Laypeople lead the way at the 2020 MidAtlantic Congress for Pastoral Leadership

Julia Dezelski with the USCCB performs double duty feeding her two-month-old daughter Beatrice while presenting ways to engage potential lay ministers during the Mid-Atlantic Congress Jan. 31 at the Baltimore Hilton. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

The uninitiated could be forgiven for assuming a conference on pastoral leadership would be brimming with, well, pastors. While some priests roamed the corridors of the Baltimore Hilton Hotel last week for the 2020 Mid-Atlantic Congress, they were vastly outnumbered by laypeople learning how to better serve their parishes and dioceses.

Organizers said more than 90 percent of those attending were laypeople. With the church reeling from sexual abuse scandals involving priests and bishops and with the number of priests dwindling, laypeople are more important than ever to the church, said Harry Dudley, a former employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who now works as a consultant.

Dudley takes a glass-half-full approach to the challenges. What others call a “crisis of vocation” has the potential to be an “explosion of vocation” – with lay people leading the way, he said.

“There are wonderful opportunities, that before laity were not involved in,” Dudley said.

Dudley and officials from the USCCB were on hand to empower laypeople to spark that explosion discussing the “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” a church document written in 2005 that sets guidelines for lay people working in lay ecclesial ministry.

In the years since “Co-Workers” was written, much has changed, but the USCCB officials said the document still provides a solid framework with room for growth.

Sean Calvin, associate director of ministerial certification for the Archdiocese of Detroit, was among the laypeople at the session. Calvin said he is ready to take on new challenges but knows the makeup of who serves the church – as more priests retire — will drastically change in the coming years and to weather that change it will take time and training.

Michael Howard, who runs Eat the Scroll ministry, speaks at the Mid-Atlantic Congress in Baltimore Jan. 31. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“Working in the Archdiocese of Detroit as well as everywhere else, it’s a really strong concern. And how do we train, equip and inform those that are our current leaders, but also people that you will need to be stepping up at some point to assist with more pastoral leadership of the church,” Calvin said. “We need to start preparing and thinking about things now rather than being reactive. Five, 10, 15, 20, however, many years, it takes time to really realize kind of where we are. How do we prepare those that are in lay leadership in parishes and dioceses?”

The USCCB officials’ focus was on two areas of growth for ecclesial ministry: pastoral care and young adult ministry. Dudley said the church wants to put forth a broader vision of pastoral care despite having less clergy.

Dudley said prison ministry can be much more than visiting the incarcerated. Dudley said it’s important to think bigger, ministering to crime victims, prisoners’ families and the person in and out of prison.

Paul Jarzembowski, the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage Family Life and Youth, stressed the importance of young adult ministry. Jarzembowski said the USSCB was looking for ways to provide more training and certifications for those ministering with young adults – an area of high demand that currently lacks established training programs at universities.

While the USCCB official laid out these new opportunities, most of the session allowed attendees to share their stories and the husband-and-wife duo of Michael and Charlene Howard got them in touch with why they serve in the first place.

“You’re going to go through this process because we need the workers, right? The vineyard is plenty. The work is plenty, but the labor reserved. But as a laborer, you have to be qualified,” said Charlene Howard, a longtime educator with the Archdiocese of Washington.

Michael Howard, who runs Eat the Scroll ministry, reminded the laypeople that God’s call is many and varied. The role you want may not be the role your parish or diocese needs.

As a child, Michael never thought he would become a lay ecclesial minister, but he was inspired to serve after the death of his grandmother who taught him scripture.

He said it’s important to embrace the call despite our personal hesitations.

“God’s ‘yes’ is louder than my ‘no,’” Howard said.

Read more stories about the Mid-Atlantic Congress here.


Tim Swift

Tim Swift

Tim Swift is the social media coordinator for the Catholic Review and the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Covering everything from pop culture to politics to religion to errant alligators, Tim has worked as a reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun, BBC News and Local 10 News in South Florida. A native of Philadelphia, Tim grew up attending Catholic schools and got his start in journalism as the editor of The Prelate, Cardinal Dougherty High School's student newspaper. After a few years away, Tim is glad to be back in his adopted hometown of Baltimore.