Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry. Since 1987, representatives from the association’s almost 50 member schools have discussed issues related to Catholic and ecumenical theology and ministry formation. While support for lay ecclesial ministry is a primary focus of A.G.P.I.M., at this year’s meeting we reflected on the growing prominence of ministry in nonecclesial settings.
A series of panel discussions provided a sense of what wide-ranging ministry the Spirit inspires beyond the boundaries of parish and diocese. One panelist, who retired early from a high-profile career in the United States Foreign Service, sought out coursework in theology and spirituality and founded an ecumenical spiritual care center. A Vanderbilt University Law School professor earned a master’s in pastoral studies and advocates for low-income indigent women who have suffered abuse. Another woman does pro bono rural development work in her poor, sparsely populated corner of Missouri, including free business consulting services for rural entrepre-neurs.
One theologically educated young man founded a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in a run-down, violent neighborhood of Erie, Pa. Another man works in a Catholic health care system, helping the organization transfer leadership responsibilities away from the founding women religious while retaining its Catholic identity.
In many ways, these think-outside-the-box ministries reflect new, creative responses to local and global needs. But they also have deep roots in church history, especially in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and in subsequent reflections on the role of the laity in the church’s one mission and many ministries. “The laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ,” according to the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” “penetrating and perfecting…the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel” (No. 2). The United States Catholic bishops have written of the need for “a well-educated, inquiring, and vocal laity,” pursuing holiness, community, mission and ministry, and Christian maturity (“Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium”). Pope John Paul II, echoing Pope Pius XII before him, insisted that the laypeople are “the front lines of the Church’s life” (“Christifideles Laici,” No. 9).
Laypeople on the front lines need training and support. This presents a challenging invitation to theological schools and other formation programs. Ministers in nonecclesial settings require creative and visionary formation for which, at this point, church documents provide only general guidelines.
Clear enough is the need to provide students with solid theological knowledge, a strong sense of Catholic identity and values and the well-rounded human, spiritual and pastoral formation called for in the United States bishops’ recent document on lay ecclesial ministry, “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.”
Beyond this, however, formation programs must begin to explore how they might develop students’ entrepreneurial talents, leadership, creative problem-solving, transitional skills and ability to form networks and community. In many cases, cross-disciplinary programs can provide additional, field-specific knowledge.
Since they will often work for little or even no pay, students need reasonable tuition and generous financial aid. They need job placement assistance after graduation and ongoing support through continuing education offerings, retreats and alumni networking and mentoring. Almost all of this would apply to—and greatly benefit—lay ecclesial ministers as well.
Laypeople doing front-line ministry in the secular realm require excellent, innovative formation, but even more crucially, the support of the church universal. Parishes, dioceses and faithful individuals can provide financial resources, volunteer labor, expertise and even a consumer market for the products of social entrepreneurs. Most important, those ministering in the “temporal order” need affirmation and encouragement. Lacking any clear place or power in ecclesial structures, they nonetheless need to know that they and their good work are indeed part of the church’s vital, world-sanctifying mission.