Follow the Laity: Lay Ministry Is Here to Stay, Says This Theologian. but There Are Growing Pains Still to Come

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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 "dericalization" 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. …