The National Catholic Review
Virginia Sullivan Finn
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A silver anniversary is evocative of endurance along (one hopes) with bearing fruit, bonding and blessings. Such evocations and reminiscences came to mind this year on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the National Association for Lay Ministry, a Catholic organization in which I was active for over a decade.

In the mid-1970’s, 20 believers came together in Philadelphia for conversation on lay ministry. A gestation period followed that included meetings in Dallas and Chicago, culminating in a 1980 gathering of 120 participants (lay leaders, women religious and clergy) at Trinity College in Washington D.C., from which emerged the National Association of Lay Ministry Coordinators.

As an M.Div. graduate with training in spiritual direction, I had been a campus minister and was leading parish workshops on the spiritual dimension of lay ministry. Not every parishioner embraced this new development of service within the church: “Don’t use the word minister when you talk about me. I’m just lending a hand to Father Shea because he’s overworked.” An introduction by a pastor startled me: “Virginia...that is Mrs. Finn...is leading the spiritual workshop for the bouncers. Excuse me, for the ushers. Or do we call them greeters? It’s tough with all the changes these days.”

The remark about the bouncers was what led me away from my family and out to the 1982 N.A.L.M.C. conference at Regis College (now Regis University) in Denver. Two memories remain from that event. One was of a large, sunny room with over 100 people—lay believers, priests and women religious—all attentive and engaged in intense open dialogue about lay ministry. I suddenly knew that I was no longer a solitary boundary-dweller within the church.

Later, in the Regis College dorm, I contemplated the colors of the distant Rocky Mountains as they shifted from gray to blue to purple as if the rock formations were alive. Though I did not know it, I was embarking on a long voyage in a vessel that shifted, like the Rockies’ colors, between benign and daunting currents.

To deny the value of lay leadership in ministry was more difficult after the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published Called and Gifted: Catholic Laity (1980), which declared, “We welcome this gift to the church.” Episcopal endorsement, along with the heady freedom the association’s lay members had felt in Denver, enabled them to advocate in 1984 at their conference in Boston a change of name to the National Association for Lay Ministry. Its primary goal was to “be a representative voice of lay ministers, helping their experience to further the eventual transformation of Church structures and ministries.” By the following year, 384 members belonged to N.A.L.M., which often has included on its executive board clergy and women religious and has alternated its head position, chair of the board, between women and men. The conference in St. Paul in 1986 urged the bishops to empower women in ministry and to insure the availability of Eucharist.

Reaching Beyond Boundaries

Through the 1980’s the boisterous spirit and cutting-edge sensibility of the Boston conference, along with lay ministry growth countrywide, led to creativity and to collaboration with other national organizations. The National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, was especially supportive of the fledgling lay ministry organization.

With 20 other Catholic organizations, N.A.L.M. planned “Synod’ 87 Conference: An American Gathering of Lay Leadership,” to be held in Rome in October 1987 as a gesture of solidarity with the Synod of Bishops on the Laity. Leaders of the association were surprised when 250 pilgrims signed on, and again, on arrival in Rome, when welcome mats seemed in short supply. At initial meetings with clergy from Rome, it was strongly suggested that we not act too American. What did that mean—modesty in dress at St. Peter’s or muting voices in Vatican offices?

On the first morning of our daily seminars, an Irish journalist whispered in my ear, “I hear your troops are out to hijack the synod.”

The idea seemed so far-fetched, I wondered whether to laugh or to accuse him of paranoia. Later, when asked what cardinal had given permission for our synod journey, we replied, “We never thought of asking for permission.”

“That’s so American!” was the rejoinder, one that brought to my mind an image of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” portrait of a New Englander speaking up at a town meeting.

But when Pope John Paul II welcomed the group, there were welcome mats everywhere we American pilgrims went, visiting Curia offices, meeting bishops from back home, attending panels of international lay speakers. We savored the sublimity and faith of the ancient city.

Initiating Research

In the late 1980’s much-needed grants—particularly from the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities—came to the association for research on grass-roots laypeople as well as lay ministers.

To me, the crux of the contemporary situation was: a) whether, through lay ministry, the church was increasing by thousands the number of service workers for tasks not requiring ordination or b) whether the church was truly embracing within its ministerial leadership vibrant Catholic lay believers called by God. Hoping the latter might be the case, I aligned myself with N.A.L.M.’s Spirituality Task Force’s grant-supported projects.

But how should we enter unexplored territory without a map? The initial project of the task force was therefore to engage a dozen “spiritual cartographers” to reflect on the responses to three fundamental questions asked both of lay members of N.A.L.M. and of lay persons who were not in ecclesial ministry: 1) Describe what happened in an event in which you experienced God. 2) What meaning does this event have for you? 3) How has this affected your life?

No significant differences were noted between the groups. Our consultants reported: “What emerged with particular strength was religious experience rooted in the circumstance of ongoing life experience. People met God in the strangest, most unexpected and wonderful ways. Our theological doctrine that God is everywhere received such lovely proof.”

Some contexts for the encounter with God were stressful, like selling one’s house or losing one’s job or the death of a parent. Others were peaceful, like being with friends or walking through a Christmas tree farm. In spite of the striking variety, both the meaning and the fruit of the experience revealed common ground. Discovering God’s availability in an unexpected way had an irreplaceable, positive impact on the vibrancy of the respondents’ faith and lives.

