Viewpoint: Lay Ecclesial Ministry Programs Need Careful Implementation

by M. Francis Mannion

Lay ecclesial ministry programs are a significant development in the Catholic Church in the U.S. Candidates are proposed by the pastor, trained by the diocese, installed by the bishop, and officially designated as lay ecclesial ministers. Lay ecclesial ministry is still in the early stages of implementation and, understandably, exhibits some growing pains. Among these are a lack of clarity about this ministry and some exorbitant claims made for it.

It is, for instance, held that lay service is new to Catholicism. Despite popular opinion, there has existed from the first days of Christianity laity who were active in building up the life of the Church. The ways in which laity have been successful in the development of the Church have varied greatly over the centuries. There has always been some recognition that Baptism calls every man and woman to serve the building up of the Kingdom of God – whether by work within the Church or in the everyday circumstances of earning a living, raising a family, or serving the common good.

Since Vatican II, the role of the laity has been given new emphasis. In parishes and dioceses, there are numerous people at work in service of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the advancement of justice and charity. This is an outstanding fruit of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Second Vatican Council.

However, one of the dangers involved in the designation of certain people as “lay ecclesial ministers” is that an elite could be created in the Church which would add a further layer to the distinction between clergy and laity. So I ask: Are not all lay ministers lay ecclesial ministers? Is not the parish DRE who has served in her role for 20 years automatically a lay ecclesial minister? What about the diocesan director of evangelization or the lay parish administrator? And why does the Bishop install lay ecclesial ministers and not other ministers? There needs to be further clarity on these matters.

One should see the lay ecclesial ministry movement for what it is: one more initiative since the Second Vatican Council to involve the laity more fully in the work of the Church and its mission in society.

An article in a Catholic publication some time ago described lay ecclesial ministry as “radically new.” But anything that is radically new stands in discontinuity with the history of the Church and is not in accord with how the Church develops.

The same article went on to say that the rise of lay ecclesial ministry will eventually eclipse the rise of monasticism in the fifth century, the birth of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century, and the explosion of religious orders after the Council of Trent—especially in the 19th century.

This is what I mean by an exorbitant claim. If lay ecclesial ministry sees itself as replacing traditional ministries and orders in the Church, then surely it has gone too far, and is bound to be a disruptive influence.

The Church needs every baptized man and woman be of service in some way to the life of the parish and active for the good of society. What the Church does not need is a special elite body of laity which marginalizes the gifts and charisms of the ordinary believer and clutters up the traditional order of the Church with claims to special status and authority.

Can lay ecclesial ministry be modified to survive the kind of critique I am offering here? I believe it can.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. I am a bit surprised that the good Monsignor didn’t make mention of the USCCB’s 2005 publication, “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.” It is available in both English and Spanish.


    It has served many in the establishment of diocesan training programs and certification requirements.

  2. If I didn’t already have so much to do, today, I would glady respond more fully to this article. In the forty five plus years as a “lay” liturgical minister both as a volunteer and salaried , I have heard so many mixed messages about the value of what I bring to Catholic parish life and the message of the Gospel. I am drawn to the concept of lay ecclesial ministry with the hope of some kind of validation for those of us who serve the Catholic Church in response to a call from God to serve in a manner similar to but not to replace other religious vocations and who recogonize the appropriate authority of the local Bishop.

    This article does give the reader words to ponder.

  3. I would like to see a link to the referenced article. A few random, possibly interrelated thoughts:
    – I think there is indeed some danger of elitism. Some of my colleagues have taken inspiration from clergy rather than from the example of the Lord.
    – I think the role’s earliest antecedent is the diaconate of Acts.
    – More recently, preconciliar lay ministers served in this country as music directors and educators, meaning …
    – Many of the pre-Vatican II lay ministers were women. The institution hasn’t completely sorted out its own feelings with regard to women in ministry.
    – I don’t get the need for training programs separate from graduate schools or seminaries. I financed and earned my own degree.
    – I think we should look at installation by a bishop more carefully from both sides. How is that different from a call to permanent service in Holy Orders? And if it’s just a signature on a document for a person who can be fired at will, what good is it?
    – In other words, I’d certainly be willing to trade a measure of diocesan stability on my part in return for a more concrete commitment on the part of the institution. Since nobody’s ever offered, I certainly feel free to move where I’m called by parish communities, not a diocese.
    – I’m also surprised by no mention of Co-Workers. That has to be the starting point for any discussion, not installation, schoolks, programs, or whatnot.
    – I think we could also look at the notion of “ministry.” Some clergy have wrung hands over applying it to me and my colleagues. Why? My sense is that some clergy do not serve in ministry as it is defined, and some unpaid laypeople certainly are ministers.

    Overall, good discussion starter.

  4. “What the Church does not need is a special elite body of laity which marginalizes the gifts and charisms of the ordinary believer and clutters up the traditional order of the Church with claims to special status and authority.”

    It’s been a few years since I’ve read “Co-Workers,” and to be honest, I haven’t heard a word about Lay Ecclesial Ministry in my current neck of the woods. I remember, however, conversations at the time the promulgation of Co-Workers and the preceding period of consultation, that designation as a Lay Ecclesial Minister would be tied to “recognition” by a bishop. A priest canon lawyer with whom I worked was convinced this was a mistake, and that the basis for Lay Ecclesial Ministry rooted in baptism was already laid in the regular instituted ministries established by “Ministeria quaedam.” The possibility of “testing” MQ by the proposal of other regular instituted ministries open to the laity (and perhaps revisiting the question of gender in those those that currently exist) may be a better way forward on this front.

