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Posted October 15, 2004

The Latest from CARA on
Parish Life and Women’s Role in it

(For more information, please contact CARA at Georgetown University. The name of the report is: Understanding the Experience: A Profile of Lay Ecclesial Ministers Serving as Parish Life Coordinators; Mark M. Gray and Mary L. Gautier – co-researchers. The entire report can be found at: www.emergingmodels.org)

It should be noted, that religious who once played a large role in helping shorthanded parishes are not aging and not as plentiful. It should also be noted that many dioceses still depend heavily on retired priests. As this population dwindles with fewer younger priests to fill the gap, we will see a dramatic change in parish administration and service. The question facing the church in the U.S. is: “What new models of parish governance and organization will emerge?” “What influences will this have on parish catechesis and spirituality?” “What types of training and formation are needed to meet the new demands a changing administration of parishes will face?”

Nearly nine-tenths of nonordained people who administer U.S. Catholic parishes are women.

"Ninety-nine percent of parish life coordinators were raised Catholic and have attended a Catholic school or college sometime during their education.” "Ninety-eight percent of PLCs have attended a Catholic college or university."

All of the non ordained had at least some college, and 89 percent have attended graduate school.

Women religious account for 71 percent of parish life coordinators. Lay women account for an additional 18 percent. Men -- lay men or religious brothers -- accounted for 11 percent.

The study involved interviews in spring 2002 with 96 nonordained parish life coordinators, representing more than one-fifth of the 435 parishes then identified in CARA's National Parish Inventory as being administered by someone other than a priest or permanent deacon.

Religious sisters and brothers are counted as laity in church discussions of lay ecclesial ministry, since they cannot engage in ministries reserved to ordained clergy.

The study also covered other Catholic lay ecclesial ministers who work at least 20 hours a week in parish ministry in paid or volunteer positions. CARA interviewed 699 of them.

Comparing their findings with data gathered in a similar national study in 1990, the researchers said the percentage of nuns serving as nonordained parish life coordinators has dropped -- from 81 percent in 1990 to 71 percent in 2002. They said lay women rose from 13 percent to 18 percent in that time, lay men from 5 percent to 6 percent, and religious brothers from 1 percent to 5 percent.

They said 89 percent of parish life coordinators have attended graduate school, compared to 13 percent of adult Catholics in general and 53 percent of lay ecclesial ministers in general. All parish life coordinators had attended college and only 3 percent were not college graduates.

In a comparable 1990 study, they said, 11 percent of parish life coordinators had not completed college, 18 percent were college graduates but had no advanced studies and 71 percent had attended graduate school.

"Most parish life coordinators serve in small parishes," the researchers said. "Two-thirds of PLCs are entrusted with a parish that has fewer than 200 registered households. ... Twenty seven percent are at parishes with 201 to 549 registered households and 7 percent are at parishes with more than 550 registered households." Half of U.S. parishes have more than 550 registered households and only one-quarter have 200 or fewer households.

"As parish life coordinators are often the only lay ecclesial ministers in the parishes they serve they also often report multiple primary areas of ministry," they said.

More than nine out of 10 interviewed said they are responsible for the financial and business administration of the parish, for planning and leading liturgies, for visiting the sick and homebound, and for leading prayer and Communion services when no priest was available. More than 80 percent described their ministry as including sacramental preparation, adult religious education, child religious education and ministry to the poor. Nearly three-fourths called justice and social ministry part of their job and 58 percent said they are called on to preach.

The researchers reported that 95 percent of parish life coordinators said their work was a full-time ministry and 5 percent said it was part-time. Among lay ecclesial ministers in general, 73 percent said it was their full-time work and 27 percent described it as part-time.

Although the Midwest has only 19 percent of the U.S. Catholic adult population, it has 48 percent of the nation's parish life coordinators and 47 percent of its lay ecclesial ministers, the researchers found.

The Midwest -- Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri -- also has 38 percent of the nation's Catholic parishes.

An estimated 65 percent of the U.S. adult Catholic population is white and 28 percent Hispanic, with the remainder made up of blacks, Asian-Americans and other minorities. But 98 percent of the parish life coordinators interviewed by CARA were white and 2 percent Hispanic. Of all lay ecclesial ministers the researchers surveyed, 91 percent were white, 6 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black and less than 1 percent other minorities.

CARA reported that while racial and ethnic minorities among the U.S. Catholic population continue to be underrepresented among those involved in lay ecclesial ministry the ratios have improved in recent years. In a comparable 1989 study, 95 percent of all lay ecclesial ministers were white.

The report said the average age of parish life coordinators in 2002 was 61 -- about 10 years older than it was in the comparable 1990 study.

In 1990, 58 percent were 50 or older, while in 2002 57 percent were 60 or older. In 1990, 6 percent were under 40, while in 2002 only 7 percent were under 50.