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Karen Sue SmithFebruary 27, 2006

In the early 13th century, Francis of Assisi stood before Pope Innocent III and asked him to sanction a new way of life, which ultimately became a new religious order with a twist. The Franciscans would not be cloistered monks, but active brothers living in towns and countrysides, sustained by alms. It was a novel idea, but the discerning pope welcomed it. As with Saints Ignatius of Loyola, Dominic Guzmán and Clare of Assisi, so it has been throughout church history: charismatic men and women called by God attract followers and then petition the church to recognize the charism given them for the common good. Petitioning legitimates each as an official manifestation of the Spirit in the church.

With the publication on Nov. 15, 2005, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new document on lay ecclesial ministry, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, a new group is now under discernment by the church. Clearly not a religious order, but rather a new group of ministers, it is taking an alternate route toward legitimation. Three distinguishing characteristics clarify just how distinctive is their pathway.

First, these ministersall lay, some with decades of service, most in full-time parish ministryfollow no single charismatic leader. No Francis or Clare stands up for them. No one voice speaks on the ministers’ behalf or articulates their shared vision. Instead, the phenomenon of lay parish ministers has grown up organically. In my opinion, they are a bumper crop nurtured by the theological soil enriched by the Second Vatican Council. Lay parish ministers describe their collaboration with local pastors as stemming primarily from a call by God. Until now the confirmation of that call has been largely local and tacit, with the ministers’ being hired and entrusted with significant ministerial responsibilities.

Second, these Catholics have entered parish ministryas laypersons. They neither leave their families to join a religious order nor seek ordination as priests or deacons, but minister where they are. Nor are they founding separate communities or meeting together for like-minded worship. Rather, they minister alongside the clergy in local parish communities.

Thirdand this is uniquelay parish ministry includes not only single and widowed lay leaders, but currently married men and women whose vows are made to each other. Unlike most deacons, most married lay parish ministers still have children living at home.

Clearly something new is happening.

Imagine this: a modern-day St. Francis could come along tomorrow and establish another religious order, trekking to distant places to build churches and amass followers for Christ. But his mother or sister, father or brother could stay at home and, if called, become a lay parish minister today. Moreover, these family members could hear the call at nearly any stage of their adult lives. Let’s hypothesize that a mother is called by God to become a lay parish minister. She might discuss her experience with the local pastor, volunteer in the parish to test the notion (if she is not a volunteer already), begin or deepen spiritual practices, take courses online or at a local theological faculty, then seek a position in her parish or one nearby. She might even contact the diocese in Florida where she and her husband plan to retire eventually.

The prospect highlights the newness of the call. The group is similar to orders in one respect: the church is discerning among these laity a positive reality, a work of the Spirit for the good of the church.

Some historians see similarities between the emergence of today’s lay parish ministers and Christians of the first century, that fertile, fluid period when local ministries under various names and with differing role descriptions were undertaken by leaders, both male and female.

Lay parish ministry does not compete with ordination or religious life. By definition the Spirit does not compete with itself. Rather, it represents another mode of outreach for laypersons whom God invites and the church affirms. Most Catholics, of course, will continue to work and witness in the world that extends far beyond the parish boundaries, finding in their local parish a worshiping community and resources for spiritual support. This is as it should be; there is no competition there either.

What do we know?

We know quite a bit about lay parish ministers. Since 1990, in the course of conducting three separate sociological surveys, the National Pastoral Life Center has documented the development of this phenomenon. We use the term lay parish ministers not only for consistency, but to emphasize that this is parish ministry, as distinct from the work of laypeople in schools, hospitals and diocesesall of whom fall under the umbrella term lay ecclesial ministers. Three center studies commissioned by the U.S. Catholic bishops (1990, 1997 and 2005) have been made possible with major funding from the Lilly Endowment (the third with additional funding from the Emerging Models of Pastoral Excellence Project).

