QUAERITUR: Minister, ministry, apostle, apostolate…

From a reader:

I’m on the pastoral council at my parish. I hear people using the term “Ministry” for all kinds of activities. Pretty much all of these folks are lay Catholics.

I’m kind-of a stickler for terminology, because muddled language leads to muddled thinking….:) Which leads to my question: When is it proper for lay people to use the term “ministry”?

My gut tells me that “Ministry” has to do with work of the ordained (e.g. bishops, priests, deacons,) but my gut is not even close to sufficient to answer this question. Could you give me some clarification on this question?

I think the key may lie in the 1997 inter-dicasterial document entitled Ecclesia de mysterio… or… Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests.

This document makes some distinctions about what “ministry” is, quoting Apostolicam actuositatem 5: “the lay apostolate and the pastoral ministry complete each other”.

Ministry is rooted in sacred orders, which aim at the service to the whole Church of preaching, governing and sanctifying. Lay people can collaborate in important ways in the ministry of the clergy in those matters which don’t require holy orders.

It seems to me that a problem derives from the vagaries of the language we use. “Apostolate”, deriving from the Greek for “send”, can aim our minds directly to the Sent Ones, the Apostles chosen by Christ and their successors the bishops, or can suggest any person with some good and directed undertaking. “Minister”, from the Latin for “lesser”, is someone who acts on behalf of another, as in the case of all clerics who by Holy Orders act on behalf of the Lord in carrying out His three-fold munera, offices, of teaching, governing and sanctifying. More loosely, minister is someone who does something with authorization, which in many cases could be any of the baptized, while traditionally some things are reserved to men alone, because only men can be ordained. Thus, a ministry or an apostolate can be specifically a matter for the ordained or could by extension apply also to what lay people can do in and for the Church in coordination with the ministry and apostolate of the ordained.

In general, I suggest that we begin restricting our use of “minister” and “ministry” to the person of and activity of the ordained, in the first, place, and then those with a specific role coordinated by the clergy. Apostolate may have a somewhat less immediate clerical oversight, but it cannot be independent.

Perhaps some of you who are well-informed can jump in if you know about any other documents or resources which can shed light on this matter.

In any event, we have to get away from calling everything and everyone a minstry and a minister.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. worm says:

    I would agree with you, but donut apostolate doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as donut ministry.

  2. dmwallace says:

    Benedict XVI spoke to the Scottish bishops in 2010 during their ad limina visit:

    “Hand in hand with a proper appreciation of the priest’s role is a correct understanding of the specific vocation of the laity. Sometimes a tendency to confuse lay apostolate with lay ministry has led to an inward-looking concept of their ecclesial role. Yet the Second Vatican Council’s vision is that wherever the lay faithful live out their baptismal vocation – in the family, at home, at work – they are actively participating in the Church’s mission to sanctify the world. A renewed focus on lay apostolate will help to clarify the roles of clergy and laity and so give a strong impetus to the task of evangelizing society” (5 February 2010).

  3. Catholicman says:

    I do have a follow-up question as I am a layman who works directly for the Church at the diocesan level. What is the best way to define the work that I do? Or the work done by parish DRE’s or Catholic school principals and teachers? I am very uncomfortable with the use of “ministry” or “minister” and agree totally with Fr. Z’s assessment. At this point, I typically say that I work in service to and collaboration with the bishop in carrying out the responsibility that comes with his office. Does that strike people as an accurate way of expressing it?

    And what of this movement nationally about “Lay Ecclesial Ministers”? There is a lot of talk about certification, authorization and such. It also appears as if the USCCB is giving a lot of weight and support to this movement. What to make of it?

  4. Maggie says:

    I’d echo Catholicman’s question. I’m a student in our diocese’s certified ministry program for “lay ecclesial ministers”, and many of the instructors (whose theology isn’t always the most orthodox, let me tell you…) love drilling into our heads that we (youth ministers, DREs, etc) are ministers of equal importance as the clergy. What is the real deal with that? Obviously there are USCCB and other episcopal documents that speak about lay ministry (eg “Co Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” and “Called and Gifted for the Third Millenium”) but what is the true role of a layman or laywomen who works (paid or volunteer) at a parish?

