Expanded role for lay ministers emerges as summit topic

ORLANDO, Fla. – An expanded role for professional lay ministers is high on the list of possible models for pastoral leadership that emerged from an unprecedented gathering in Orlando of 1,200 Catholics – clergy, religious and laity – preparing for the future of a changing church.

Ideas for recruiting, training, utilizing, valuing and rewarding lay ministers abounded in Orlando April 22, as representatives of six national organizations reached the midpoint of their first National Ministry Summit, aimed at setting an agenda for responding to new realities in parish life.

“Lay ministry is not about filling in the gap because of a shortage of ordained ministers and it’s not about a struggle for the rights of people,” said Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., episcopal adviser for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a collaboration of the six national Catholic groups.

The groups are the National Association for Lay Ministry, Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, National Association of Diaconate Directors, National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association and National Federation of Priests’ Councils.

In an interview with The Florida Catholic, Orlando’s diocesan newspaper, during a break, Bishop Cupich said the growing emphasis on lay involvement is a sign of maturation and ongoing conversion in the church that “flows out of a call to holiness in which we see ourselves as the body of Christ.”

Though the numbers of priests and religious have declined, more U.S. Catholics have been responding to the call to holiness by becoming more educated in their faith, seeking professional lay ministry opportunities or joining the clergy as deacons.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic flock is increasing in both numbers and cultural diversity, leading to questions about who will address which pastoral needs and how. Participants in the April 21-23 summit proposed answers.

On April 21, they heard the findings of a four-year study, funded with a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, of how the U.S. church has changed, then they broke into groups to brainstorm specific recommendations regarding various strategies that might fit into the response to those changes.

The strategies included assigning pastors to more than one parish, employing lay parish life coordinators, reaching out to young adults, revising human resources policies, managing that takes cultural diversity into account and establishing best practices for parish leadership.

The groups presented 72 recommendations April 22; many of them were related to lay ministry. Examples included developing a marketing campaign for lay, ordained and religious ministries using “career” language in addition to the traditional “vocation” language and collecting more complete data on the ethnic makeup of multicultural parishes. By April 23, that list was to be narrowed into a plan.

Bishop Cupich said the summit provided new links among the six national Catholic organizations and said it also was giving the various groups a common language.

“We can’t use the language of the business world when we talk about the practical issues. We have to use the language of the church,” he said.

He said, though, that what’s being created through the summit is a leaven that the participants can take back to their parishes and dioceses to see what develops.

“How the cake comes out – how the bread comes out – will be in different ways,” he said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.