Follow the laity: Zeni Fox on the future of lay ministry

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Lay ministry is here to stay, says this theologian. But there are growing pains still to come.

When faced with the question “Who are the laity?” in the mid-19th century, John Henry Newman quipped, “Well, the church would look very foolish without them.”

Theologian and expert on lay ministry Zeni Fox describes laypeople as “the disciples of Jesus who share responsibility for the mission of the church.” Indeed, without the laity, who comprise more than 99 percent of the church, the church wouldn’t just look foolish, but its mission could not be realized.

Even local parishes would find it hard to carry out their work without laypeople, who do everything from teaching religious education and distributing the Eucharist to organizing food pantries and coordinating clothing drives. And increasingly many are working in their parishes for a paycheck.

“It grew up like dandelions in the spring, just here, there, and everywhere,” says Fox of professional lay ministry. “This phenomenon has a grassroots dynamic.”

And with laypeople now outnumbering priests and deacons on parish staffs, even those who’d never consider working for the church should take notice. “Even before the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XIII said that we need to pay attention to the signs of the times and ask ourselves, ‘Where is it that God is moving among us at this time?’ ” Fox says.

Should laypeople be working in the church? Isn’t their mission to transform and live as disciples in the world?

Creating a lot of church mice who do all these busy things at the parish is not the goal of lay ministry. Certainly the present work of the community for its own sustenance and growth—church ministry—can’t be done by priests alone. But that work should be radically connected to the world.

In Caring for Society Robert Kinast writes about a couple who are Eucharistic ministers. As they grow more fully into appreciating sharing Christ with others through this ministry, they expand their understanding of what they can be in the world. They begin to hire ex-offenders in their catering business. Ideally, lay ministry is a deepening process of grasping oneself as Christian and living out that discipleship.

I think that with each ministry the people involved should come together to grow and reflect on what they’re doing and how it connects with the mission of the church in the world.

But we can’t only define laypeople in terms of their role in the world. Certainly that’s important, but the whole church has a role in the world. It’s not just the laity, so you can’t make that the division. This definition is problematic when you talk about laypeople who work in the church when they’re supposed to be involved in the world. Well, I can drink tea and walk at the same time.

Some have warned against a “clericalization” of the laity. Does lay ministry confuse people?

I don’t think that lay ministers have reached a point of acceptance where you can say that they’re “clericalized.” Chicago Cardinal Francis George has said he doesn’t want to see a new clericalism in terms of laity, and if I had an opportunity, I would say, “Don’t worry yet.”

It could happen. It’s a problem any time there is a focus on the importance of one’s own role, status, and privileges, but I don’t see that happening with lay ministry.

Years ago I visited Fordham University, where I got my degree in religious education, and I met the dean, Vin Novak. He said, “Now tell me, Zeni. What would you recommend to us in terms of helping people to prepare for a role in the parish?” I’m not witty, but out of my mouth came, “Tell them to get a veil.”

I realized it came from some place deep inside. At that time a veil—being a woman religious—was authorization, credibility. I had finished my doctoral studies in theology, but theologically speaking my word was worth nothing to parishioners.

I attended a retreat for growing in ministry at a Protestant seminary one year, and as I was walking with this older Protestant minister, he said to me, “Your situation is really very difficult. Any new priest arrives, and they’re granted immediate credibility by the community. But you have to gain your credibility with each group you work with.”

He gave me a way of understanding my own reality. That’s not as true today, but there’s still truth in it. Laypeople aren’t “clericalized” just because they’re working in the church. They’re not placed in a special niche, apart from the people of the parish whom they serve. Those who’ve been working in their parishes still say that their parishes don’t know that they’ve been called and sent, officially commissioned, by their bishops.

Are all lay ministers called and sent by their bishops?

“Lay ecclesial ministry” is the term that’s sometimes used to describe professional lay ministers, and they’re different from volunteer ministers. Because professional lay ministry is all about public service in the name of the church, professional lay ministers have a particular relationship with their bishop. The bishop is central to professional lay ministry.

When the late sociologist Msgr. Philip Murnion and I were each studying new things happening in the church, we looked at people working both full- and part-time in parishes. One characteristic we found was a sense of being called to what they were doing.

But “lay ecclesial ministry” isn’t clearly defined. Each bishop decides what counts as professional lay ministry in his diocese. Chicago has decided very clearly. For example, if a parish sends in the name of someone and calls them a lay ecclesial minister, and they have not been called and sent by the bishop, the diocese won’t print that title in the directory.

Who usually goes into professional lay ministry?

In my experience speaking to people considering studying at the seminary where I teach, there are two general stories. I hear, “In my parish Rose is the director of religious education (DRE), and that’s something I think I would like to explore doing as a profession.” So some people go into lay ministry after seeing somebody else do it.

The other story I hear is, “I want to study in depth and learn more about my faith.” Almost always someone who came in that way to our program already had a position in the parish before they finished because some pastors are looking for well-credentialed people to work in the parish.