The second project gave members of the association a way to speak about their own spiritual practices. A detailed questionnaire, designed with help from a professional researcher, was sent to all N.A.L.M. members. The high rate of response (56 percent) indicated, once more, diversity of spiritual practices. One common complaint was that, although respondents desired spiritual direction and retreats, too few had the opportunity owing to lack of encouragement in their ecclesial setting, lack of funds and lack of time.

In the third phase of the research, 16 adult laypeople not engaged in ecclesial ministry were recommended by pastors for individual in-depth interviews on their spiritual practices and sense of mission. Conducted anonymously and transcribed from tapes to typed texts, the interviews were studied for commentary by 18 consultants.

Again the diversity of spirituality was striking—from being ‘slain in the Spirit’ to having a near-death experience, from founding a soup kitchen to discovering liturgical dance as the way to meet God.

Will lay ecclesial ministers stay the course? A simultaneous project, the N.A.L.M. Longevity Study, revealed that the “item which had the strongest ability to predict future employment of lay ministers was commitment to vocation as distinct from work or job.” In other words, the significance of calling, a spiritual dimension of ministry, predicted commitment to ministry. The second predictor was the collaborative atmosphere within the ecclesial setting where one ministered. Acceptance and affirmation were key.

Meanwhile...

Through the 1980’s and the early 1990’s the association became a circuit rider as its national office shifted from Cleveland to Colorado to Arizona to Minnesota to Chicago, while its board members, scattered around the country, were often engaged in local ministries that absorbed 50 hours a week. More and more the association identified its purpose as advocacy and support for professional lay ministers. This mirrored what was happening throughout the church: a) diocesan training programs for lay adults prior to and during their ministerial service and b) graduate offerings of theological degrees for lay believers responding to a vocational call.

By the turn of the millennium, the number of priests serving the average parish had fallen by 28 percent compared with 1982, and the number of vowed religious in parish service had shrunk by 33 percent, as had deacons. In less than two decades the number of lay ministers had soared by 54 percent and the number of parishes with at least one compensated lay minister had grown from 30 percent to 68 percent.

In the 1990’s the association was ready to shift into a more pronounced professional direction by conducting research on competency-based standards for ministry and on diocesan certification programs.

How “Vitality, Voice, and Vision,” the motto of N.A.L.M., might be enhanced by certification requirements was problematic for some members who perceived it as blunting the earlier thrust of advocacy and creativity. Others felt that the explosion of lay ecclesial ministers and lay ministries, along with marked variations in preparation across the country, called for research and for proposals regarding competency and certification.

The Silver Anniversary Year

Like the gradations in colors on the Rockies that I remembered from my first conference, the shades and tones of the association of lay ecclesial ministers keep shifting. Its 25-year history offers a synopsis of broader church trends.

The N.A.L.M. gathering near Baltimore, Md., at the end of May this year featured several speakers from the N.C.C.B. and the U.S. Catholic Conference, the latter having recently given the association $57,000 in grant support. This is a partial indication of the degree of support given by the American bishops to N.A.L.M. and lay ministry. The six paragraphs devoted to ecclesial lay ministry in 1980 expanded to over a page in the 1995 N.C.C.B. document, Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium, which urged gratitude: “Indeed, the pastoral needs of this moment are being ably and generously served by many kinds of ecclesial lay ministers.”

Most recently Lay Ecclesial Ministry (1999), published by the Subcommittee on Lay Ministry of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Laity in collaboration with leaders from N.A.L.M., declared: “All ministry serves the mission of Christ....The baptized share this mission and share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal office.... Lay ecclesial ministry is a gift of the Spirit to the church. The experience of the last thirty-five years can be seen as the grace-filled work of the Spirit.... Special charisms of the Holy Spirit, which flow from the sacraments of initiation, equip lay ecclesial ministers for their special tasks within the Church.”

Twenty-five years ago, few of us had an inkling that the waters into which we tentatively dipped our toes would become a tidal wave. We surely did not foresee the figures reported last year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: 26,000 lay ecclesial ministers (in parish ministry alone) with 31,168 in preparation through diocesan formation programs—compared to 34,500 active priests nationally.

Welcome mats are certainly more numerous in the United States for lay ministry than a quarter century ago, when it was considered an anomaly. If the “bouncers” have vanished, have we ushered in a New Deal or a New Pentecost?

For some, cadres of lay ministers are still nearly invisible. The more appropriate model is the New Deal. An institutionalized ministerial civil service may be in the making, if lay ministers and their clerical collaborators fail to recognize vocational calling and to facilitate a spiritual depth that enables empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

Others see subtle signs of a new Pentecost. At the first Pentecost discernment was needed between drunkenness and diversity. Were the vitality and talents of the earliest disciples the result of the outpouring of wine or the outpouring of God’s Spirit? The testing today comes when fruit is enabled by the Spirit, in this instance through the ministerial leadership of lay women and men. As that enlivens the church, those who may see even themselves as no more than loaves and fishes will witness a transforming superabundance through the love and power of the Holy Spirit. The institutional church may then be humble and honest enough to proclaim a New Pentecost through the vibrancy of faith and mission of those whom it designates as “lay.”

Virginia Sullivan Finn has served on the National Association for Lay Ministry executive board as a member and as chairperson. At the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., she taught the practicum in spiritual direction and coordina