound management principles that he was accustomed to in his business career. He also found a disconnect between the ideal of ministerial collaboration that had been emphasized in his theological education and the reality he and his fellow graduates encountered when they took jobs at parishes where the pastor may lack the skills to be an effective and fair administrator.

The result, Lucking said, is that “pursuing a career in parish lay ministry is a bit like rolling the dice. The odds that a well-trained lay person will find a position with the appropriate benefits and management structure along with duties that utilize his or her gifts is quite rare.” Acknowledging that the clericalism at the root of the problems may not be dealt with any time soon, Lucking proposes some steps that could be taken today to ameliorate the difficulties faced by lay ministers employed by the church.

“The church is not a people gathered to congratulate itself on its collective good fortune, and to look kindly on those who apply for membership,” Lakeland noted at the lay ministry conference in June. “It is a communion constituted for mission.” Other articles in this section profile some of that work of mission being taken on by Catholics today, from liturgical dancers -- who have their own share of conflicts with the hierarchy on whether their ministry is allowed -- to projects that serve prisoners, veterans, and workers on the riverboats of the Mississippi.

-- Teresa Malcolm, section editor

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: