Words are a risky business. They often fail at the heights of love and the depths of grief. Yet words can move mountains, and good conversation can lead to conversion of heart and habits—if we take the risk to speak truthfully and to listen with care.
Recently I took part in just such a truth-seeking conversation when I attended the 2011 Collegeville National Symposium on Lay Ecclesial Ministry (www.lemsymposium.org). The purpose of the gathering was to advance the national conversation about laity taking on professional ministerial roles, which has become increasingly common in the U.S. church since the Second Vatican Council.
Specifically, presenters and participants reflected together on the discernment of a vocation to lay ecclesial ministry and how effective leadership from the hierarchy can support and authorize people with such a vocation. We attempted to flesh out general principles laid out in “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” the U.S. bishops’ 2005 document about lay ecclesial ministry.
The 230 participants were academics and in-the-trenches ministers—men and women, clergy, laypeople and religious—of widely varying ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and theological persuasions. Despite the potential divisiveness of such diversity, there was overall agreement on the importance of lay ecclesial ministry in an age when demographic, technological and cultural changes pose tough challenges to parish life. Lay ministers, said the sociologist Nancy Ammerman of Boston University, are essential for helping the church deliver social services, build social capital, teach civic skills and, most important, foster nurturing relationships and Christian identity.
Much conversation centered around eight theological statements about lay ecclesial ministry that were presented, discussed, revised and ultimately accepted by an overwhelming majority of those present. These points affirmed lay ecclesial ministry as a genuine ministerial vocation: inspired by the Holy Spirit, rooted in baptism and discerned within the ecclesial community. Formed for and exercising distinctive leadership roles in the church, lay ecclesial ministers serve publicly in the church’s name, with the authorization of their bishop, having been recognized and empowered for their ministry by a public ritual. Their presence calls the church to provide supportive structures and policies to foster their ministry.
A cynic might dismiss such a gathering as “a chase after wind” (to borrow a phrase from Qoheleth), a self-selected group of already-converted people filling a large room with a lot of talk. My impression, however, was not of wind-chasing or hot air but of truth-telling and careful listening that led to mutual inspiration and challenge. And the words of the Collegeville symposium will ripple outward: a report to the U.S. bishops, a forthcoming book of related essays, concrete action-item commitments from all 43 co-sponsoring organizations and 86 specific recommendations to advance lay ecclesial ministry. A grant program will fund further research and ministerial projects.
The ultimate proving ground of such a national symposium is, of course, the local diocese and parish. Most bishops and priests are aware of what would advance lay ecclesial ministry. Most have good will to do so, and many have supportive policies and programs in place. But for others, these concerns take a back seat to dealing with sexual abuse scandals, faltering finances, struggling schools, a shortage of priests and day-to-day ministry responsibilities.
Nonetheless, I believe that conversations like the Collegeville symposium will eventually effect substantial change (even if in fits and starts) as more bishops and priests recognize lay ministers as able partners who lighten the yoke of pastoral service. And echoing Bishop Blase Cupich’s closing address to the symposium, I hope that while national conversations continue, the thousands of astoundingly patient lay ecclesial ministers will continue their daily trailblazing work to meet the needs of God’s people. Their ministry led to these conversations, after all, and their ministry calls the hierarchy to listen and to lead—or else risk missing the movement of the Spirit in the signs of the times.