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   /   Ministry & Liturgy - Volume 38 -2011   /   November Issue   /   Lay Ministry: Past, present, and future

Zeni Fox


Lay Ministry: Past, present, and future

It is almost 50 years since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. For some, that was a defining event in their experience of the church, and even for their lives. For others, it is ancient history, perhaps a history that is embraced, or causes concern, or evokes only indifference. For lay ministers and lay ecclesial ministers (our language is inadequate today for naming the multiple ways in which the ministry of the laity has unfolded), the council was the seedbed that brought forth dynamics in the church that caused a new form of ministry to emerge. In this article on ministry in the church, I will include both the broad category of all who minister in diverse roles and the more narrow category, lay ecclesial ministers, as described by the U.S. bishops in their Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (2005). In this way, I will explore some history, examine the present reality, and probe the challenges faced by these ministers.

Vatican II

Often today we hear the statement, "We are the church." This consciousness on the part of Catholics is one of the primary fruits of the council. How did this shift in the self-understanding of lay Catholics occur? They previously had viewed themselves as passive members of a community in which the active roles belonged to priests and vowed religious, but now "we are the church" signaled that they were to be full members with rights and responsibilities. This new understanding of the role of all the faithful emerged from teachings of the council, first in the earliest document promulgated, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which declared, "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people' (I Pet. 2:9, 4–5) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism" (14).1 "Full, conscious, active participation" is repeated 15 times in this short document.

The implications of this concept unfolded in subsequent documents. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church instructs pastors to "recognize the [laity's] contribution and charisms that everyone in his own way will, with one mind, cooperate in the common task" (30); the participation of laypersons in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly ministries of Christ is described in paragraphs 10–13. Paragraph 7 reminds us that there are many ministries ("In the building up of Christ's body there is engaged a diversity of members and functions. There is only one Spirit who, according to his own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives his different gifts for the welfare of the Church"), and it is the "gifts of ministries through which, by [Christ's] power, we serve each other unto salvation." The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People stresses the participation of laity in the church's mission: "[Laity] have therefore in the Church and in the world their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God" (2). A new or rather renewed vision of church was born, with a compelling sense of the role of laity in mission and ministry.

After the council

Many developments in the church in the past 50 years can be traced directly to these teachings from the council, including the development of various ways of consulting the laity (for example, parish councils, diocesan pastoral councils, and diocesan synods), programs to assist laity in reflecting on their vocation "in the world" (including programs on the spirituality of work and of family life), and a reemphasis on charisms in the life of the church. Lay ministry and what we now call lay ecclesial ministry are also rooted in this new understanding of laypersons; this emergence can be traced to many factors in the life of the church. Universities, dioceses, and seminaries began programs of ministry formation; pastors invited laypersons to fill new roles on parish staffs; laypeople came to pastors to describe new needs and were invited to work with others to meet them; the church opened the ministries of lector and acolyte to laity2; canonists, liturgists, and systematic theologians explored the new developments in light of the tradition; and various kinds of organizations formed, providing a context for discussing what was emerging and its meaning.3

Large numbers of laypersons became involved in a multiplicity of ministries, and some laypersons set out on a path of professional ministry in the church that until recently did not even have an official title: lay ecclesial ministers. It is the latter development that the bishops have given more attention to. By 1994, they recognized that something new was present, expanding, and showing signs of good fruit, and so they appointed a committee to explore what should be the official response of the Conference of Bishops. The result was the approval in 2005 of the document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry. The bishops both described and delineated the new reality; they presented a theological context for understanding it; and they outlined what formation and authorization were needed. A clear official approbation was given to lay ecclesial ministry. However, in presenting a broader view of ministry and affirming that lay ecclesial ministry is a work of the Spirit, the document implicitly speaks of all lay ministry. The church in the United States gave official recognition to this fruit of the council 40 years after the final documents had been promulgated.

The present reality

In the 1980s, the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life provided a picture of the dynamics of change in process at that time. A key finding was that leadership in many parishes was shared among pastors, paid staff, and volunteers, a significant development beyond the priest-centered leadership models of the recent past. There also was ample evidence of the fact that lay leaders, staff and volunteers alike, were involved in extensive theological, spiritual, and practical preparation for their ministerial roles (Report No. 9, "Parish Life Among the Leaders"). Today, the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project — a broad research initiative undertaken by a number of ministerial organizations, lay and clerical, and funded by the Lilly Foundation — has reported a broad expansion in this pattern, with many more new leaders, many new and diverse ministries, and a similar pattern of extensive ministerial formation (Marti Jewell and David Ramey, Emerging Models of Parish Leadership [Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010]). Whereas the Notre Dame study had attempted to say how many lay ministers were serving in parishes (for example, Report No. 15 reported that "an average of 208 parishioners provide 810 hours of service a month"), we do not have such data today. We do know that there was a great increase in the number of lay ecclesial ministers during the 1990s, a 30-percent rise just in the years 1992 to 1997; that number has remained fairly constant in the new century.4 Although not the focus of this article, during this period there has been a concomitant decrease in the number of priests and vowed religious on parish staffs and a significant increase in the number of deacons.