In November 2005 the National Pastoral Life Center published Lay Parish Ministers, by David DeLambo, who co-authored the two earlier studies with Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, the center’s founder. DeLambo, a sociologist who is currently the associate director of pastoral planning for the Diocese of Cleveland, brings both experience and a consistent interpretative lens to the 2005 data. From his work, readers can gain an accurate picture of a nascent ministry just beginning to be institutionalized by one bishops’ conference. Moreover, DeLambo compares data over the last 15 years, showing a variety of trends. DeLambo discusses the situation of parishes, the identity of the lay parish ministers, where they can be found, how they entered parish ministry, their preparation and formation, and human resource datafrom their experience of the workplace to salary and benefits to job satisfaction.

The following examples sketch the kind of information DeLambo’s book outlines.


The number of lay parish ministers grew rapidly between 1990 and 1997, and since then has grown at a moderate rate. Currently, 30,632 lay parish ministers are employed for 20 hours or more, and another 18,847 people are currently enrolled in degree or certification programs in ministry, preparing to enter the field. Three-fourths (74 percent) work full time.

Increasingly, lay parish ministers indicate that they are pursuing a lifetime of service in the church. Among full-time lay parish ministers, 70.1 percent said so in 1997 and 79.4 percent in 2005; among part-time lay parish ministers, 50.7 percent said so in 1997 and 62 percent in 2005. In 2005 the average length of service by lay parish ministers was 18 years (13 years without women religious), demonstrating substantial lay commitment.

The group is diverse, as DeLambo makes clear, but the majority of lay parish ministers are white, female (not women religious), around age 50, married, with children at home. They have prior experience and ministerial education (nearly half have a master’s degree), but in most cases their wages are not the primary household income. The largest percentage work in religious education; one quarter are general pastoral ministers.

Cecelia P. Regan, who writes the religious education column for Church magazine, was not in DeLambo’s sample. I called her to make a few inquiries of my own. (But note how closely her case fits his data.) Regan directs religious education at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Old Bridge, N.J., where she has worked for the past 18 years. Married and the mother of two children, she administers the sacramental formation and religious education of 1,300 children and coordinates parish adult religious education.

Regan holds an M.A. in pastoral ministry. Do you feel called to ministry? I ask. Absolutely, she says without hesitation. To me it has always been more of a vocation than a job or career. I spend 95 percent of my energy helping people find Christ in their environmentin my own family, among my co-workers, with my catechists, with parents and other adults in the parish.

Other lay parish ministers work as youth ministers, music ministers and liturgists. A significant finding by DeLambo in 2005 is that the percentages of males (20 percent) and minority groups (11.5 percent), while still disproportionately small, has grown. His study also documents the movement of women religious out of parish ministry and the influx of lay parish ministers into the inner city, urban business districts and small town parishes, beyond the mega-parishes where one would expect large lay staffs.

From my experience in ministry, comments Msgr. Francis H. Kelley, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale, Mass., the most significant matter is the number of peopleAfrican-American, Latino and Asianwho are in lay ministry, but unpaid (27 percent). And I suspect there are more in the Caucasian population.

Pastors themselves are the major recruiters, especially of first-time ministers, and they judge the lay contribution valuable. One indication is that lay salaries have doubled since 1990 (in terms of nominal dollars). In 2005 salaries were on a par with median full-time work nationwide. Lay parish ministers indicate overwhelmingly that their work has meaning for them. All in the workplace is not bliss, however. As a primary income, salaries are low, especially for those with pertinent graduate degrees (not unlike the salaries of school teachers and social workers).

What Monsignor Kelley finds most surprising is the average age of the lay minister, 52. Is lay ministry going the way of the aging clergy?he asked. Who follows these men and women into parish ministries? This is what I find surprising, not discouragingjust the passing on of this new Catholic way of living in the hands of middle-aged men and women. What will the future bring?

What difference does it make?

In his final chapter DeLambo discusses the lay, the feminine, the local and the ministerial dimensions of lay parish ministry, suggesting questions and future issues. Below I summarize a point DeLambo himself has raised, but then diverge with questions of my own.

Formal pastoral ministry is being performed by laypeople on parish staffs, who now outnumber the priests in parish ministry. I wonder what the balance will be between clergy, religious and laity as parish ministers working together in the future? What changes will this entail for pastors? And will the church foster lay parish ministry as well as vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life?

