In reflecting on the various forms of ministerial roles found within the Church, it is good to be reminded that all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism. Ministry has not been designated to a chosen few.
Ministry does not originate from any particular order, role or position within the structure of the Church, but flows directly from the grace of baptism. The egalitarian nature of baptism, and therefore ministry, is clear:
“You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus.
All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:26-28)
All are one in Christ, yet the Spirit infuses each of the baptized with unique gifts and charisms to serve the greater good. Some of the baptized are called to the ordained ministry as priests (diocesan or religious) or as deacons (transitional or permanent), while others are called to profess vows as religious brothers or sisters.
Still others are called to live out their baptismal call as laity — exercising their ministry in the more secular realms — in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and in the greater community. Still others are called to live out their baptismal call through working within the institutional church as ecclesial lay ministers.
In general, the term “lay ecclesial minister” refers to those men and women who are not ordained but have been authorized by the hierarchy to serve publicly in the local church in a particular area of ministry or service. Lay ministers work in parishes, schools, diocesan agencies, hospitals and other church institutions.
They serve in a variety of leadership roles: diocesan officers, principals, parish catechetical leaders, catechists, youth ministers, directors of worship/music, chaplains, pastoral associates and more. Most lay ecclesial ministers possess or are required to obtain some level of professional training or formation unique to their area of ministry.
It is important to note that the term “lay ecclesial minister” is not a title in itself. As important as their role is in the life of the church, lay ecclesial ministers are not set apart as a separate rank or order of ministry within the hierarchy. They are described by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as “co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Lay ecclesial ministers are called to work side by side with the ordained and others in the common mission of all the baptized: to love God and neighbor, to witness to the Gospel and to work to transform the world. Section 8 of “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” the 2005 document published by the USCCB that guides the development of lay ecclesial ministry, affirms this common call:
“All of the baptized are called to work toward the transformation of the world. Most do this by working in the secular realm; some do this by working in the Church and focusing on the building of ecclesial communion, which has among its purposes the transformation of the world. Working in the Church is a path of Christian discipleship to be encouraged by the hierarchy.”
My own vocation as a lay ecclesial minister began more than 20 years ago. At that point in the midst of my very ordinary life, I became aware of a deepening call drawing me toward ministry in the parish.
I can best describe that call as an irresistible yearning to share the beauty of God and the riches of our Catholic faith with others. The formation director at my parish recognized the movement of the Spirit in my desire and invited me to further my education and consider becoming a parish catechist.
After some prayerful discernment, I said yes, and that decision laid the foundation for a life of ecclesial ministry within the church.
I feel blessed to have answered that invitation. For the past 14 years I have served as the director of lifelong formation at my current parish, St. Albert the Great. My ministry allows me to share my gifts and to be given many gifts in return.
It allows me the privilege of walking with others through some of the most beautiful, terrifying, challenging and sacred moments of their lives and to discover Christ there in the midst. My ministry allows me to be a co-worker, with the ordained and others, as we plant the seeds of faith that hopefully will bear much fruit.
Dawn Della Bella is the Director of Lifelong Formation at St. Albert Church.