The National Catholic Review
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Katie graduated from college last year with a degree in elementary education. Her degree did not include any college theology courses, but she had volunteered in parish ministry for a year or two while she was in college. After graduation Katie was hired as a lay ecclesial minister (youth ministry coordinator) in a parish in central Minnesota. The parish would have preferred to hire a candidate with a strong background in theology or ministry, but not a single candidate who applied had a degree in theology.

The parish felt fortunate to find Katie. She is a vibrant, talented and faithful young woman. As part of their hiring agreement, however, they stipulated that Katie start taking theology courses. The parish was near a Catholic college and was fortunate to be in a diocese with a strong ministry formation program that offered theology courses for academic credit.

Katie’s situation is becoming common as more parishes begin hiring people for professional ministry positions. There simply are not enough people who have been adequately prepared theologically and pastorally. In central Minnesota, the last five full-time youth ministry coordinators who were hired for these positions by parishes had completed no college or graduate-level theology courses.

This situation points up a question church leaders have been struggling with for some time: What knowledge, skills, and formation should a fully competent lay ecclesial ministerial leader possess?

What Is a Lay Ecclesial Minister?

The term lay ecclesial minister refers to lay people with job titles like pastoral associate, youth ministry coordinator, director of religious education or parish life coordinator. Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State of the Questions: A Report of the Subcommittee on Lay Ministry, published by the United States Catholic Conference in 1999, established the following criteria for understanding the term lay ecclesial minister:

a fully initiated lay member of the Christian faithful (including vowed religious) who is responding to the empowerment and gifts of the Holy Spirit received in baptism and confirmation, which enable one to share in some form of ministry;

one who has received the necessary formation, education and training to function competently within the given area of ministry;

one who intentionally brings personal competencies and gifts to serve the church’s mission through a specific ministry of ecclesial leadership and who does so with community recognition and support;

one to whom a formal and public role in ministry has been entrusted or upon whom an office has been conferred by competent ecclesiastical authority.

A lay ecclesial minister is typically a paid parish staff person (full time or part time) or a volunteer who has responsibility and the necessary authority for institutional leadership in a particular area of ministry.

The Common Competency Project

To respond to the question of what knowledge, skills and formation will insure competence for lay ecclesial ministers, three national Catholic ministry organizations established the Common Competency Project. The National Association of Lay Ministers, the National Conference of Catechetical Leaders and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministers invested more than $40,000 and three years of work to create common certification standards and competencies for lay ecclesial ministers. Each organization also submitted descriptions of specialized competencies, identifying the knowledge and skills needed specifically by youth ministry leaders, catechetical leaders, pastoral associates, parish life coordinators and pastoral administrators. On March 29, 2003, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission on Certification and Accreditation approved these common and specialized standards.

What is a fully competent lay ecclesial minister? These certification standards and competencies are not the final words on this question. Nonetheless, they are significant because they grew out of the lived experience of lay ecclesial ministers. Catholic colleges and universities who are also key stakeholders in educating, forming and training lay ecclesial ministers also helped shape these standards. It is the hope of the N.A.L.M., N.C.C.L. and N.F.C.Y.M. that these certification standards take on national significance and become common practice across dioceses.

1. A lay ecclesial minister demonstrates personal and spiritual maturity in ministry with the people of God.

2. A lay ecclesial minister identifies the call to formal and public ministry as a vocation rooted in baptism.

3. A lay ecclesial minister integrates knowledge of Roman Catholic faith within ministry.

4. A lay ecclesial minister engages in pastoral activity that promotes evangelization, faith formation, community and pastoral care with sensitivity to diverse situations.

5. A lay ecclesial minister provides effective leadership, administration and service in the spirit of collaboration.

The Benefits of Certification

One of the direct benefits of the certification movement is the establishment of education and formation norms for lay ministers. Parishes hiring lay ecclesial ministers will benefit by having nationally recognized standards to assess their candidate’s education and formation. Instead of simply relying on someone’s opinion about what a candidate’s educational background and skills should be, the certification standards present a nationally constructed grass-roots view of ministerial competence. Similarly, the standards can also support the development of more competency in the ministers who are already employed. They can be used by supervisors to help lay ministers engage in lifelong learning. They can also be used to help lay ministers, parishes, dioceses and even universities identify and prioritize curricular areas for ongoing education and formation.

A very important indirect benefit of the certification movement will be the promotion of a culture of lifelong learning among lay ministers. This may be more important than the actual certification of lay ecclesial ministers. The literal meaning of Christian disciple is a learner, pupil or a lifelong apprentice in the faith. The church needs lay leaders who are disciples of Jesus Christ and committed to a lifelong apprenticeship of learning and formation. The certification movement is promoting the idea that to do ministry well, one must be committed to ongoing education and formation. This is sometimes a difficult ideal to realize as parishes face budget shortfalls. Continuing education budgets are the first to be cut.

A final benefit of the certification movement is that it advances a theological articulation of lay ecclesial ministry as a distinctive and authentic call to service of the community. While the standards address the practical matter of professional competence, they have their roots in the theology of baptism and the call to discipleship. Lay ecclesial ministry is not something one does while waiting for her or his real career to appear. It is a response to a deep call from God to place one’s gifts at the service of the Gospel and the building up of communities of faith. Lay ecclesial ministers commonly identify this call as vocation. It appears a new vocation is emerging in the life of the church.

The common certification standards for lay ecclesial ministers provide an opportunity for diocesan offices to collaborate on education and training. Too often diocesan offices for faith formation, youth ministry, liturgy and pastoral ministry offer educational workshops only for parish ministers within their particular field. These common certification standards present an opportunity for diocesan offices to talk to one another about jointly sponsoring workshops and educational sessions.

The certification standards are also helpful to universities where one of the realities of university life is the ongoing review and assessment of curriculum for accreditation. The theology department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, for example, recently used the certification standards to assess their theological curriculum for their concentration in pastoral ministry. The certification standards and competencies helped the department identify gaps in their curriculum. Standards number one and two also fostered conversation about the responsibility of the theology department to offer programs for vocational awareness and ministry formation for students.

Imagining a Revitalized Ministry

The impact of the certification movement could be significant for lay ecclesial ministers, dioceses, theology departments in Catholic colleges, parishes and even for parishioners themselves. Imagine a church committed to an educated and well-formed cadre of lay ministers. Imagine dioceses and Catholic colleges working together to educate and form lay leaders. Imagine creating a culture of lifelong learning among pastoral leaders. The certification movement contains the promise of revitalizing ministerial leadership for the sake of the Gospel and the renewal of the mission of the church.

Jeffrey Kaster is director of the Youth in Theology and Ministry program at Saint John’s School of Theology, Collegeville, Minn., where he is also an adjunct professor of theology. He was the editor of the Parish Faith Formation Assessment