  5. DeaconPaul says:

    I think the tendency to call everything in the church ministry can, in excess, make ordained ministry appear almost meaningless. I’ve seen terms like “ministry of flowers”, “ministry of church cleaning” etc.
    Many of these tasks, although vital, and valuable when performed voluntarily as part of the lay apostolate should not be allowed to confuse the appropriate use of the word.
    The rise of professional liturgists and catechists can also be a source of confusion as to the distinctive nature, charism and grace of the ordained state.

  6. mrose says:

    Reading Fr. Z’s explanation of ministry as associated with Holy Orders clarifies to me the ambiguity of the term. It seems clear that this word is best restricted to the “activities” of those in Holy Orders pursuant to their State in Life. The proliferation of this word seems to correlate with the erosion of the distinction between clergy and laity which exists in many places, and this (among other things) does a disservice to the laity! Dmwallace’s quotation of the Holy Father makes this point quite clearly – the laity cannot do the job of the laity if laypeople are busy trying to do the work of priests.

  7. amenamen says:

    When they say “LEM” they mean “Lay Ecclesial Minister” but I still think of :

  8. In the Traditional Mass, we refer to the “sacred ministers” (subdeacon, deacon, priest), and to the “inferior ministers” (the MCs and attending altar servers). It refers to the role, not to the person. The Vatican document, as I am to understand, goes on to warn against using other titles to describe laics. In the English text, they refer even to words like “coordinator” and “moderator.” I am wondering what that leaves out. Can a person who heads a committee still be referred to as a “chairman” of that committee?

  9. irishgirl says:

    Amen, Father Z, amen! In particular, your last line, ‘In any event, we have to get away from calling everything and everyone a ministry or a minister.’ My thought exactly!
    ‘Lay Eccesial Minister’ and LEM (lunar module)-Ha! That’s a good one, amenamen!

  10. albinus1 says:

    I’ve seen terms like “ministry of flowers”, “ministry of church cleaning” etc.

    I’m afraid the first thing that popped into my head when I read that was Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks.” ;-)

  11. Paul says:

    Drawing on a youth misspent in the protestant, Assemblies of God, non-ordained people who had a specific function were often called, “Christian Workers”. In conversation, you might say, “Bob is the head of the Bus Team, which consists of six Christian workers.”

    There was even a hierarchy of orders, so to speak. I’m working from memory here, but it went something like, Christian Worker, license Preacher, and ordained Minister. I seem to recall the local congregation could designate a candidate the first, but the latter two required consent of the national body.

    All that to say, I’d prefer we simply say what people do, as in, “Jane takes care of the doughnuts and coffee”.

  12. dad29 says:

    Speaking as a “minister of music”, I’d be VERY happy to be a “church musician” who exercises a ministry.

  13. APX says:

    I’ve seen terms like “ministry of flowers”, “ministry of church cleaning” etc.
    Reminds me of “Ministry Sunday”.
    -“Ministry of Rectory Snow Removal”
    -“Sound Ministry” (thankfully this one was changed to its proper title as “Sound Technician on the web site”.)

  14. Supertradmum says:

    This type of language was done on purpose in order to diminish the importance of the ordained priesthood. All the ministries take away from the sacredness of the Alter Christus. The Protestants have been using these terms for a very long time. That Catholics picked this up is so hard, but I am convinced it was always a “conspiracy” of the Protestant mindset. We must get away from the clericalism of the laity asap.

  15. Alice says:

    It’s neither here nor there, but I always thought that calling certain lay people ministers in the Catholic Church was fitting because Protestant ministers were lay people too.

  16. jhayes says:

    Perhaps some of you who are well-informed can jump in if you know about any other documents or resources which can shed light on this matter.

    MINISTERIA QUAEDAM says that ministries can be assigned to laypersons

    2. What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries.
    3. Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders. 4. Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte….5. The reader is appointed for a function proper to him, that of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly. Accordingly, he is to proclaim the readings from sacred Scripture, except for the gospel in the Mass and other sacred celebrations;…..

    Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion were authorized later.

  17. Worst example I’ve ever seen is on the website of an uber-liberal parish in my diocese that makes reference to the “ministers of parking,” – you know, the guys in bright orange vests waving flags and directing traffic on Sundays. “Minister of Parking” sounds like a cabinet position in the Sadam Hussein government.

    The Council never used the title “minister” to refer to laypersons, only the ordained. We would do well to follow suit, IMO.

