Let Laity Lead Parishes

Let laity lead parishes, priests’ resolution urges US bishops


by Peter Feuerherd

Priests are graying, fewer in number, with little relief in sight.

That reality was the impetus for a resolution endorsed by the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, calling upon Catholic bishops in the United States to enlist the aid of lay pastoral workers to administer parishes.

Passed by the association at its convention in Atlanta last June, the resolution calls upon the church to allow “well prepared pastoral ministers who, working collaboratively with canonical pastors, can know, guide and accompany the faithful on their journey of faith via parish communities.”

The resolution urged that bishops employ lay workers, deacons and religious who are currently in pastoral ministry to lead parishes under the direction of ordained pastors, a framework allowed in canon law.

These lay leaders and deacons should have “the flexibility to make ordinary decisions and actually lead the parish according to its gifts and needs.”

The document envisions clusters of parishes, led by laypeople and deacons, who would make day-to-day decisions about their churches while reporting to an ordained pastor.

The priests’ association urged bishops to provide more training for such lay leaders of priestless parishes. Such local leaders would enable parishes to minister to those who need pastoral care, including the sick and the bereaved, in a way that priest pastors, who are sometimes asked to oversee as many as three parishes at a time in some dioceses, are unable. The resolution stated that lay pastoral administrators should be paid a living wage, and be provided benefits and job security.

Lay leaders of priestless parishes, including women, can lead worship services and perform the duties of pastors, with the exception of sacramental tasks reserved for the ordained, the resolution said.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University notes that the number of priests in the U.S. is now about 37,000, a decline from 58,632 in 1965. The Catholic population has increased from 48.5 million to 74.2 million in that time, while attendance at Mass has declined from 55 percent of all Catholics in 1965 to 23 percent in 2017.

Out of 17,156 parishes in the U.S., more than 3,500 have no resident pastor. Laypeople and deacons administer 347 parishes, according to CARA.

Authors of the resolution from the priests’ association said that the decline in clergy numbers and Catholic practice are related.

Fr. John Hynes, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wilmington, Delaware, was co-chair of the committee that wrote the resolution. He said the document is a response to the impact of an aging, declining-in-numbers priesthood in the United States, and the continued consolidation of parishes due in part to the lack of potential leaders.

In 1965, there was one priest for every 1,000 Catholics, said Hynes. Today, there is one priest for every 2,500 Catholics. A third of diocesan priests are retired. At 78, Hynes said he is continuing in pastoral work, as the need is dire.

But continuing the status quo is not a long-term solution. “It’s like we are cheating the people,” said Hynes. “We need lay leaders in parishes to ensure that the range of Catholic life is fulfilled.”

Already, a number of dioceses are employing lay pastoral leaders. But the effort is not consistent. Sometimes lay administrators are dismissed when a new bishop is brought to a diocese. That is why there is a need for the body of bishops to explicitly endorse the concept and provide consistency, said Hynes.

Msgr. Raymond Cole, a retired priest of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and co-chair of the document committee, said it borrows from “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” a 2005 U.S. bishops’ statement that encouraged lay pastoral workers.

But, he said, the concept “has to be opened to further growth and modification.” In informal responses, bishops have responded favorably to the resolution, according to Cole. And some dioceses, such as Youngstown, Ohio, and San Bernardino, California, already use laypeople as leaders of parishes, consistent with canon law.

There is still resistance, said Cole, who surmised that those bishops who oppose the use of lay workers as parish leaders have not been heard from. That opposition is formidable.

“It’s change. It’s asking for a major shift in the way we do things,” he said.

But the resolution argues that inaction is dangerous.

“If USA Church leadership postpones dealing with this issue, the window of opportunity will slowly close. Then we will experience a greater collapse of parishes than we are currently experiencing, a loss of morale and health among priests, and further decline of the morale and trust of people who depend upon us to meet their spiritual needs. As our Catholic presence diminishes, so will our presence in society in all of its aspects,” it says.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR’s Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, New York.]


