All baptized Christians are called to minister as Jesus did, with most laity doing so in the secular realm, while other laity do so within the church itself. The focus here is the vocation of the lay ecclesial minister working within the Church or, more specifically, working within parishes. As the document Co-Workers in the Vineyard states: “In parishes especially, laywomen and men generously and extensively cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community.” This makes it clear that the vocation of the lay ecclesial minister is embedded within the hierarchy of the Church, but more importantly, it is a vocation that is to conform to the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love.
A lay ecclesial minister’s vocation in other words is fundamentally based on Jesus’ dying and rising for all (theological dimension/paschal mystery), yet, more specifically, on his whole approach to ministry which was marked by his deep engagement with people’s everyday lives (pastoral dimension). Jesus invariably began ministering by focusing attention on some instance of people’s own situation, experience, or practice and then preaching about the Gospel and God’s reign as it relates to their reality or practice. Moreover, Jesus was clear that his disciples should be servants to all and that they should not lord over others their ministerial gifts. Jesus holistically engaged heads, hearts, and hands to inform, form, and transform one’s whole way of being in the world. That is why, as mentioned above, Jesus’ whole approach was marked by his deep engagement with people’s everyday lives—the best means for encouraging such transformations. Jesus had to know and understand the people first. Lay ecclesial ministers need to do the same; they must come to “know” those to whom they minister. This of course requires a great deal of maturity in conforming to Jesus Christ’s pattern of self-giving love. Do you have such a vocation, a desire to help, serve, and minister to others as Jesus did—with self-giving love?
To answer that question, it’s important to examine and reflect on the micro or everyday parish pastoral situations while discerning a vocation to be a lay ecclesial minister. There are many other dimensions to consider in discerning such a vocation (theological, human, spiritual, educational), but here the focus will be discerning the pastoral dimension.
We might start by examining Jesus’ go for broke commitment to self-giving love at the micro-interactional level exemplified in the parables he preached. For example, the tiny mustard seed parable speaks to a micro-gesture having a huge impact on others, or a tiny seed becoming a big tree. The parable of a little yeast causing a huge pile of dough to rise speaks to the same principle—small micro-gestures are more powerful than we often realize (Matt 13: 31-33). Hopefully, every minister has experienced these powerful micro-gestures. For example, when a word of kindness, a little extra help to someone in need, or even a sincere smile or firm handshake makes a big difference in someone’s day or life. Transformation often begins with tiny gestures of hope, respect, and love—a mustard seed or a little yeast. But these micro-gestures of self-giving love are most powerful when the minister really knows the person or group to whom they offer these small gestures of kindness. When they know the individual, they know best what gesture of self-giving love to offer. Have we too been gifted to freely offer such tiny, yet powerful, gestures of self-giving love?
Jesus’ deep engagement approach with the people to whom he ministered, therefore, requires those who are discerning a lay ecclesial ministry vocation to pray and reflect on this aspect of Jesus’ own ministry—the micro, everyday interactions with others. To discern the vocation of lay ecclesial ministry within the parish, then, involves asking yourself whether or not you really want to get to know the people in a parish, to form a community in Christ with them. If you discern that you do, then I encourage you to further reflect upon this desire. What does it mean to minister in this particular parish community? This question leads to further questions that we Americans seldom ask ourselves, questions that should not be overlooked. Are you willing to commit yourself to this place, to this parish community, to sticking around and not looking for better opportunities somewhere else?
Part of a lay minister’s discernment process is to discern if one truly wants to be of service to God’s people as Jesus was, that is, to follow his example of self-giving love in this particular location. Of course, as mentioned above, one must additionally pray and discern if God has bestowed you with the charism of deeply engaging with others from everyday chitchat to comforting others in difficult times. Are you called to engage in these types of micro ministries? Alongside these deep questions to discern, comes another important question—do you want to do this with these people in this particular parish? In other words, the question of mobility or upward social mobility needs attention in discerning a ministerial vocation. As Americans, we often take the question of mobility for granted, yet mobility is detrimental to building and sustaining a community and therefore requires conscious reflection.
Upward social mobility requires conscious reflection precisely because it is such an ingrained, American aspirational cultural norm, a norm dictating that we must relentlessly work at getting ahead in order to prove we are successful. This desire for success often leads us to abandon our communities. Yet we know, sociologically and otherwise, that such instances of mobility are a laceration of the communal body. When people leave, the communal body bleeds. Mobility can be quite destructive to a community, but as Americans, we seldom give it a second thought.
If engaging deeply in people’s lives to build community and follow in Jesus’ footsteps of self-giving love is as important as the Catholic tradition says it is, then lay ministers need to discern if they are simply moonlighting in the hope of obtaining a better or higher-paid position elsewhere, or if they are truly called to conform to Jesus’s pattern of ministry. In other words, although this is seldom mentioned in ministerial circles and certainly is not mentioned in the document Co-Workers, vocational discernment for the laity should involve at some point the questioning of that fundamental American cultural assumption of upward social mobility. Do I commit myself to this community without an underlying motive to move in a few years to obtain more status and money? Certainly moving to another community is required in particular situations, but it should be discerned that God is initiating such a move, not the individual. But given the cultural pull of upward social mobility, deep prayer, reflection, and discernment is needed to know if this is truly what God is calling one to do.
Jesus deeply engaged in people’s everyday lives and therefore knew what they needed and how best to serve them. The classic Catholic proposal is that we live life best as persons in community and as a community of persons. However, this sense of communal personhood swims against the contemporary tide. The tide tells us that individual rights are the guiding purpose of life—not responsibility for the common good. Catholic faith and thus Catholic discernment of one’s calling to lay ecclesial ministry must include the understanding of the person as an individual-cum-social being. We are not first and foremost individuals who may choose to join the Church. We are intimately social beings who become our “selves” only in and through community. Jesus, being steeped in his Jewish faith, was keenly aware of the notion of covenant and that this covenant demanded that the Jewish people function as a community—as the people of God. No tradition has placed more emphasis on the importance of community. Catholicism, likewise, has placed the same emphasis on community in that Jesus lived and died for the common good, for all. Lay ecclesial ministers are called to be servant leaders of the community and so anyone discerning such a ministry should consider the questions: Do I want to conform to Jesus’ self-giving love by deeply engaging in the lives of everyday people in this particular parish, in this particular place?
Dr. Michael J. McCallion served the Interim Dean of Institute for Lay Ministry in 2022 and is the Rev. William Cunningham Chair of Catholic Social Analysis. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from Wayne State University in Detroit and his M.A. in liturgy/theology from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He is primarily interested in the sociology of religion, spending whatever time he can studying Catholic liturgical worship and the New Evangelization from that perspective.