  18. Kevin B. says:

    I’ve heard janitors called “ministers of sanitation.” As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

    One problem with labeling everything a ministry is that it implies the mission of the laity is to do stuff in and around the parish or at the diocesan level. Without detracting from the good work many lay volunteers and employees do, there are only so many jobs available at the parish. The remaining 90% of the congregation that isn’t working directly for the parish or the diocese come away with the impression that they have no mission to bring the Gospel to the world in the way they live and work.

    I firmly believe that calling every conceivable human activity a ministry dilutes the unique character of the priesthood. “Ordained ministry” becomes just another ministry among many. Why should I have to give up a wife and family to become an ordained minister when I can be a Eucharistic minister, or minister to the sick, or minister of hospitality, or parking, or donuts?

  19. Sandy says:

    Kevin, your first sentence cracked me up!

    Right on, Father, with your final statement that sums it all up. This is another of my pet peeves, and has been ever since I heard the term being used incessantly. Rome has spoken!

  20. DominiSumus says:

    Part of the problem is that not everyone who performs a ministry is a minister. There is no such thing as the “coffee and donut ministry” and there are no “coffee and donut ministers”.

    A ministry is something that belongs first and foremost to the ordained, even if that bishop, priest, or deacon delegates the ministry to a layperson. Serving coffee and donuts is not part of the role of the ordained.

    In addition, a lay minister is a person who has been delegated by legitimate authority (bishop or priest) to perform a specific role which belongs to the ordained priesthood or episcopate. This is an even narrower category than that of ministry because it comes with the expectation of a certain level of expertise. For example: Serving as a DRE or a religious education teacher is a ministry, but only the DRE should be considered to be a minister because only the DRE would be expected to have specialized training and be delegated specific authority from the pastor.

  21. jhayes says:

    @DominiSummus, the USCCB defines three groups:

    1. Ordained ministers
    2. Ecclesial ministers
    3. Others participating in ministry

    In parishes especially, but also in other Church institutions and communities, lay women and men generously and extensively “cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community.” This is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s movement in the lives of our sisters and brothers. We are very grateful for all who undertake various roles in Church ministry. Many do so on a limited and voluntary basis: for example, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, readers, cantors and choir members, catechists, pastoral council members, visitors to the sick and needy, and those who serve in programs such as sacramental preparation, youth ministry, including ministry with people with disabilities, and charity and justice….

    Within this large group is a smaller group on whom this document focuses: those men and women whose ecclesial service is 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 that are
    assigned to them

    Previous documents from our Conference have called such women and men
    “lay ecclesial ministers” and their service “lay ecclesial ministry.” We continue that usage here with the following understandings.

    The term “lay ecclesial minister” is generic. It is meant to encompass and describe several possible roles. In parish life—to cite only one sphere of involvement—the pastoral associate, parish catechetical leader, youth ministry leader, school principal, and director of liturgy or pastoral music are examples of such roles. Participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, as described in the Code of Canon Law, canon 517 §2,12 is another example of lay ecclesial ministry, although it differs in kind from the other roles because it exists simply because of the shortage of priests. It is the responsibility of the bishop, or his delegate, in accord with the norms of canon law, to identify the roles that most clearly exemplify lay ecclesial ministry. Application of the term may vary from diocese to diocese.


  22. jhayes says:

    #2 in the list should have been “Lay ecclesial ministers”

  23. I think there is a linguistic/theological car crash going on. As some have pointed out, many documents from the Vatican have referred to lay ministries, and then we have documents saying such terms should not be used, since it confuses the distinctions between the clerical and lay state. Yet the term “apostolate” has historically referred to lay-run organisations often outside direct diocesan or parish control, although coordinated with church authorities. No word has been given to those laypeople who work directly for the Church, and “ministry” has been the word traditionally chosen (if “traditionally” can be used for something that has been only around for decades). I will say that perhaps we can let this theologically indistinct word continue in use, given the government’s attack on Church hiring. Although the Obama administration seems to be attacking the very concept of “ministerial exception”, it is likely the courts will not go along with it, but they might tighten the definition of who applies, and the fact that almost everyone who works for and volunteers at a parish is given the title “minister” might be the only defence the Church will have when it seeks freedom in its hiring and firing decisions.

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