Supporting Lay Ministers

If your parish supports viable religious education programs, youth ministry, social outreach and a vibrant liturgical life, chances are you have at least one lay ecclesial minister to thank in addition to your priest. The Second Vatican Council affirmed the unity of all believers in Christ as well as the unique and diverse gifts laypeople can offer in the worship, mission and life of the church. Since the council, lay women and men have increasingly claimed their baptismal vocation of ministry, both in the secular sphere and in the church itself. Among them a subgroup of “lay ecclesial ministers” has emerged: laypeople with Spirit-given charisms for ecclesial service, who have completed programs of ministry formation and have been formally authorized by their pastor and bishop to minister in parishes or dioceses in a paid, professional, often full-time capacity. For almost 50 years now, lay ecclesial ministers have served as diocesan staff members, pastoral associates, directors of religious education, youth ministers, directors of worship and liturgy, and sometimes even as the de facto pastor of a parish, save for sacramental duties, which are fulfilled by a visiting priest.

Along with scores of active volunteers, lay ecclesial ministers have been essential in meeting the pastoral needs of U.S. Catholic parishes. In 2007 the National Pastoral Life Center reported that for the first time, the number of paid lay ecclesial ministers (29,000) exceeded the number of active priests (27,000) employed at least part-time in parish ministry. The gap has continued to widen.


Not surprisingly, recognition of lay ecclesial ministry as a professional field has grown. In recent decades the National Association for Lay Ministry and other national organizations have developed to advocate for lay ecclesial ministers and have collaborated to develop specific standards and guidelines for ministerial formation and practice. At the same time, the U.S. bishops have promulgated a series of documents that affirm lay ecclesial ministry as a valid and important element of the church’s life. The first in 1980 was Called and Gifted; the most recent is Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord (2005).

The current economic recession, however, raises questions about the viability of lay ecclesial ministry in the life of the church. Faced with budget shortfalls, many dioceses have cut scores of positions. The Archdiocese of Detroit, for example, recently shed 77 staff members. Many diocesan lay formation programs have been trimmed back or eliminated, and national ministry organizations are being starved financially as contributions and conference fees dry up. Christopher Anderson, the executive director of N.A.L.M., told me recently that he spent much of 2009 as a “grief counselor” for a great number of lay ecclesial ministers whose jobs have been eliminated and who cannot find other ministry work. In a step backward, many cash-strapped parishes have replaced paid ministers—none of whom make exorbitant salaries—with volunteers who, though well-meaning, lack experience and training.

This calls for an active response from people of faith on several levels. First, continued national leadership from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is crucial, both to encourage implementation of national standards for ministry and to develop further a meaningful theology of vocation for lay ecclesial ministry.

Second, even (or especially) in difficult economic times, dioceses must make it a priority to provide lay ecclesial ministers with opportunities and financial support for ministry formation. Most bishops do not scrimp on quality formation for seminarians; the church deserves equally well-formed lay ecclesial ministers.

Finally, when tight budgets do force tough choices, the first reflex need not be termination; in many cases extra donations or reduced-hour workweeks can ensure a lay ecclesial minister’s continued employment. In such situations, they should be creative partners in problem-solving, not passive victims with pink slips.

To take these steps is to recognize that lay ecclesial ministers are not just replaceable cogs in a ministry machine or figures on a budget spreadsheet, but members of a baptismal community called the people of God. In the midst of an economic crisis, when pastoral needs are so great, their gifts could not be more essential.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Susan Kelly
8 years 12 months ago

Thank-you for this encouraging article, Kyle. I am a retired teacher and coach. Just this past year, I received my diocesan certificate in Pastoral Theology from the Blessed Edmund Rice School in Florida. My ministry of passion is sports. Recognizing the gifts that God has given me and a revitalized understanding of the Apostle Paul's athletic metaphors, I continue to view athletes of sport and athletes of the Gospel with similar respect. Pope John Paul II established an Office of Church & Sport before his death. However, the USCCB does not have an office here in the States. Often I am finding that Catholics and many Christians in general fail to see sound fitness as part of honoring our creation. Those who are overweight seem riddled with guilt and would rather not talk about it. Sports has amazing opportunities for mission. I know we have CAC and other organizations but I would like to see and be a part of lessons to seminarians and a greater presence at the many athletic contests that our country celebrates. I pray and pursue new ways to communicate and to gain an audience with those who can institute changes. It's slow and hard going. I do have a website where I have begun this discussion. Also, FYI- I have a step-son Brendan Kelly who is a seminarian at St. Meinrad. He is a great athlete and believer in the spirit and sport connection as well. Keep up the encouragement for those of us in lay ministry to gain support for sharing our gifts toward the Gospel mission.

