Why We Should Formally Recognize the Vocation of Lay Ecclesial Ministry

The Catholic Church is changing, and it’s not just because of Pope Francis. After Vatican II introduced a profound theology of the laity, lay people have been discovering that their purpose is more than to “pray, pay, and obey.” In fact, the Vatican II understanding of the laity taking their place primarily in the secular world is also being challenged. A 2011 study found that there are nearly 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs) in the United States. These are non-ordained paid ministry staff working significant amounts of time in various kinds of official Church ministries. And with fewer ordinations to the priesthood, LEMs are becoming critical to the ministerial and pastoral functioning of the US Church. Given this, we might ask: why is lay ecclesial ministry not fully recognized as a genuine vocational calling?

In 2005, the US Bishops attempted to respond to the rise of LEM with a document called Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. While it does emphasize collaboration with priests and bishops, it maintains the old school theology of the laity’s ministry as simply extensions of the priest’s ministry and whose primary place is in the secular world. The theology for this can get complicated and messy, but the main problem that arises is that it creates a ministerial hierarchy, where ordained clergy are viewed as more “valid” ministers than LEMs. This is problematic considering the current reality of the US Church, where more and more lay people work side-by-side with clergy and who in some cases are the primary administrators of parishes. Ministerial roles traditionally filled by priests are now frequently being filled by lay people. Many of these lay people have spent some years being formally trained, have received graduate degrees in theology and ministry, and have had solid pastoral formation. Their very vocational calling is to full-time ministry in the Church.

Sadly, many Catholics in the pews are only willing to approach a priest when in pastoral need rather than an LEM who may have more training or experience in areas where they need assistance. A hierarchy within ministry is maintained in a way that undermines the common mission of all. The reason for this, I believe, is because there is a lack of public, liturgical, and even sacramental recognition for LEMs. Clergy and religious carry with them “credentials” by virtue of their public ordination or solemn vows. LEMs do not have that. And having a degree is clearly not sufficient to reduce the ministerial hierarchy.

So how can we eliminate these problematic dynamics? Public liturgical recognition. I want to be clear that in no way do I want to dismantle or undermine the priesthood. I myself felt called to the priesthood in the past, and I recognize it as an important and critical vocation in the life of the Church. At the same time, more formal recognition of the vocations of lay persons who are called to full-time ministry would benefit these minsters and the people they serve. Boston College Professor Hosffman Ospino explains:

Unless we have clearly defined institutional channels to acknowledge and affirm the vocation of all lay ecclesial ministers, lay people formally involved in ministry will constantly find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of ‘proving’ the authenticity of their calling to the ecclesial community that they already serve in ministerial and professional ways.

Lay ecclesial ministry has typically been viewed more as a profession rather than as a vocation. Lay ministers receive “certification” and are perhaps occasionally blessed at the end of a parish Mass, but there remains a certain void. With the increase in LEMs, Hosffman Ospino says there is a need to make sure that LEMs are not seen as a “watered-down or a second-class alternative to the more traditional vocations to ministry….” LEMs move beyond the laity’s universal call to discipleship into intentional—and often full-time—ecclesial ministry. Their primary role is not in the secular activities of the world, but in the ecclesial activities of the Church, that is, being a formal minister of the Gospel in the name of the Church.

Certain dioceses like Chicago have held public liturgies, presided over by the local bishop, which affirm, commission, authorize, and bless the LEM vocation. However, diocesan-wide celebrations like this are uncommon. LEMs in most places go without formal ecclesial recognition beyond their hiring. Edward Hahnenberg, a supporter of a “concentric circles” model of ministry where clergy and LEMs are on a level ministerial plane yet maintain their unique identities, calls for a reordering of ecclesial ministry. He says that any ecclesial minister has these three characteristics: commitment, a public nature (versus private ministry), and recognition by the community/leadership.

In its best Catholic form, such recognition would occur in the context of a ritual. A liturgical ritual is the sign that the LEM has made a commitment, that the nature of their ministry is public and in the name of the Church, and that the ecclesial community has recognized and affirmed the calling. In a Church where the faithful in the pews have traditionally given more credence to a priest than a lay person, a public (or possibly even a sacramental) liturgy will give LEMs the same visible authorization and affirmation that priests receive at their ordination. Priests will see their lay colleagues entrusted with the same ministerial authority they have. And lay ecclesial ministry will finally be viewed as a credible vocational calling, perhaps even one that is sacramentally realized.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.