Twelve hundred people gathered in Orlando, Fla., in April 2008 for the National Ministry Summit to learn more about the research done under the auspices of the Emerging Models Project. An apt way to summarize the findings was offered in a presentation by Jewell and Ramey, who noted the "emergence of a total ministering community, born from the recognition and appreciation of the baptismal call." Here is the fulfillment of the vision of Vatican II. A helpful way of envisioning this community is found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which describes the diversity of roles exercised during liturgical celebrations by ministers (meaning here the ordained) and laypersons — both those with special offices (servers, readers, the choir) and the assembly as a whole. By extension, what is celebrated at liturgy is found in the lived lives of parish members beyond it: the total ministering community.


The evolving ministerial reality we encounter today provides challenges at multiple levels. For the larger church, the question of the incorporation of new ministers into her structures is a significant challenge; for example, canon law, the diocesan and bishops' conference offices, and human resource policies and benefit guidelines need revisions large and small.5 For the ministers involved (lay and ordained), a primary challenge is that of working together collaboratively — that is, moving beyond the authoritative patterns modeled in the worlds of business and the church of the last century. Father Robert Schreiter has observed that we need "a stronger program of forming all those involved in pastoral leadership into patterns of collaboration" ("Pastoral Leadership: Moving into the Future," Origins 38, no. 2 [May 22, 2008], 26) — a challenge for both formation and continuing education programs of clergy and laity. And while Co-Workers in the Vineyard has provided a helpful theological reflection on lay ministry, especially lay ecclesial ministry, ongoing theological exploration is needed.6

Lay ministers have particular challenges. One is the changing attitude of some younger priests, who are less in favor of empowering lay ministers than older priests are. In fact, "the young priests today have different ideas about the nature of the Church, and about half of them are unenthusiastic about lay ministers" (Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, Evolving Visions of the Priesthood [Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003], 51–52). This makes collaboration harder and, especially as more priests are becoming pastors at a younger age, adds to the instability of the life of parish ministers. Research has shown and the bishops have confirmed the sense of vocation with which lay ministers approach their work (see Murnion and DeLambo; DeLambo; Co-Workers), but too often they are treated more as hirelings than as shepherds (see Jn 10:12–13). When individuals, both staff and volunteers, have labored long and faithfully in a particular area of ministry, the loss of that dimension of their lives causes considerable suffering to them and to all in ministry. Such loss also represents a certain squandering of the treasure of the church: her human resources.

A second challenge concerns lay ecclesial ministers, whose livelihood is tied to their ministry. Everyone knows the anecdotal stories: a new pastor comes to a parish, and before long the whole staff is fired. Such incidents have been occurring for 40 years. Today we also note that some dioceses have changed their focus from seeing the hiring of lay ministers as desirable to a preference for replacing them with deacons. Certainly, lay ecclesial ministers are feeling more insecure today than ever. A sober context for pondering this is the emergence of the role of the DRE/DCE (director of religious education/director of Christian education) in Protestant congregations. This profession was born between 1910 and 1930; it increased twenty-fold in the first 15 years. But in 1929, shifts in theology and a desire to hire ordained persons for all parish roles led one commentator to say that "it is proper to inquire whether young men and women should be advised to prepare for a field the future of which seems to be so much in doubt."7

The primary challenges for lay ministers today can be summarized in the light of our faith: to work collaboratively, with charity for all, even when it is difficult; to live in hope that God will advance the kingdom despite all the good work that is allowed to languish; to walk forward in faith, however uncertain the future, confident that God leads us on the journey.


1. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing Company), 1984. All references to Vatican II documents are to this edition.

2. Although almost no dioceses officially install lectors and acolytes, the openness to laity serving in these roles was certainly furthered by Pope Paul VI's Ministeria Quaedam.

3. For a fuller exploration of these themes, see Zeni Fox, New Ecclesial Ministry: Lay Professionals Serving the Church (Chicago: Sheed and Ward, 2002), 76–185.

4. Philip Murnion and David DeLambo, Parishes and Parish Ministers: A Study of Parish Lay Ministry (New York: National Pastoral Life Center, 1999), 22; DeLambo, Lay Parish Ministers: A Study of Emerging Leadership (New York: National Pastoral Life Center, 2005). Counting lay ecclesial ministers is difficult because there is no definitive delineation of who is a lay ecclesial minister; the designation is applied in a variety of ways. The Center for Applied Research for the Apostolate reports that from 2004 until the present, the number of lay ecclesial ministers had been approximately 18,000 each year ("Catholic Ministry Formation: Statistical Overview, 2010–2011," accessed June 27, 2011,

5. For a fuller exploration of these themes, see Fox, "An Unfolding Reality Affects All Systems" and "Seeking Vessels for New Wine," Initiative Report (newsletter of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative) (March and June 2005).

6. One example of such an effort is the Collegeville Ministry Seminar II, and the related Collegeville Symposium 2011, sponsored by St. John's School of Theology Seminary, Collegeville, Minn. Papers from the seminar will be published by Liturgical Press, along with key themes identified by symposium participants.

7. George Herbert Betts, addressing the Board of Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Evanston, Ill., cited in James V. Thompson, Religious Education as a Vocation, 522, cited in Dorothy Jean Furnish, DRE/DCE: The History of a Profession (Nashville, Tenn.: The United Methodist Church, 1976), 29, 37. ML

Zeni Fox has a doctorate degree in theology from Fordham University. A professor of pastoral theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall University, she is the author of New Ecclesial Ministry: Lay Professionals Serving the Church (2002), editor of Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Future (2010), and coeditor of Called and Chosen: Toward a Spirituality for Lay Leaders (2005).

Featured in the November 2011 issue of Ministry & Liturgy