    I wonder if Monsignor Mannion (and others) would like to comment on this in light of the quotation above.

  5. “Are not all lay ministers lay ecclesial ministers?”

    No. Though all those you list, are. But the volunteer catechist, the reader, the acolyte, the soup kitchen volutneer, et al are ministries of the laity, but not ecclesial.

    This fear of the “clericalisation of the laity” has gotten out of hand. The tradition of the church is to regulate and recognize vocations, not to ignore them generation after generation. A distinction between those who have theological education, vocational calling, episcopal appointment, and lifetime (or at least full time) commitment and those who exercise their lay apostolate in some way hurts no one. Lumping them all in the same category as though it is the vocation of the 30 year veteran of pastoral ministry to “live in the secular world” is just sticking one’s head in the sand.

    Other points are well worth considering, but lets not conflate and confuse a valid distinction… if clericalization is a fear, it is the clericalization of clergy that needs to be addressed, not that of the laity.

    1. @Andrew Boyd:
      Thank you for pointing out that the Church always must strive to recognize and integrate vocations given by God for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ, rather than ignoring them generation after generation. I would also add that a measure of institutional sponsorship is an aspect of justice, which includes financial planning as well as a “place at the table” in organizational structures.

      It seems to me a great deal of the “clericalization” which is being fearfully imagined as a dire danger for lay ecclesial ministers is exaggerated. It is a suspicious circumstance when at the same time we ignore and do absolutely nothing to combat the clericalism rife within the ministerial priesthood. We do less than nothing, in fact, because clericalism is actively encouraged among priesthood candidates by the kind of formation they receive. In subtle and obvious ways how they are treated reinforces the ideology that says they stand apart from and above the laity. Perversely the message is given that their “holiness” and “service” demand that they answer to no one, and hold themselves above and aloof from the needs of the people of God, and protect their own. That’s clericalism, and it’s rampant.

      I take Monsignor’s concerns as sincere. But beneath the anxiety of MANY over “clericalization” of the laity, is fear that someone is cutting in on the priest’s turf. Their egos demand that they can hire and fire at will, for any reason at all, and they treat those in their employ as hirelings, not colleagues or co-workers in a shared mission. It’s a scandal, the things I have seen and heard done by Catholic pastors to their lay ministerial co-workers. An absolute scandal, and abusive. They break no civil laws, but are merely demeaning and cruel. A solid measure of institutionalization is needed to ensure justice, fairness, and even respect for lay ministers — to counteract this kind of truly “clericalist” behavior in our churches.

  6. I would agree with Bari’s comment about the lack of reference in the post to Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. Sad; however, I am not surprised because, in my experience, this is not a well-known resource, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015.
    We are certainly at a cross-roads in regard to both the understanding of Lay Ecclesial Ministry in general, and the resistance toward it. The fact remains – for many people, “professional” ministry in the Church is a vocation within a vocation. Those lay women and men who are educated, and make ministry their life’s work and serve with authority “in the name of the Church.” Much education still needs to be done in regard to a collaborative vision for parish ministry where lay men and women serve in relationship with the clergy.
    There are so many fine resources available on the topic – Edward Hahnenberg and Zeni Fox to name a few!

  7. The two priests I have most admired in my life never emphasized their titles or education. My late high school Latin teacher studied at Fribourg in the 1950s. He briefly mentioned his education a few times, and only to poke light fun at the corny Latin jokes his professors would tell. He was known as the batty old priest who would walk the hallways, always saying the rosary or reading the office. I am sure there is a place for him at Abraham’s bosom.

    I was privileged to study at Fordham while Cardinal Dulles was still alive. Were it not for the crimson zucchetto he carried in his briefcase, it would be difficult to tell him apart from the other Jesuits. He could have trumpeted that he was a prince of the Church. Quite the opposite. I remember once timidly approaching him to ask for a favor. He gave me the number to his direct line.

    When people balk at the “clericalization of the laity”, I doubt that most disapprove of or do not appreciate the work of the laity in parishes. Rather, a small number of religious education directors, musical directors, liturgists etc. appear self-important in the eyes of some parishioners. It’s important for all the laity to look at the example of clergy who could have played up their education or hierarchical distinction. Instead, these clergy decided to remain humble and serve God’s people quietly, one as a teacher and one as a professor. I don’t approve of people who disparage laity with positions in parishes. Maybe all of us need to stand back at some point in our lives and re-evaluate our humility.

  8. The earliest lay minister of whom I am aware is Jesus of Nazareth, who was not a member of the priestly tribe of Levi and who laid no claim to priesthood (though he did have a special calling and identity, granted, and the image of high priest was assigned to him by the Letter to the Hebrews). Most of his disciples were also not priests and made no claim to a clerical identity or to a new form of Temple priesthood. In other words, the early Church was essentially a lay movement (in fact, initially a breakaway movement from the lay movement of Pharisees in Judaism). It was not really until well after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the Church began to apply priestly language to a leadership which, until then, had been described in categories of lay leadership: overseer (episkopos), elder (presbyteros), and assistant (diakonos).

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