Why is having credentials important?

I initiated a program in a neighboring diocese for pastoral leadership. The first group that signed up was made up of women, and 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.”

So what happens when ministers get credentialed is a change of self-perception. That’s part of why some priests have more of a problem with people who’ve been educated than the sweet young thing from the parish who’s volunteering as a catechist.

There can be tension between lay ministers and clergy. Why do you think that is?

I did an all-day program in one diocese on lay ecclesial ministry. The bishop, who was quite conservative, shared with me that he had sent personal letters of invitation to all the recently ordained to attend for the day, and none of them came. I couldn’t believe it. So there’s definitely a tension there with some priests.

Sociologist Dean Hoge did a study in 1989 on the future of Catholic leadership. He found that those men who expressed interest in priesthood were the most conservative of those he polled, and those who expressed interest in lay ministry were women and the most liberal.

It disturbed me because I thought of my students. I quarreled with God. “Is this some kind of a bad joke?” I thought. A few years later I met Hoge and asked him about this. He said it’s not at all surprising to sociologists. In times of great change more conservative personalities will move toward a stable center, and more open personalities will move toward the cutting edge.

Are there legitimate complaints or expressions of frustration from the clerical side of this tension?

Yes, and that hasn’t been looked at enough. If a newly ordained priest comes to a parish where there’s an established staff—people who have been working in positions for several years—he’s a new entity. Whenever you introduce a new person to a group, you get a new group dynamic and work has to be done to incorporate the new member. But we don’t realize that, and so the community-building work is, in my experience, often not done.

Sometimes there’s no place for the new priest: There’s someone doing religious education and someone doing youth ministry and someone who trains the lectors. The bases are covered, so what is there for the new person to do? Any new person in a new role is already anxious and needs to have a sense of becoming an active, contributing member of the group. I’m very sympathetic to that.

Can clergy and laity collaborate without all that tension?

I think in some places they already do. I’d like to see that grow, but it’s very tricky. I know a priest who was involved in pastoral planning in his diocese back when there still could have been more than one priest at a parish. He said to his bishop, “I’d like to be a pastor, and I’d like to be a one-man shop because I want to work at a model of developing the laity and lay ministry in general.”

So he did that, and as he was nearing retirement he asked me to come and do a one-day program with his staff and the parish council, the primary leaders of the parish. There were about 80 people. We held a one-day retreat to prepare them for the next step. We looked at the history of what happened in this parish as far back as everybody could remember, and then we looked at what was presently the picture, and then at their hopes for the future of the parish.

After the priest retired the bishop sent a chaplain from the army, and within two years there was no one on that staff who was still there. Many of the lay leaders of the parish were no longer involved—they were going to another parish. The collections had plummeted, and this new priest was in mourning. I mourned with him partially because I spent a day with 80 people who had such high hopes.

Will there be more like the first pastor? That’s my hope. But it takes skills, and it takes training and leadership.

I’m fascinated with what Chicago is doing through the INSPIRE program. They have parish leadership teams go through a four-year program with a consultant so that they truly become teams.

People are transformed by that. The priests are transformed, and the laypeople involved are transformed. They learn how a team should work and what it feels like to be on one that works well together. Then they can bring some of what they’ve learned to another setting. But programs such as these are all in early stages.

What do you anticipate lay ministry will look like in 20 years?

Statistically, if the present level of ministerial involvement in our parishes is to continue, there will have to be an increase in the numbers of lay ministers. There are not enough men in the seminaries or sisters in formation to replace even those that we have today. There will be increasing numbers of Catholics. In 20 years it’s certain that leadership will be a continued need.

I think that lay ministers will face new challenges because parishes will be increasingly bigger as they are linked and merged. That seems to be the pattern that more dioceses are moving toward rather than hiring pastoral coordinators to keep existing communities alive. Therefore they’ll face the challenge of having to build small Christian communities within the parish in order to have the glue needed to nurture spiritual life.

I hope that in the future there’ll be a greater representation of people of color and other ethnic identities in pastoral leadership. There’s been some growth there since the 1980s, but it’s still not proportionate to the numbers of people in those communities.

I also hope there will be more and deeper formation and ongoing support for lay ecclesial ministers so that what they suffer will be integrated in a positive way into their spirituality, rather than cause cynicism, anger, and bitterness.

Finally, I hope there’ll be a national office for lay ministry and an office in every diocese. There are committees at the bishops’ conference for priestly life, the diaconate, and for vowed religious life. Actually for priestly life there are three or four, but there’s not even a national desk for lay ministry. There’s just a Committee for Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, but that’s 99 percent of the church.

The Catholic Church is well known for our organization. Besides the Spirit, it’s what they say has kept us going for 2,000 years. We just haven’t organized lay ministry yet.

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 1, pages 18-22). Read more about the church's long tradition of lay ministry.

Image: Photo of Zeni Fox by Tom Wright