home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted July 12, 2007

Lay ecclesial ministry and the feminization of the church

By John Allen
The National Catholic Reporter

Cultures invent new words when they've got new things to name, and so it is with the American church, which has recently contributed a new bit of taxonomy to Catholic conversation: "lay ecclesial ministry." The term refers to a new class of lay professionals performing tasks that were once the near-exclusive province of priests, such as parish administration, bereavement counseling and sick calls, sacramental preparation, liturgical planning, catechesis, faith formation, and a host of other roles. Today's reality is that, save for Mass and the other sacraments, most people's experience of pastoral ministry in the Catholic church is increasingly with a lay person rather than a priest.

The late Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, who conducted the first studies on this trend, called it "a virtual revolution in parish ministry."

Revolutions, as any historian knows, have unpredictable consequences. That's also the case with lay ecclesial ministry. Though no one planned it this way, the plain truth is that lay ecclesial ministry is rapidly "feminizing" pastoral leadership in the Catholic church. As the 21st century develops, that trend is sure to excite some and to worry others.

According to the National Pastoral Life Center, there are 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers working in Catholic parishes in the United States today, surpassing the 29,000 diocesan priests in the country. Growth has been rapid. As of 1990, there were just 22,000 lay ministers, meaning that American Catholicism generated an additional 9,000 lay ministers in just a decade and a half. During the same period, the total number of priests, diocesan and religious, dropped by almost 6,000, from 49,054 to 43,304. This imbalance is destined to grow under even the most wildly optimistic projections of priestly vocations. There are currently 18,000 people preparing to become lay ecclesial ministers, roughly six times the number of seminarians preparing to become priests.

For a church long perceived as bastion of male privilege, it's striking that these new lay professional roles are held disproportionately by women. As of 2005, roughly 80 percent of lay ecclesial ministers in the United States were women. A 2005 document from the American bishops provides this breakdown: lay women, 64 percent; religious women, 16 percent; and lay men, 20 percent. While the percentage of male lay ministers grew from 15 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2005, the overall pattern seems to be that the bulk of these positions will be held by women.

Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data, "lay ecclesial ministry" takes its place among the following job categories in the United States which are disproportionately occupied by women:

Secretaries/administrative assistants, 97 percent

Registered nurses, 92 percent

Elementary school teachers, 91 percent

Hairdressers, 90 percent

Travel agents, 83 percent

Lay ecclesial ministers, 80 percent

Waiter/waitresses, 77 percent

Cashiers, 77 percent

So far, most writers on lay ministry tend to see this development positively, as a means of restoring gender balance to a ministerial corps which has traditionally been all-male.

David DeLambo, who worked on a 2005 study of lay ministry for the National Pastoral Life Center, has said that women ministers "bring sensitivity to lay concerns and to families, as well as to issues related to gender and inclusion," calling this "a gift to the church." He also noted that women ministers emphasize the relational dimension of their work, favoring experiences such as staff prayer, socializing outside of work, work retreats, days of recollection and faith-sharing. Male pastors tend to take a more functional view of parish tasks. DeLambo suggested that if parish ministry is going to work well, more attention needs to be paid to "workplace expectations," which in practice means the expectations of women.

Seeing lay ecclesial ministry as a means of including women, however, depends upon focusing on who's in the parish office. If one reverses the perspective and considers who's in the pews, things look quite different. From that angle, the predominantly female composition of the church's ministerial workforce could be seen as another chapter in the exclusion of men.

From the outside, such concern may seem counter-intuitive. Given that the clerical ranks in Catholicism are open only to men, it has long been conventional wisdom that women are "marginalized." Even in Protestant traditions where, in principle, women can serve as ministers, the reality is often male dominance. A 2001 study by the Barna Group, one of the leading sources for statistical data on American Protestantism, found that 95 percent of senior pastors in Protestant churches in the United States are men.

Yet below the top levels, the sociological pattern in Christianity has long been a predominance of women, both among church workers and church-goers. Sociologists Rodney Stark and Alan Miller have studied the religious gender gap, concluding that women are more religious than men by virtually every measure in virtually every culture. While the gender gap is smaller in highly traditional societies in which high levels of religious faith and practice are the norm for both sexes, nevertheless there's still a noticeable tendency for women to be more involved than men.

How to explain this gender gap is one of the great debates in religious sociology, and so far there's no consensus, but the underlying reality seems a fact of life.

