To whom do they belong?
To Whom Do They Belong? Victor Klimoski
The following opinion piece appeared in the last issue of Conversatio Magazine. We are interested in the perspectives of readers on whether Dr. Klimoski's opinion is close to or wide of the mark. What does your experience and observation tell you?
Saint John's is one of twenty pilot schools funded by the Lilly Endowment to examine the problem of student indebtedness. The costs of earning a graduate theological degree continue to climb. As a result, students take out major student loans, often adding to existing undergraduate student debt. Theological schools try to be as generous as they can be with scholarships, grants, and student work positions. That is the case at Saint John's. But funding for such assistance is finite as other costs for maintaining an excellent school rise.
During a recent gathering of the twenty pilot schools noted above, I discovered something that had never reached a conscious level for me. Protestant participants always talked about the "church's students." For them, all candidates in their schools belong to the church and are an investment of the church in the future of its ministry to congregations. As I listened again and again to references to the "church's students," I realized that Roman Catholic lay ministry students belong to no one. That is admittedly a dramatic way to put it. The facts, however, are clear.
Lay students generally come to us as independent contractors with no endorsement or support from their local dioceses or parishes. How they pay for their educations and the amount of debt they must accumulate are up to them. They continue as independent contractors as they search for jobs, negotiate for salary and benefits, and work at-will for parishes or organizations.
Sometimes there are pension options, but that is not universal.
The growing body of women and men who prepare themselves for church ministry may belong to a parish or organization as long as they are employed, but they do not belong to the church. They are not the "church's ministers" but contracted employees with no official status or recognition. In the average diocese in this country, it would be rare to find a roster of their names and ministerial roles. Most parishioners perceive parish staff as employees but not the pastor's peers much less indispensable to the vibrancy of the parish. While some dioceses have in place processes for formal certification and authorization, most do not. Lay ministry positions are governed by the changing decisions of pastors and pastoral councils, not well-crafted policies reflecting best employment practices and the status of lay ecclesial ministers as "real" ministers.
This situation must change. Seminarians deserve the attention and care provided them. They are being prepared for rigorous, demanding leadership roles. It is no less the case for the women and men who will form generations in the faith, provide skilled and theologically grounded leadership in various ministries, and extend the compassionate care of the church. Work has been underway for ten years to make lay ecclesial ministers the "church's ministers." It is time to get serious.