The resolution of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests




Passing on the faith demands more, not less, personal presence of authorized pastoral ministers.   As the shortage of priests becomes more severe, much of the pastoral leadership and ministry that Catholics received from priests in the past will no longer be provided. We conclude that the Catholic Church USA urgently needs already now well prepared pastoral ministers who, working collaboratively with canonical pastors, can know, guide and accompany the faithful on their journey of faith via parish communities.

WHO:   The persons:  Who are the potential pastoral leaders?

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go”. (Lk. 10:1)

There are many persons presently active in our parishes, whether pastoral staff members, deacons, or members gifted with charisma for ministry.  We speak of proven individuals.  Given the local nature of this ministry, it would be advisable to choose from the involved parish itself, or a neighboring one. The pastoral leaders will be appointed by the bishop and be under the supervision of a canonical pastor nearby, while still havingthe flexibility to make ordinary decisions and actually lead the parish according to its gifts and needs. Canonical Pastors too will need training and a desire to embrace this manner of ministry. Diocesan Offices must be included in this training also. Most especially, the people of God in a parish must be involved in this process and own it or it will be a failure from the outset.

Training and formation would be as needed in individual cases. This is primarily a Pastoral Role which demands spiritual and pastoral preparation as well as managerial skills.

WHAT:    The Pastoral Task:

“Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone”.

What they are to do, is the central issue.  Key elements: correspond to the three-fold prophet – priest – king.

  • Leadership — To create a vision with the parish community: “the purpose for which we are here,” and form persons in the faith and train them for ministry and service to fulfill their call as the baptized.
  • Care — To visit the faithful, especially in time of sickness and death, but as much as possible, know and be known by all and to be present to the whole community.
  • Governance — To take responsibility for the day to day coordination of parish activities, and take initiative as needed to motivate, to correct, and to affirm persons who work in the parish ministries; and where needed, provide conflict resolution and reconciliation. To be a true pastoral leader he/she must lead worship where appropriate, and likewise break open the Word.  In short, he/she would be in the role of pastor, excepting sacramental ministry, and under the supervision of the canonical pastor. (per Canon 517.2)

HOW:  Remuneration and Status:

The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1Tim.5:18b)

Pastoral leaders who are expected to be involved 5 or 6 days in the work should be paid a commensurate salary, with proper benefits.  They should have the job tenure that other professional ministers and Church employees do. Statutes created and approved by the USCCB should protect the status of these ministers from dismissal without cause, or because a new ordinary or pastor would not accept the program. Those Bishops and priests who would see the need for and accept the presence of this form of ministry and accept appropriate formation/training would be best suited to employ it. However, the importance of the USCCB endorsing and encouraging the remedy to this present crisis before it escalates further is paramount.

WHY:  Prophetic Importance 

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams”. (Acts2:17)

These Lay Pastoral Leaders will provide a very important proving ground for the USA Church because we would learn what men and women, married and unmarried, can accomplish as pastoral leaders, and what kind of persons we need.  We will gain a great deal of wisdom about what works and what doesn’t work.  In a larger framework, it would show how the priesthood of the future might discern proven individuals.

A special urgency to begin now arises from the fact that presently, due to the large number of retiring priests, we have many sacramental ministers available on a flexible part-time basis.  This will be true for the next ten to fifteen years.  This is a providential time to initiate Pastoral Leaders of Priest-less Parishes.  With many sacramental ministers -retiring priests- available for part time service, we can ensure Sunday Eucharist and basic sacramental ministry for most of the parishes who are without a resident priest as pastor while we work out the dynamics for the future. While some priests would prefer not to become “circuit riders” we believe that there are solutions to this concern.

It is unquestionable that time, creativity and courage will be needed to make all the adjustments. Time will also be needed to properly train Pastoral Leaders.

BACKGROUND: The Experience of some dioceses:

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.