In that light, some recent writers have voiced concern that Christianity actually alienates men. David Murrow's Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nelson Books, 2004) and Leon J. Podles' The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence, 1999), illustrate the point. Murrow is a Presbyterian and Podles a Catholic, but both have noticed something similar about their respective denominations.

As Podles put it succinctly, "Women go to church, men go to football games."

Podles believes that Western Christianity has been feminizing itself for the better part of 1,000 years, beginning with medieval imagery about the church as the "Bride of Christ," which he associates with St. Bernard of Clairvaux and exhortations to "fall in love" with Jesus. While that kind of imagery has a powerful impact on women, Podles wrote, it's off-putting for men. Podles argued that Christian men have sublimated their religious instincts into sports, soldiering, fraternal organizations, and even fascism. When they do engage in religious activity, he wrote, it's more likely to be in a more masculine para-church organization such as the Knights of Columbus (note the martial imagery) or Promise-Keepers.

Even reviewers who didn't buy Podles' historical arguments generally conceded that he was onto something in terms of Christian sociology.

On a less theoretical note, Murrow, a media and advertising specialist, said he looked around after attending weekly church services for almost 30 years, and drew what to him seemed an obvious conclusion: "It's not too hard to discern the target audience of the modern church," he wrote. "It's a middle-aged to elderly woman."

This was never anyone's intention, Murrow said, but it's the inevitable result of the fact that these women have two things every church needs: time and money. In that light, he said, it's no surprise that "church culture has subtly evolved to meet women's needs." Murrow agreed with Podles that "contemporary churches are heavily tilted toward feminine themes in the preaching, the music and the sentiments expressed in worship."

"If our definition of a 'good Christian' is someone who's nurturing, tender, gentle, receptive and guilt-driven, it's going to be a lot easier to find women who will sign up," Murrow wrote.

Whether this diagnosis is correct, and, if so, what to do about it, is not something that can be settled here. It seems a safe bet, however, that the rapid shift in parochial leadership towards women will exacerbate alarm about the "feminization" of the church. Put in its most basic form, the concern will be this: If the tone in most parishes is being set by female ministers, what will that do to the comfort level of men, given that women are already over-represented?

Also in the background, of course, is worry in some quarters that the overwhelmingly female composition of lay ecclesial ministry in the Catholic church is a stalking horse for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

One might expect that in light of these concerns, Catholic bishops and pastors in the future will practice a form of "affirmative action," seeking to hire more men. That may indeed be the case, though to some extent they're trapped between a rock and a hard place, because they also don't want to encourage young Catholic men to see lay ecclesial ministry as an alternative to the priesthood.

One bit of data in this regard: If 20 percent of the lay ecclesial ministers in the United States are men, that works out to about 6,200 male lay ministers. Perhaps it's not entirely a coincidence that the number of priests in the country dropped by precisely this amount between 1994 and 2005. While more study would be needed to establish a connection, it seems reasonable that at least some of those Catholic men wanted to serve the church, but didn't want the obligation of priestly celibacy, and lay ecclesial ministry provided another option.

For that reason, I suspect bishops and priests will be cautious about targeting men as lay ministers, which probably means non-sacramental parish ministry in Catholicism will remain a predominantly female enterprise. Pastorally, that may mean parishes will need to be alert to the possibility that the "feel" of church life will exacerbate the tendency for men to opt out.

One final observation is worth making. If lay ecclesial ministry continues to be a largely female profession, church officials will want to pay close attention to its impact on salary levels.

A 2007 study by the AFL-CIO found that as job categories come to be dominated by women, the social prestige attached to the position declines, as do average wages. Employment categories in which women occupy 70 percent or more of the jobs, the study found, typically pay a third less than jobs that are similar in terms of the skills required and the nature of the work, but which are more likely to be held by men. The 25.6 million American women who work in these predominantly female jobs lose an average of $3,446 in income each per year, compared to holding a similar job which is less gender-defined. Since men typically earn more than women across the board, the four million men who work in predominately female occupations lose an average of $6,259 each per year. Together, this amounts to a whopping $114 billion loss for men and women in predominately female jobs in the United States.

For a church that supports a "just wage" in the broader society, making sure its own employees are not the object of gender-based discrimination in wages will be an on-going challenge.

The Gospels paint a rather

Submitted by VOTFCLEV on July 2, 2007 - 7:37pm.

