In many denominations, non-ordained people are involved in ministry alongside those who are ordained. Research undertaken by the Christian Research Association between 2006 and 2008 for Uniting and Anglican churches explored the patterns of lay ministry in rural areas. With declining numbers of clergy available for ministry, and declining capacity to support ordained clergy, many denominations have engaged local lay people to take responsibility in leadership (Hughes & Kunciunas, 2008, 2009). Urban churches also often use non-ordained people as part of a team or to take the responsibility of leadership in small churches.

Earlier this year the CRA was commissioned by the Australian Catholic Council for Lay Pastoral Ministry, of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, to carry out research examining lay pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church in Australia. The project involved an exploration of current theological and sociological literature on the topic, and a series of case studies of Catholic parishes in different contexts where lay pastoral ministry is occurring.


In many Catholic dioceses in Australia, lay pastoral ministers have been appointed to undertake pastoral responsibilities in local parishes. In some situations the appointments have been in response to a shortage of priests in the local area, whilst in other situations the work of the lay pastoral minister complements the priest’s duties. While the term ‘lay pastoral ministry’ is a common term, different dioceses have developed different terminology and descriptions for the role, such as ‘non-ordained ministry’, ‘lay ecclesial ministry’ or ‘lay apostolate’.

The research also demonstrated the ambiguity around the ‘pastoral’ aspect of the term. Are liturgical ministries, sacramental preparations or other such ministries pastoral, for example? Even in administrative roles, there is often an important pastoral element. In every parish, the nature and function of lay pastoral ministry is developed in a particular way as needed in that situation. The issue of the adequacy, or rather the inadequacy, of language was evident throughout the research.

From the perspective of the people in the parishes, however, lay ministry simply happens as people ‘get in and do what needs to be done in the parish’. The practicalities of ministries and the viability of the parish are more important than formal structures or using particular terminology.


Nearly all participants in the case studies recognised the importance of lay pastoral ministry within the Church, although there were various reasons given for it. Some of those involved saw their ministry as a responsibility of being Catholic and they were giving back to the communities in which they had grown up. Other participants saw their ministry as witnessing to their faith in the community, recognising the value in the diversity of experiences and gifts which lay people can bring to the Church.

The ownership of lay ministry was also related to the mission of the parish, and about the question ‘Who’s parish is it anyway?’ Is it the priest’s? Or does it belong to all the active parishioners, the ones who go to Mass and are involved, or to all Catholics in the local community? As one volunteer lay pastoral worker noted,

As a parishioner we need to own our parish, and what we want. Because now we are going to see priests coming and going, and we can’t just wait for the next one to say ‘take us on a new direction’, because we’re going to get lost. So we need to be strong in what our direction is and take the priest with us.

However, in some parishes, there was little sense of shared ownership of the life and mission of the parish. For some, lay pastoral ministry was about ‘helping Father’, rather than a responsibility for all Catholics.

Work’ versus ‘Ministry’

There are many lay people in ministry who undertake their role in a professional capacity, that is, they are paid a wage or salary. Other people undertake the role in an honorary or unpaid capacity. Many of the participants in the case studies who were working in paid parish ministry were also parishioners of the parish, and had experienced a tension between the ‘official work’ they undertook as a parish paid staff member and the ‘ministry’ they carried out as a parishioner. In many instances, lay pastoral ministers were expected to work well beyond the hours for which they were paid. In a number of instances there were indications that some lay ministers were facing burnout from overwork and in attempting to balance work with other aspects of their lives. Some involved in ministry in an unpaid capacity also had difficulties in balancing the demands of their ministries. Sometimes paid lay pastoral ministers were left to determine their own boundaries regarding what constituted work. This required discipline and a degree of experience in prioritising tasks.

The Local Ministry Environment

The structures or models of pastoral ministry in the case study settings were primarily shaped by the local context, although, in some settings, the diocesan plan or framework was also instrumental. The structure for engaging lay pastoral ministers was largely dependent upon the local situation. In some cases, the parish had employed a pastoral worker to assist the priest, while in others a professionally-trained and accredited ‘pastoral associate’ had been employed to take on a significant leadership role, alongside the priest, in the provision of pastoral care. Less common was the employment of a pastoral coordinator who, in the absence of a resident parish priest, oversaw the pastoral responsibilities in the parish. All of these roles could be part-time or full-time.