The experience of dioceses with lay or diaconal pastoral leadership of parishes has varied.  Some bishops began it, but a successor closed it down.  Time is needed for a new process to take hold and there will be challenges to embrace along the way even as in parishes with resident priests.

Normal practice in many Third World parishes, especially in Africa and Latin America, is to have a larger parish, usually rural, with many “out-stations” (Uganda) or “chapels” (Guatemala) which are visited by the parish priest four, six or twelve times a year for Mass and sacraments.  Weekly or bi-weekly services are conducted by a catechist or ideally by a trained lay preacher. Training in those parts of the world is much more difficult to accomplish.  All such ministers are expected to take part in periodic formation weekends at deanery or diocesan level.  The formational training must be provided by a person who is well prepared for this role. While on-the-ground realities in our part of the world are greatly different,

this is an established model of the lay pastoral care that we in the First World can learn from as we deal with the emerging model of an increasing number of priests trying to truly “pastor” two or more parishes. Similar situations are occurring now within some of our own states, placing much stress on our priests, especially since often little or no training is provided.

For the reasons given above we offer this plea: that our bishops corporately, with the collaboration and assistance of those with experience in this area, formulate a plan now to meet this emerging crisis.  Depending on circumstances, such a plan may be applied at once by some dioceses, more slowly by others, and some may find it appropriate to apply it regionally, but in any case a nationwide reality is unfolding which demands action by our whole Bishops’ Conference.  Pope Francis has urged this very kind of action.  Faith tells us that this crisis is also an opportunity. Hope tells us that whatever risk is involved belongs to our mission of bringing the Gospel to all people.

If USA Church leadership postpones dealing with this issue, the window of opportunity will slowly close. Then we will experience a greater collapse of parishes than we are currently experiencing, a loss of morale and health among priests, and further decline of the morale and trust of people who depend upon us to meet their spiritual needs.  As our Catholic presence diminishes, so will our presence in society in all of its aspects. 


  • Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,USCCB,2005
  • Parish Life Coordinators by Hendricks, Loyola, 2009
  • Shaping Catholic Parishes  by Gamin (ed.) Loyola
  • Pastoring Multiple Parishes, Moguilka and Wilkins, Loyola University Press.
  • The USCCB documents that address this concern, on website.
  • The Theological, Sacramental and Ecclesial Context of the Emerging Models Project,  Most Rev. Blasé J. Cupich, National Ministry Summit, 2008.
  • Listening to the Spirit:  Bishops and Parish Life Coordinators, Gautier, Bruce and Bendyna, CARA, 2007
  • The Changing Face of the Church, Jewell and Ramey, Loyola University Press, 2010.
  • The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders, Hoge and Jewell, Loyola University Press, 2010.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”


Mission and Vision of the AUSCP

Mission: To be an association of U.S. Catholic priests offering mutual support and a collegial voice through dialogue, contemplation and prophetic action on issues affecting Church and society.    

Vision: To be a Priests Voice of Hope and Joy within our Pilgrim Church.                               

Founded in 2011, AUSCP is the largest association of priests in the United States. All members are priests in good standing in dioceses and religious communities. Inspired by the teaching of Vatican II, we support the continuing pursuit of its implementation. We invite the support of FRIENDS to and with whom we minister, whose faith and support emboldens us.

To be a “priests’ voice of hope and joy,” we must listen to our members and Friends — on line, in person and at our national assemblies. We do. Then we share our common concerns with church and world through prophetic advocacy.  


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  1. The full involvement of the laity in the church is not on the cards in Ireland in the short term at least.

    The Catholic church in Ireland is for old people, at parish level, generally, there is no effort to include young people,(below the age of 50) in the decision making process.

    The parish priest is all powerful in the parish. If you offer a different view of the church, you will find yourself excluded…the concept of inclusion is alien.

    The church is extremely slow to change its ways. In this case it may be terminal as society is changing at such a rate, the church will find that its message will be lost or ignored. Sometimes it feels that it is OK with this situation…or that it hasn’t the energy or will to continue the fight or it is unwilling or too stubborn to accept help from those they serve…..