The Gospels paint a rather bleak picture of the male management of God’s people. The high priests engineered the capture and death of Jesus. The scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees all found fault with him. Jesus did not do much better with his hand picked management team. One of the senior managers betrayed him, his chief senior manager denied him, and the rest fled.

On the other hand the women were always there in the background, stayed by him at the Cross and were first witnesses to his Resurrection.

Since we have survived as God's people so much male mismanagement, maybe our male religious managers are not really that important after all. I lived in Washington D.C. when John Paul II said Mass on the Mall. I asked my pious mother if she would like to come down to see him. Her response, “No thank you, he is just a man.” The word "man" was said in a tone of voice that made it clear she did not mean “a human being” but rather “ a male of the species with all the faults normally associated with such.”

So I would second William Lindsey's point that we are focusing upon the wrong people in the church.

Jack Rakosky

Questions abound as I read

Questions abound as I read this article. The first is why we're suddenly concerned about the feminization of the church. Isn't the hardcore reality (which we've often ignored) that women have been carrying the church on their backs for a long, long time? What would Catholic education in the U.S. have been for generations without the contributions of religious women--often-overlooked, underpaid contributions? Why the sudden concern that men may be losing power and control?

The second question is one that always nags at me when I look at the careers of distinguished male writers, clerics--whatever--who have similarly unacknowledged, unnamed women carrying them on their backs. I have long thought that the real saint in the saga of Augustine is the unnamed lower-class concubine by whom he had a son, Adeodatus, and whom he simply discarded when his mother Monica urged him to espouse religion.

These arrangements--upper-class Roman men consorting with lower-class women whom they never married, and whom they discarded when they began their "real" lives--were certainly not out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, from a hagiographical standpoint, wouldn't it be interesting to re-examine Augustine's story and ask if that woman who cooked for him, washed his clothes, kept his house, and mothered his child--and whose name we don't even know--is actually the real saint of his story?

To ask that question is to re-frame what we think about the church, about sanctity, and about the taken-for-granted arrangements that govern the roles of men and women in world and church. So much male freedom and privilege--to gallivant about, to cozy up to the men who rule the world, to do interviews with them in quaint little bistros and transmit or interpret their nuggets of wisdom for the rest of us--so much of this depends on those unnamed, behind-the-scenes women who hold up the sky for their husbands.

Maybe the really interesting stories about the church would be written by the nameless wives of such male power-brokers and their spokespersons.

William D. Lindsey

My initial question to those

My initial question to those expressing concern that so many women are rising from the pews to put their love of Jesus into action in the lay ministry is "Do we have to thrust a football or basketball in Jesus' hands for men to do the same?" I do not believe that men are excluded from these positions. Perhaps men clutch to a limited view of God and cannot accept the masculine and feminine qualities of God? For so long, women have truly been excluded from these roles, and, now, in a time of crisis in our Church, when priest numbers are declining dramatically, women are taking an active role in nurturing the Church back to life. Let's not create yet one more male-female controversy in the Catholic Church, and, certainly, let's not forget that our primary concern is for the health of our Church as Christ made visible here on Earth.

None of the following

Submitted by donje on June 29, 2007 - 4:15pm.

None of the following comments intend in any way to denigrate the advances women have made in our culture and Church. George Gilder in his book Men and Marriage notes that men’s native interests tend toward the “F” words: Fighting, F---ing, and Fun (as in drinking bashes). Men are indeed very different from women. The “F” urges can be domesticated but they remain in place to be built upon. The feminizing of Liturgy, Church, whatever, would ignore these urges, or, worse, condemn men for having them. And there you have the problem.

At the deepest level, men will not fight with women; there’s no winning. If he loses it’s belittling; if he wins, she cries—also a looser. Sad to say, when women want “power’ in the Church, men will likely let them have it. If there should be women priests, men won’t fight it; they simply will not show up and will be heavily criticized by the women for not showing—as in “chauvinism.”

Many women want power over men, but themselves would rather serve under a man than a woman. Really? Ask them, as I have done and that will be their answer. (Personally, two of my best bosses have been women, and that includes bosses who were bishops.) Women do not intentionally feminize Church or Liturgy; they, often being more present than men in parishes, simply get their expressed needs met; also, being more interested in mothering the Church/parish they volunteer more and are willing to work for less compensation or for none. Priests and bishops who are weak leaders are usually plussed by meeting women’s needs and probably like the attention of the opposite sex, celibate as they are.