Women are now bringing their own gifts, experience and perspectives to parish pastoral ministry and are changing the pastor-staff dynamic in the process. I wonder what the leadership of women in ministry will mean over the long-term. Will their example promote women’s leadership in other pastoral roles?

Since pastors now, without oversight, can hire and fire lay parish ministers, the theological question is raised: Do lay parish ministers serve parishes, or is their ministry for the diocese and the larger church? If the latter, how can they move with ease from parish to parish and from one diocese to another? Such concerns will need to be worked out over time.

Relational skills, which are highly prized by pastors, are only one side of the preparation issue; the other side is theological education. Lay parish ministers feel least prepared in the academic disciplines of theology, church history, Scripture and canon law. Only 41.3 percent of the laity (excluding those in religious communities) have a master’s degree, and fewer than half (48.5 percent) have their highest degree in a ministry-related field. Given that most professions in the United States today require graduate degrees in a pertinent field, as DeLambo points out, the education of lay parish ministers would seem to need shoring up. Will the institutionalization of lay parish ministers lead to higher standards across the board?

Deacon Steve Bermick of Dayton, Ohio, hopes so. In a recent conversation, Bermick expressed surprise that nearly 70 percent of ministers say their current position did not require a master’s degree; nearly 75 percent say it did not require a certificate or special training; and more than 80 percent say it did not require some form of certification. In my position as a pastoral associate in a 1,400-family parish, he says, my training [master’s degree and diaconal formation classes] was absolutely necessary in order to do my job. With lay ministers filling an ever-increasing role in parishes, it makes me wonder if those ministers really have the training necessary to serve competently in a parish. At a minimum, a certificate in lay ministry should be required for full-time positions.

Two-thirds of U.S. Catholic parishes now employ lay parish ministers, and on average all parishes employ nearly two apiece (1.66). But does the practice enhance the quality of parish leadership? Are lay parish ministers effective? The 1990 study, which included both parishioner and pastor responses, suggested that they are, finding that lay parish staffs increase the involvement of other parishioners. In 2005, the following percentage of lay parish ministers indicated that they added considerably or made some improvement in: involvement of youth (65.9 percent), of women (63.2 percent), of young adults (57 percent), of the elderly (49.1 percent), of men (45.7 percent), of singles (35.8 percent).

Finally, it is possible that the process of institutionalization in U.S. dioceses will help other dioceses around the globe to affirm and improve their lay ministries. I am thinking of the trained lay catechists and evangelists in Africa and the small community leaders in South America, many of whom have served as long or longer than the laity in the United States. Perhaps institutionalization here could open global communication about practices and ideas to further pastoral care in many regions.

My sense is that this study is only reflecting the tip of the iceberg, Monsignor Kelley says. Lay ministry in the Catholic world is not coming from the training and learning of the universities, but from the faith and the experience of parish members. But like most sea changes, this goes unnoticed until it washes over us.

Catholics have grown accustomed to the pastor-staff model over the last two decades. Yet decades become minutes when the two-millennia-old church is viewed as a whole. From that historical vantage point, the ministry of the laity, particularly in parishes, has barely emerged from the womb. Only now, as the U.S. Catholic bishops reflect theologically on it, is lay pastoral ministry being officially integrated, given its own name, required to prepare itself according to standards, and is now taking its place in church structures in relation to the hierarchy. How this will turn out is for future generations to know. Yet we are watching and measuring now.

The role of lay parish ministers may still appear to many as an unremarkable necessity. After all, we are not talking about the charismatic, canonized St. Francis, but about the Francis next doorthe layperson who directs the parish faith formation program or who meets with the teen group or who leads the choir. Although DeLambo’s empirical research cannot substantiate such a claim, I believe that the presence of ordinary laity taking responsibility for pastoral leadership is its own miracle, a manifestation of Christ in our midst. What matters is whether, over time, the church reaches a similar conclusion.

[Lay Parish Ministers can be purchased from the National Pastoral Life Center for $19.95. A 16-page companion booklet for parishioners, Ministries: A Parish Guide, is available for $2.50, with bulk discounts. Phone (212) 431-7825; fax 212-274-9786; www.nplc.org.]

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