Each year, CARA conducts a nationwide census of Catholic ministry formation programs, from seminaries to colleges to diocesan-run certificate programs. The 2011 data are in. This year, college seminary enrollments are up 1% and theologate enrollments are up 4%. Looking over the short-term trend it is apparent that college seminary enrollments are stable and the theologate enrollments have been on a slight upswing for the past five years or so. Diaconate formation programs have also experienced growth in recent years (for more see CARA's statistical summary).
But, there is another group in formation across the country—where an entirely different scale and pattern is emerging. These are the individuals who are not seeking to be ordained but are still in formation for Catholic parish ministry. These are the Church’s lay ecclesial ministers, a group that is difficult to count because they are difficult to define. Some of those in lay ministry formation programs are simply there for adult faith formation or may be studying theology and have no intention to become a lay ecclesial minister. Others are preparing for a vocation and a career.
What is a lay ecclesial minister? In Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes this being characterized by:
- Authorization of the hierarchy to serve publicly in the local church
- Leadership in a particular area of ministry
- Close mutual collaboration with the pastoral ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons
- Preparation and formation appropriate to the level of responsibilities assigned to them
The phrase “lay ecclesial minister” is intended to be a generic term, not a specific role description or title. Co-Workers states that the ministry is lay “because it is service done by lay persons [including vowed religious]. The Sacramental basis is the Sacraments of Initiation, not the Sacrament of Ordination.” It is ecclesial “because it has a place within the community of the Church, whose communion and mission it serves, and because it is submitted to the discernment, authorization, and supervision of the hierarchy.” It is ministry “because it is a participation in the threefold ministry of Christ who is priest, prophet and king.”
The longest section of Co-Workers is on formation for lay ecclesial ministry. It begins by noting that the Church has always required proper preparation of those who exercise a ministry, citing Canon 231, which states that “lay persons who devote themselves permanently or temporarily to some special service of the Church are obliged to acquire the appropriate formation which is required to fulfill their function properly.”
In CARA’s work with the Emerging Models project, as well as other earlier studies on the topic of lay ecclesial ministry, a definition has been operationalized for research purposes that encompasses lay persons who are in paid parish ministry for at least 20 hours per week (CARA provides separate estimates including those who volunteer in these capacities). Currently the number of lay ecclesial ministers in the United States totals about 38,000 or about two per parish (up from 29,000 in 1997, representing a 31% increase). Fourteen percent of these individuals are vowed religious and 86% are other lay persons. Overall, 80% are female and 20% male. Four in ten are under the age of 50 (for more see: The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes).
Growing numbers of lay ecclesial ministers in parishes must mean that there are more and more lay people studying and readying themselves to live out these vocations... Surprisingly no.
Two facts should jump off the graph below. The first is the sheer numbers in lay ecclesial ministry formation programs. Even at its lowest point, it is well above the combined enrollments in seminary and diaconate formation programs. Second, after peaking in the early 2000s, and dropping sharply until more recently stabilizing, lay ecclesial ministry formation enrollments are more volatile than enrollments in seminary and diaconate formation programs.
Many theories have been proposed for the drop in the numbers: perceptions of a surplus of lay ecclesial ministers, effects of the sex abuse scandal, fewer lay people being entrusted with the pastoral care of parishes where a priest is unavailable (i.e., Cannon 517.2; totaling 411 U.S. parishes in 2011 down from a peak of 566 in 2004), volatility in the economy, closings of parishes and schools, or expected salaries making it difficult to budget the costs of obtaining the education and formation required.
But, there also appears to be another important factor related to the number of lay ecclesial ministers enrolled in formation programs—the number of available programs themselves.
When the number of programs drops, the number of students drops (Pearson's R=.864; the initial drop in programs precedes the drop in enrollments). These programs don’t usually consolidate; they are closed outright or offered only on an “as needed” basis. To some extent, if you cut the program they will leave and don't appear to look for or readily find other options…
If you are a regular reader of this blog you already know that the U.S. Catholic population is growing and the number of priests is expected to continue to decline (as the Mass attendance rate is stable—representing annually increasing numbers of worshipers along with Catholic population growth). Parishes are closing resulting in existing parishes, on average, getting bigger and having larger budgets and staffs. Yet, if fewer and fewer are in formation to replace today's lay parish leaders, should we expect a coming shortage of lay ecclesial ministers? Will there always be enough people behind the parish door to greet you, minister to you, educate you, help you? Maybe not if the current trends continue...
For more on formation statistics check out the 2011 CARA Catholic Ministry Formation Directory—available for the first time this year as an online, searchable database as well as in the traditional printed format.
-CARA researchers Melissa Cidade, Mary Gautier, and Mark Gray contributed to this post.