Reprinted with permission of the National Catholic Reporter.

I have been a minister in the Catholic Church for 26 years. And I am a laywoman, married, mother of three sons and one daughter-in-law, and soon to be a grandmother. I am called the “pastoral associate” in my parish, a title that sounds more dignified than “niche-filler,” which also would be accurate.

I arrange for the formation of ministers of the liturgy, direct choirs, process annulments, do pastoral counseling, write a weekly bulletin column, work in the wider community on ecumenical issues, teach catechumens preparing for baptism, prepare worship services, and so on. The most precious compliment I’ve ever received came from Les and Arline, an older couple who thanked me for “bringing out the talent” in others. Arline said she wished I had “gotten hold of her 20 or 30 years ago.” Les suggested 40 years ago would have been better. God love them.

The title being used more and more for people like me--and there are a lot of us--is lay ecclesial minister or LEM, not to be confused with lunar excursion module, though sometimes it feels like I’m exploring a whole new world.

There are more lay ecclesial ministers in ministry than priests or deacons. We are the fastest growing “order” in the church. As seminaries graduate one or two men a year into priestly ministry, lay folks by the dozens are in advanced degree programs in pastoral studies and taking seminars on the catechumenate, annulment law, church music, youth ministry, evangelization, social justice ministry, and so on. Without statistics at hand, it is no stretch to say that most hands-on ministry in parishes, hospitals, schools and centers for social justice is performed by lay ministers.

As prevalent and as necessary as lay ecclesial ministers have become, we still exist in a strange never-never land of canonical invisibility. One alternately feels like a pioneer and a fool who can’t get a real job.

Over the years I’ve witnessed the conflict that surrounds the identity and ministry of lay people, the issues that consume our leaders and become the topics of an untold number of meetings, debates and articles. These issues can be trivialized, but they are all symbolic of a deeper reality and, as such, they are important.

Consider the long deliberations to determine whether a little girl might carry a cross or candle in procession beside her brother.

Or there is the issue of preaching. Only the ordained may preach at the Sunday Mass. This is the case even if the ordained person does not speak the same language as the congregation, or has laryngitis, or has run out of things to say, or just doesn’t preach very well. He must preach the homily or there must be no homily at all. In other words, it would be better for the people to hear no word, than to hear it from the mouth of a non-ordained minister, regardless of education, dedication, ability or--dare we say it?--the Spirit’s work in that minister.

Preaching is important to some, but to most folks, it is Holy Communion they come for. Consider the energy expended over the years around issues of Communion: to receive kneeling or standing; on the tongue or in the hand; from the cup; from a lay minister; the minimum age of the minister; whether the minister must receive after the priest presider; whether lay ministers may purify the vessels; whether lay ministers may help apportion the consecrated elements. And if not, how a priest with no ordained help and another Mass in 30 minutes is supposed to get it all done.

In my archdiocese, we are in that phase of priest famine when folks are fighting over the scraps. Parishes are “stockpiling” help from religious orders and pastors are squabbling about one parish having three priests in residence with only 1,000 families while another has only one priest with 1,500 families. Five years from now it won’t make any difference because there won’t be even the scraps to fight over. If there is to be a surge in priestly vocations from male, celibate candidates, it is decades away.

How does this affect me, a lay ecclesial minister? I have to live and work with the knowledge that my church would rather the people starve than permit me to feed them.

What I tell myself, and younger lay ecclesial ministers who come to me for counsel, is that there is an age-old tension between order and inspiration. Consider the examples of Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa--two women whose intercession I seek everyday. Day was inspired to begin the Catholic Worker movement, to establish places of care for the most marginalized of society. There was concern about her apparent association with socialism and her bishop denied her the title “Catholic.” Dorothy did not abandon her church as she continued her work, nor did she abandon her dream. She simply persisted until the bishop saw the good of what she did. Order (the bishop) tested inspiration (Dorothy Day’s dream).

The case of Mother Teresa is similar. She had a vision of Christ speaking to her from the mouths of the poorest of the poor and she was moved to serve them. The archbishop of Calcutta denied her request to engage in this new ministry and asked her to wait a year, and then one more. Mother Teresa complied, prayed, hoped and continued to petition the archbishop until he was satisfied that her inspiration was tested and true.

This tension exists today around the issue of lay ecclesial ministers. It’s a hard place to be. It’s difficult to be patient when people are starving. It’s difficult to be patient when the decisions are made by those who know there is a famine, but who haven’t been really hungry. There is no “bishop shortage.” Bishops do not celebrate three crowded Masses in four hours unattended by duly appointed clerical assistants. And, understandably perhaps, too many priests are confused, threatened or downright resentful of these lay people who dare to work miracles and not be of their company.

It is in the area of policy-setting and decision-making where lay ecclesial ministers are the most invisible and the most frustrated. We lay ecclesial ministers fall through the cracks of the existing structure. This was no more obvious than when the abuse scandals were publicized. Many of us who spend our working lives in rectories, sacristies and sanctuaries were not totally shocked by the headlines. We observe the late hours, the moodiness, the amount of time not accounted for. And further, we are the ministers from whom the folks seek counsel when they are not comfortable talking with a priest. We live and work “in between.”

Meanwhile, there is famine. When there is famine, emergency measures are allowed. Brother bishops and pastors, are you listening? When there is famine, emergency measures are allowed. If you love Jesus, feed your people.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: A year after I wrote this, I left full-time parish ministry after 27 years in two parishes. Rereading this article brings back difficult memories; the tension I was living with is obvious in the writing. I'm not pleased with the tone—it's angry and a bit self-righteous. But I think it does capture where I and a lot of lay ministers live—in that “never-never land” I mention. As is the case with many losses, leaving ministry has become a source of great grace. I now work from home as a writer, but I also continue to direct my parish choir, give talks and retreats, and enjoy my two (!) grandchildren.

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