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.