A book which well describes the feminization of American churches is: Missing From Action: Vanishing Manhood in America by Hardenbrook: well written; easy reading.

Interesting article. Another

Submitted by John Lilburne on June 29, 2007 - 3:30pm.

Interesting article. Another aspect of the issue is that the church has the "men only" ministries of instituted lector and instituted acolyte. But largely does not followed through with them. For example the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal has "101. In the absence of an instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture." But at the Vatican's Midnight Mass in recent years we see one reading by an instituted lector, the other by a woman. The Ceremonial of Bishops has in n. 31 "But in celebrations presided over by the bishop it is fitting that the readers formally instituted proclaim the readings ...". But not many bishops seem to making much effort to have this happen.

John Allen's columns are

John Allen's columns are always insightful and informed. His current column on "Lay ecclesial ministry and the feminization of the church" is perhaps one of the most hopeful I've read in a while. Change in the Church is slow and vary rare coming from the top down. What Allen is describing is a slow, silent change in the Catholic Church from the bottom up. I am male and welcome this change. The Catholic Church has survived but not always thrived with its male leadership. Not that an exclusively female leadership is the goal we should be seeking. I am not so naive that I don't see a host of problems emerging from this development within the Catholic Church. The goal I hope is a collaboration in which males and females bring their distinct perspectives and gifts to the leadership of the Church. How could the church not benefit from this?

Marion Brown I completely

Submitted by Marion Brown on June 29, 2007 - 12:52pm.

Marion Brown

I completely agree with John Allen's column on the femization of the Church through the predominance of women as lay ministers and the abdication of men to take their place in church affairs. We need some balance here and I don't see that happening. Scarey stuff for our children as they try to prepare for living in this world.

+ Neil,c.s.e.f., abbot to

+ Neil,c.s.e.f., abbot to the Interdenominational Community of Sts. Elizabeth and Francis

It is no wonder that Older Women are taking over the role of various Lay Ecclecial Ministies in the Parishes, they are not only older and financially stable but, far better at them than most Seminary graduates. That being said, the prime reason this may be happening is the big one: Money!

As a Degreed Lay theologian, I worked for the Roman Catholic Church for over 22 years. I have observed this continually. When the office of "DRE" appeared, only women who were married, Nuns or religiously motivated single women applied. (My classes at the GTU in Berkeley were 80% Women.) The Work load was enormous and the pay minuscule.

When even the nuns balked at the unjust salary, because even they had to buy their insurance, the Diocesan offices started calling the role "Ministries," as if that sanctification would be grounds for not paying a just salary. The Church, has been receiving the services of Women and Men for Free, and just can't get used to the idea that they should pay anyone for anything. Remmerer it's "Pray, PAY, and Obey!"

The highest salary I received after 22 years, for two,(2) half time, Ministries,(-full time they have to give you benefits...) Liturgist and Adult Education, was $17,000. for 12 months/ 60 hr.+ weeks. No Retirement, no medical, no nothing!

When my Parish Board, suggested to the Pastor after two years,that I should receive a more just wage, or at least a down payment for a car that ran, and tuition for on-going Education He said: " No! just a 3% raise like everyone else!"

Kids, well young adults, just out of Grad school with a M.Div. in other Religious denominations, (no experience besides a year of internship,) that year, BEGAN at $20,000.00!

Ministry isn't suppose to be about Money, but if the Church is going to hire qualified men or women, it need to pay a just salary that one can live on. (I lived in a Parish in the Silicon Valley.)

When I left that Parish, I didn't even have my College loans payed off. After a years Sabbatical, I began working for my County in Mental Health, at the lowest level - mental health Worker. (I put everything after High School down as hobbies.) In one year, I had my student loans payed off, made more money annually and had all types of insurance, retirement and paid vacation! I just retired after 23 years from the County, with a pension I can live on.

Is it any wonder that Peter was a fisherman, Paul a tentmaker, or one of my previous Diocesan chancellors a professional wood-worker on the side.

As these older women, die off, we will again find ourselves bereft of Ministries.

The other side of the MONEY problem is the people in the Pews. They still are putting $5.00 a week in the box. We really need to rethink giving a minimum of 10% of our income, to support the Ministries of our Church! Others do it and they have far more professional, dedicated and proficient Ministers.

Tittles are nice, but they don't put food on the table. Thanks for listening,

+neil, c.s.e.f.