Educating the Laity for Leadership

By Hiesberger, Jean Marie | The Catholic World, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Educating the Laity for Leadership


Hiesberger, Jean Marie, The Catholic World


Leadership is on many people's minds today: in society, in business and in the church. New winds are in the air regarding leadership in society with more being known today than ever before about what good leadership is and how to foster it. Businesses are seriously reexamining their leadership styles and finding new and more effective means of attaining their collective mission.

Certainly we are at a watershed time in leadership in the church. Several factors are creating this: theology, numbers of clergy and religious and the raised expectations of the laity regarding leadership. The sacramental theology and ecclesiology of Vatican Council II has had a great impact. Increasingly it has brought the laity to a recognition that their baptismal responsibility to and ownership of the church calls them to active leadership. This was strongly affirmed by the U.S. bishops in their document, Called and Gifted, which challenged the laity to hear God's call and to use their god-given gifts for the community.

The near-critical situation with regard to numbers of priests available now and in the near future is well known. Many home mission dioceses currently face the "numbers crisis." But this situation is on the doorstep of the urban church as well. One of the most dramatic pictures of this was painted by Tim Unsworth in National Catholic Reporter when he stated that when Cardinal Bernardin retires, one half of Chicago's priests will be over 70 and 12% will be under 35. This situation, coupled with the raised expectations of priests by parishioners, can and increasingly does create exhaustion and discouragement for clergy. All of these factors impact the leadership needs we experience in the church today and, even more critically, tomorrow.

Many realize that we cannot afford to leave the leadership of tomorrow's church to chance. The responsibility of those in leadership today is to actively and generously provide for tomorrow with an abundance of qualified and trained leaders. We cannot leave leadership development to seminaries or religious communities alone, because the church of tomorrow will be very different. It will have lay leaders also. Our choice is to let this happen by default or to responsibly prepare ourselves today for the kind of leadership the church needs and deserves-competent and prepared.

This means selecting and training laity as well as clergy for leadership. This shift brings with it new demands and challenges. It calls for a leadership that is more open to all; more capable of visioning and less confined by rank, sex, and status; more focused on talent in the community relative to the mission to be attained. It requires being willing to look at charism and the willingness to serve as principal criteria for leadership positions.

Leadership and ministry are not identical but they share a number of things in common. One is that both are always exercised in a context or specific situation and the context affects how they are carried out. Both good leadership and good ministry change and adapt to the situation. Students of leadership theory know that while the role and purpose of leadership per se remains the same, leadership is always situational. Likewise, as Thomas O'Meara reminds us in Theology of Ministry,(1) ministry too, is a living organism. Its style must adapt and change within a specific situation. Throughout history, ministry has always been shaped by time and place. And in our own historical moment we find enormous diversity from culture to culture and from one pastoral setting to another. Ministry must look for different forms and different kinds of leadership.

African and Latin American countries paint pictures of parishes with 30,000 parishioners utilizing variations of lay leadership unfamiliar to many parts of the church; some small towns in our own country witness vibrant parish communities of as few as forty families. Ministry must adapt to the context. …

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