Some might find irony in the fact that at the time the National Pastoral Life Center was issuing a comprehensive report on the burgeoning numbers of laypersons serving in various parish capacities, the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this past November was having difficulties even allowing the words minister and ministry to identify these laypeople and their work. At a time when parish closings and consolidations are rising and the number of laypeople both in training and in service to American parishes continues to outstrip the declining numbers of seminarians and ordained clergy, it appears that a sizable number within the current cohort of bishopsnot to mention a sometimes-reluctant Vaticanwarily regard this trend.
Was the vote, which only narrowly achieved the required two-thirds, a case of trying to stuff the Vatican II genie back into the bottle? Or was it evidence of the wisdom of prudent churchmen who were clarifying once again, because it needed to be done, the line between the ordained, whom they consider the only true ministers, and those whose workas one bishop recommendedshould not be called ministry, but rather a more ubiquitous roles of service.
Lay Parish Ministers: A Study of Emerging Leadership, by David DeLambo, is the third studythe others were in 1990 and 1997by the National Pastoral Life Center, whose prescient founder, the late Msgr. Phillip J. Murnion, years ago forecast a virtual revolution in pastoral ministry. Today his prediction is borne out: a legion of laywomen and men serve in roles that in the past were exclusively filled by the huge numbers of priests and religious assigned to parishes. Laypeople, once on the periphery of parish service and leadership, are now at its very core.
It is hardly breaking news that the parish continues to change, and change dramatically. Some 6 percent of parishes now have no resident priest, 22 percent are combined with another parish to utilize the service of a shared priest, and most of the other 72 percent have but a single priest to serve an ever-growing Catholic population. The trend will continue and even accelerate as the average age of priests rises and not enough priests are ordained to replace those who are ill or who retire.
A close reading of Lay Parish Ministers provides, if not a complete portrait of Catholic America, many sharply etched pieces of a fascinating puzzle. There are many positive signs for the American church, and some distressing ones. First the good news.
Called. With biblical vibrancy, echoing what might be considered an almost evangelical temperament, the majority of laypeople serving in parishes feel that they have receivedand are responding toa call from God to serve God and the church. It is their vocation, not merely a job. While many of them savored their first taste of the excitement of parish ministry through volunteering, three-fourths of them now consider it a lifetime commitment.
Satisfied.While anyone who knows anything of normal parish politics and conflicting interest groups will recall lay parish workers carping about the tensions of their work, the study shows that these ecclesial lay ministers derive enormous satisfaction from what they are doing. Many have had careers in the corporate world, in teaching or other professions, and know that while they may not yet be working in an earthly paradise, what they do is extraordinarily meaningful, important and fulfilling. Eighty-seven percent of them would encourage others to do similar work in a parish.
Prayerful. One finding that might astound even the bishops who want to restrict paid lay Catholic parish workers semantically is that they are more solicitous of prayer, over and above the accepted rituals at staff meetings, than the priests with whom they serve (46 percent versus 23 percent for priests), for days of reflection and retreats (31 percent versus 10 percent) and faith sharing (35 percent versus 18 percent).
Competent. From assisting at wakes to preparing couples for marriage and children for first Eucharist and confirmation, performing virtually all the parish’s administrative tasks, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, conducting groups, organizing liturgies and providing music, lay parish workers have taken on the bulk of parish work. Outside of specific liturgical roles that are the province of the ordained, it would not be a statistical leap to say that the total amount of time spent in parish work by lay staff and priests would certainly favor the former, perhaps by a significant factor.
Accepted.If there was initial reluctance to accept lay ecclesial ministers in parish work, that resistance has largely dissipated. Lay ministers experience a high level of support from parishionersfor they have usually been ordinary parishioners themselves before taking on a leadership role. Fully two-thirds of parishes have at least one paid lay minister who works more than 20 hours a week. It is not odd to see larger parishes with a single priest and a full-time staff of three to six or more laypeople.
Parish-focused. Lay workers do not consider themselves merely interchangeable contract laborers for hire. They are deeply and specifically committed to the parish in which they work, which is usually the parish in which they worship and in which their children may be educated.
Now to the moredisturbing pieces of the puzzle as revealed in Lay Parish Ministers.
Parish-focused. Yes, this was listed in the positive column, but there is a potential downside as well. While lay parish workers surely know they are part of a larger church, they apparently are either so disheartened, disillusioned or disinterested in the doings on higher church levels that they choose to keep their focus local. The question, How close do you feel to the Catholic Church? finds a slow but steady decline in closeness. Could this be another step toward the much-feared congregrationalizing of American parishes due to fatigue over such issues as sexual abuse by members of the clergy, lack of financial accountability and paucity of collaborative and consultative decision-making? Perhaps.
Aging. The average age of a parish worker continues to edge upward. This could indicate that the fervor of the great numbers of Vatican II-inspired laypeople, who, while not seeking ordination, took seriously the enfranchisement of the priesthood of all believers, is attenuating.
Feminine. Religious womenwho were and are considered lay in the eyes of the churchcomprised 41 percent of parish workers in 1990 and only 16 percent in 2005. As the number of sisters declined, the number of laywomen, both single and married, continued to rise. Today, while the number of men in paid parish ministry has increased slightly, four out of five parish workers are women, which has given rise to some concern about feminizing parish work and not providing enough male presence or role models.
Wages.While salaries have doubled since the first survey in 1990, few workers would say they make a living wage. And yet the total income of parish workers’ families is above the national average. This indicates that parish work is considered a second incomeusually by a womanand would be a reason why men who are the main providers for their families cannot see their wayeven if they have sensed a callto work in a parish.
Precarious. Lay ecclesial ministers who have been summarily dismissed at the whim of a new pastor or bishop would find it interesting to note that a subcommittee of the bishops’ conference received a report almost 10 years ago that trumpeted that lay ministers were performing roles that entail varying degrees of pastoral leadership and administration in a public, stable, recognized, and authorized manner. A proviso must be added: in some places, at some times. Stability might work for monks; it is not the case for lay ecclesial ministers.
Putting together the pieces of this puzzle, we see as a backdrop tens of thousands of committed, spiritually deep, satisfied, competent, yet somewhat underpaid laypeople, working alongside an ever smaller number of priests who, while they have more prestige and surely more job security, are facing increasing demands upon their time from a growing Catholic population. These priests, as surveys from the National Federation of Priests Councils and other groups show (the Catholic priesthood may be the most studied occupation in the United States), are by and large men who are happy in their work, spiritual in a variety of ways and fulfilled; yet a good number evidence the same frustration with the higher-ups that their lay co-workers feel.
It is not difficult to extrapolate further from this study and see increasingly troubling signs, as Vatican II-era priests (and bishops) are replaced byas surveys continue to indicatemen with a less distributive and more clerical orientation. These newly ordained, who are quickly appointed pastors, will be in line with the growing minority of bishops who want to apportion carefully who properly will be called ministers. Without enthusiastic diocesan support, approbation and acknowledgment, high-quality in-service training and even financial help for their initial education (while a potentially ordainable man can be assured of free seminary training, the vast majority of lay ecclesial ministers pay for their own education), the virtual revolution that Monsignor Murnion forecast may be facing a counterrevolution.
What will some future survey, say five years hence, reveal, as two powerful forces, the church hierarchy and enfranchised lay Catholics, assert what they perceive as their call? Will it show that the hierarchy has done more to utilize and foster the ministry claimed by laypeople, or more to temper or even suppress it? Or will such delineations prove beside the point in the face of a movement of the Spirit that is simply too powerful to control?