Bishops' Debate Asks: What Is a Lay Minister?

WASHINGTON — A document that names laity who work in the Church “ministers” has some bishops concerned that the Church may be giving in to the vocations crisis.

Bishops in Washington for the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 14-17 approved the new document on “lay ecclesial ministers,” titled Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. Their 190-49 vote Nov. 15 achieved the needed two-thirds’ majority and followed two days of debate in which several bishops desired to send it back to committee for additional work.

“I'm concerned that there's this idea that we can't attract priests, so there won't be any priests in the future, and therefore we need to attract these lay ministers to perform various tasks,” Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., told the Register.

Supporters of the document, including the National Association for Lay Ministry, say the document “affirms” more than 30,000 people working in Catholic lay ministry in the United States, 80% of whom are women.

“The big thing for us is the affirmation this provides because it's recognition of our roles by the bishops,” said Chris Anderson, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry in Washington, D.C. “It also clarifies some of the structure involved in lay ministry and establishes guidelines for the proper formation of lay ministers.”

The document recommends, but doesn't require, that directors of religious education, liturgy directors, general pastoral associates who assist the pastor in a wide variety of pastoral tasks, and lay parish administrators, have post-graduate educations. It calls for each diocese to professionalize the roles of lay ministers and the support systems they provide.

“We want bishops to establish standards, and this recommends that they do so,” Anderson said. “We want a professional cadre of ministers with good will. But it requires more than good will to work in lay ministry. A sophisticated background is required to deal with sophisticated issues.”

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., told the Register the initiative can be helpful if it isn't abused.

“I don't want this to be taken as a way to capitulate to the so-called ‘vocation crisis,’ which says we're not going to have priests so let's put that aside and get busy preparing lay leaders,” he said. “At the same time, clearly the Church recognizes the important role of lay leadership in catechists, liturgical ministers and all sorts of areas that a couple of generations ago we wouldn't have thought about. And if we're going to do that, we need guidelines and mechanisms for adequate formation.”

Explosion in Vocations

A new study by the National Pastoral Life Center titled “Lay Parish Ministers: A Study of Emerging Leadership,” shows that in the United States, more than 30,000 men and women serve in lay ministry roles. In 1990, professional laity helped staff 54% of U.S. parishes; in 2005 they're on staff at some 66% of all U.S. parishes. The study revealed that 74% of lay parish ministers work full time, and 80% are women. In 1990, religious sisters accounted for 41% of parish ministers; in 2005 they account for only 16%.

Common roles for lay ministers include parish associate, youth minister, and religious educator.

“I want both,” Bishop Sheridan said. “I want to see the Church cultivate religious vocations, and lay ministry. You can't have a Church without both.”

Curtis Martin, founder and director of the lay ministry known as Focus —Fellowship of Catholic University Students — said he's cautiously optimistic that bishops will work to direct and assist in the cultivation of more lay ministry in order to increase religious vocations.

“Certainly, there's a danger in encouraging lay ministry,” Martin said. “Those who have an agenda to change the priesthood may be tempted to use this in that way. But with Focus, we're finding that by engaging the laity in ministry we're seeing an explosion in vocations taking place. If done right, lay ministry can increase vocations, because we have growing numbers of laity who are on fire and they can't do their work without ordained priests and religious.”

Anderson agreed, saying, “If anything, a burgeoning lay ministry helps priests to continue in their sacramental ministries. There's no such thing as a priestless parish, and there's no possibility for that.”

In Denver, Archbishop Charles Chaput oversees an archdiocese known for attracting and building up lay ministries, such as Focus. He worries that the new document may be an effort to fix what isn't broken.

“I don't know that we need” the document, Archbishop Chaput told the Register. “There's a huge amount of lay ministry that already goes on that's well organized and well ordered, and I think this complicates matters. My biggest worry is that it might confuse volunteers about the roles they play, and it may lead to a certain kind of needless bureaucracy in the Church.”

Debate on Terminology

During debate on the issue, several bishops expressed concerns about use of the term “minister,” saying the word implies ordination in some Protestant denominations.

In response to one question, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., chairman of the Subcommittee on Lay Ministry, who presented the document, pointed out that “ministry” was the term used to translate servitium in a 1998 Vatican document spelling out the differences between lay and ordained ministry. That document has been a significant point of guidance for Church authorities overseeing the development of lay ministries.

The new document says lay ecclesial ministry does not describe a new rank or vocation in the Church; rather, it is a generic term for a variety of positions held by non-ordained people who engage in substantial public leadership positions in Church ministry, collaborating closely with the ordained leadership and under their authority.Bishop Sheridan said he uses the term lay “leaders” rather than “ministers,” and he'll continue doing so.

“I'm in agreement with those who question whether some other term would be more felicitous,” Bishop Bruskewitz remarked. “The term ‘minister’ means everything now. The janitor is the minister of the mop. It gets silly.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.