US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Where did all these lay ministers come from? And why are they here?

Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) released some interesting stats on U.S. parishes recently. Notable to me were the numbers on the increase in paid lay ministers on parish staffs, from almost 22,000 in the 90s to the present approximately 38,000, a 42 percent increase. CARA estimates that U.S. parishes are adding nearly 800 lay ministers each year. By comparison, the number of priests ordained each year is around 500, but not all of those priests are diocesan nor will all go into parish ministry. Likewise, the number of diocesan priests has declined by 11 percent over the last ten years.

CARA concludes, “Growth in the number of lay ecclesial ministers is in part related to fewer priests available to serve in U.S. parishes.” But, donning my armchair sociologist hat, I’d hesitate to make too direct a correlation between the increase in lay ministers and decline in the number of ordained priests. While I think there has been some attempt to compensate for the priest shortage by employing lay ministers, both lay ministers and priests would be irked by the comparison, to say the least. While there is some cross over in function and duties in a parish, they are different. Likewise, lay ministers aren’t replacing priests, nor is there a danger of that happening, despite some alarmist warning against a “clericalization” of the laity. (Consider: what kind of treatment does your parish priest receive? Now think of a lay minister on staff. Does he, or more likely, she, get nearly as much respect?)

In an interview with U.S. Catholic last year, Zeni Fox described the kind of people who become professional, paid lay ministers on their parish staff. Talking about a pastoral leadership program she created and led, she said of the participants: “Nearly all of them were women who had started volunteering as catechists and eventually became DREs. They didn’t have formal credentials, but they already knew so much about the present life of the church.

The women I’d worked with in the leadership program had already grown in their faith as adults and in their sense of ministry. They had a sense of wanting to do more. One of them said to me that she wanted now to be more respected by her pastor. She said, “I didn’t know enough theology, but now I do, and I want to be accepted.”

In other words, many were already functioning as ministers. Becoming credentialed was something that could earn them the respect they desired from both their pastors and the parish. CARA’s data on the demographics of lay ministers supports this. More than 80 percent are women and 60 percent are over 50. The study also points out that parishes actually receive more money in donations, leading me, again putting on the armchair sociologist hat, to wonder if parishes simply are now more likely to have the means to pay lay staff.

Fox also attempts to clarify what exactly Lay Ecclesial Ministers (LEMs) are in comparison to lay ministers, whom CARA seems to have lumped together in a single category.

Related: Stories from the treanches

Blast from the past: A tradition of lay ministry