Thank-you and God Bless you,

Susan Kelly

Egle Weiland
8 years 12 months ago

I wish that more priests would have your point of view. I have been associated with two different parishes, one as a member and the other as a long time volunteer. One is a suburban parish with a school, the other a small social justice community in the inner city. In each case women who had worked tirelessly and effectively, were fired, or let go. Yes, churches are facing budget cuts, but  the lack of respect for women who work in parish ministry is inexcusable. In one case the woman had worked for ten years in the community. Yes, there is a clash of management structures in some places. Why are priests so afraid of working collaboratively and using the unique gifts that the laity has to offer? At this point I am so angry and disheartened. 

Juan Espinosa
8 years 11 months ago

Sometimes due to the lack of Priest in our area they are of the opinion they are the ultimate position in all Church activities. The Priest are concerned about sharing responsibilities with the community of lay personnel. Any problems in the Parish leaves them the ultimate liable person. Priest must somehow understand the reality that the only real impact they have is influence. It is a powerful gift our Lord has left us. They must influence by attending with interest to all their sheep. Share the load and reward with kindness. The truth now is that many Catholics are leaving the church due to mean priest that bully people and provide poor examples of loving caring, gentle Christians. The Church must open its heart and not its mind, must be forgiving and not judgemental and share in who the young ones are influenced by. As the world grows and becomes smaller we Catholics, the church ,must show interest in continuing the development of intense love. Exclusivism will only leave a few self proclaimed worthy, alone. Let the Holy Spirit in and the Holy arrogance out.

Gerald Tortorella
8 years 11 months ago
Dear Editor:
I was very pleased to see your article “Supporting Lay Ministers” (February 1-8, 2010).  Kyle T. Kramer makes extremely prescient arguments in support of quality formation and remuneration for all professional lay ecclesial ministers.  I want to add to this a call for support of programs to train and form another category of lay pastoral leaders – those who give of themselves as volunteer leaders in our parishes.
As Director of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Pastoral Institute, my staff and I enjoy the support of our Ordinary, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, as we administer the Lay Ministry Program, which is our centerpiece program for the formation of these volunteer leaders.  This is a three-year program of theological education, spiritual formation, mentoring and supervised ministerial practicum or project that has trained close to 500 volunteer lay pastoral leaders since 2001.  A 2009 survey of these persons indicated that 395 persons are currently actively engaged in parish ministry throughout the diocese and most of them are involved in more than one ministry.  The survey showed that our commissioned lay leaders participate in many ministries. The ministries with the greatest amount of participation are adult faith formation, liturgical planning, parish/diocesan leadership – especially the parish planning councils, RCIA/sacramental preparation and religious education of children and youth.
At the Pastoral Institute, we are thankful for these leaders as well as the 240 currently enrolled in the program who have answered the call to ministerial leadership by participating in the Lay Ministry Program and for the dedicated persons who serve as instructors, mentors, retreat leaders and ministry supervisors for these participants as well as for the support that we receive from Bishop DiMarzio. We pray that there will be many more who accept the challenge to be formed as lay Church leaders for the 21st century and for the support of similar programs throughout the country.


The latest from america

The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019
Teachers and supporters hold signs in the rain during a rally on Jan. 14 in Los Angeles. Thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike for the first time in three decades after contract negotiations failed in the nation's second-largest school district. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Strikes have likewise been prominent in Canada’s southern neighbor over the last year. Teachers in West Virginia made national headlines when strikes across the state won higher wages from a Republican governor and legislature
Dean DettloffJanuary 22, 2019
This year’s W.Y.D takes place less than three months after the conclusion of the Synod for Young People that was held in the Vatican last October.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2019
On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.