  2. I agree completely with Michael @1
    The idea of letting the laity lead parishes, is an illusion.
    Progressive Priests, are a key requirement for reform to take place,
    sadly, they are very thin on the ground.
    In my parish we have two priests, who could best be described, as if they were taken straight out of the sixties.They see themselves as “The Church”
    I will give one little example:
    The parish priest was very indignant, at a meeting with a delegation of parishioners, at the idea of a lady coming to visit him, telling him of the project- work going on in the parish when he first arrived.She promptly received a letter of dismissal,even though she had been working in the parish for the past fifteen years.When she asked the parish priest who would do the work now,he simply told her, the church would do it.
    Not much chance of the laity leading in my parish.
    Do not tell me we should go to the Bishop,we did,a waste of time.

  3. Kevin Walters says:

    Michael @ 1

    ”The parish priest is all powerful in the parish. If you offer a different view of the church, you will find yourself excluded…the concept of inclusion is alien”

    Yes many have different views on the church and that is major problem for many parish priests. Fear of loss of control as in loss of authority appears to be the underlying problem and it is a justified fear under the present hierarchical structure.
    So how can an institutionalized clergy relinquish some of the reins of control?
    Our Lord Himself has given the Church the means to create a cultural fundamental shift, as in a change of direction, to a more inclusive church one of manifest humility, the true basis for equality (Inclusion) in service.

    ”May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me”

    This pray for unity can only be accomplished in humility and the type of humility we need to see, is in all of us coming out from our hiding places, from within the bushes so to say, to a place where we are prepared together, to openly embrace humility/honesty.

    I believe that the Shepherd leader for a new invigorated church will be a humble one, with the capacity to discern and direct the potential in others, leading them also to become Shepherds, who together hold each other responsible for their combined actions, underpinned by total honesty, the serving of the Truth in all situations would be the binding mortar holding these new emerging structures together.

    The essence of Love is Truth we all fall short in the actions of Love, but no man or woman can excuse dishonest before their brothers and sisters who would serve the Truth, for to do so would be an attempt to destroy the mortar (Humility) of that unity.

    But today is not the time to discuss potential scenarios of development because without a fundamental shift of direction by the leadership of the church, the Church will continue to dissipate, because its proclamation of Love of God and love of neighbour, without the serving of the Truth, is to blind oneself to the on-going reality of the present situation within the church.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. There is no point going to the Bishop. The priest that you are complaining about will remain in the parish..The appointment of a bishop, in a general sense, depends on your record, that is that you have not done anything out of the way, your age and you’re willing to follow the party line……it would be a amazing if bishops were appointed according to managerial ability, vision and absolute passion for the ‘Word’……..

    Once of the things that I learned early in life is that if you are going to fail, fail fast….save a lot of time and energy and in a commercial works, money. My parish priest invited parishioners to participate in various church ministries, I volunteered my services. After a short period I felt a number of things…. the Priest was boss and that it was his way or the highway, cash was king( the weekly collection was not enough) and he had his inner circle who supported him all the way….

    I left any active involvement with the church because I felt that I wasn’t needed or wanted!

    What disappointed me greatly is that there is great potential in the parish..the parish just need to be more open to the young, more open on how it conducts it business, communicate the ‘Word’ using new and innovate methods, use social media, don’t restrict church just to Sundays, don’t restrict limit the involvement of the laity in sharing the ‘Word’ ….I could go on and on ……..

    The church is dying in Ireland as the direct result of an inability of many priests to understand that there is more to the parish than themselves, the failure to engage meaningfully with the laity and the appointment of bishops who do not have the skill set to manage their diocese effectively.

  5. FR. MARTIN K. TANUI says:

    The Church is one, universal, apostolic and despite many shortcomings of individual human beings, holy too. This one-universal Church has an abudance of priests elsewhere. The concept of ‘fidei donum’ and twinning can be explored and used more to address this shortage.

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