Generally, lay pastoral workers were happy in their positions, and felt their relationships with others in their communities was positive. Communication with other lay, ordained or religious leaders was seen as an important component in maintaining good communication in the parish. There were instances, however, where priests seemed to feel threatened by the relationships lay leaders had with parishioners and where there were tensions in communication between the lay workers and priests. Such tensions often occurred when a new priest was appointed to a parish or a new lay pastoral minister joined the team. It was important at these points of transition for there to be an open discussion of roles and ministries and a recognition of the ministry that had been occurring.

For many of the paid lay pastoral ministers there was inherent insecurity in their work, due to fluidity in the tenure of parish priests. If a new priest was appointed to a parish who did not share the same vision or mission as the previous priest, or if a new priest came with a different leadership style or mandate, then other ministry staff appointments could become tenuous. The priest had the right to terminate appointments and few lay pastoral ministers could move to similar positions in other parishes, due to personal practicalities and the lack of recognition of roles, accreditation processes, training and formation. Some participants recalled that, in the past, there was little or no formation for unpaid, occasional ministries, and in a few of the case-study locations this was still the case. Or, as one participant described it, just ‘a hope that you can do the best you can’. In some locations, dioceses had provided formation and/or training for the various lay roles.

Some lay pastoral ministers had undertaken theological training. Others assumed that ‘training’ would be done ‘on the job’. Most of the lay pastoral ministers who had not undertaken such formal education saw value in doing so. One ordained participant commented that training and formation for lay pastoral ministers not only kept the individual informed of the latest theological discussion, but also provided a structure and motivation for continuing personal and professional development. On the other hand, training was not always practical, for example for people in remote rural parishes. Some priests suggested that there were times when ministers did not prioritise theological reading and reflection because they were busy ‘doing ministry’.

The working conditions of the lay pastoral ministers varied greatly. Most felt that their roles required them to respond to daily activities in a flexible way. For some, flexibility was also needed for the long-term, particularly in parishes where long-term planning did not intentionally occur. In the day-to-day routines of their positions, many of the paid participants acknowledged and appreciated having flexible working arrangements. While the flexible and transitory nature of many lay pastoral ministry roles suited some people, it could also be detrimental to the stability of that form of ministry. In the parishes visited, there were a variety of forms of remuneration for paid staff and a variety of working conditions. However, in many situations there was no common rationale for determining what remuneration was appropriate.


Lay pastoral ministry in Catholic parishes has been increasingly significant in patterns of leadership, and throughout Australia it takes a great variety of forms. Often it has been developed to meet particular needs in specific locations, sometimes as a consequence of intentional planning, whilst at other times as a response to a particular crisis.

The research identified that there is a need to bring about attitudinal changes in some parishes and for parish leadership (not just the parish priest) and parishioners to collaborate more effectively in ministry and mission. The research also indicated that rigorous processes for the selection, formation, accreditation and authorisation of lay pastoral ministry encourage high quality ministry practice. Whereas patterns in the training, support and professional development for ordained leaders are well established, similar patterns for those in lay ministry leadership are lacking, and in many situations do not exist at all. The research team noted that it is necessary to develop the professionalism of lay roles, in a similar way that Catholic schools and Catholic health have done over recent decades. Dr Bob Dixon, Director of the Catholic Pastoral Research Office, has called for such a rethink about parish leadership in light of the shortage of priests in Australia. He specifically draws the comparison between the professionalisation of Catholic schools and Catholic health institutions, which have continued to flourish since lay professionals have become dominant in their workforces, while many parishes which have largely remained dependent on ordained leadership have struggled (Dixon, 2014, pp. 278-281).

In the past, the Catholic Church has depended on priests and religious personnel who have devoted themselves entirely to working for the Church. They have received little pay, but they have had few responsibilities for families, as other personnel have. It has been expected that they would always be available for the needs of the parishioners and the parish community. Unlike in most professions, priests and religious do not ‘come home’ from work at the end of the day. On the other hand, they have generally been well looked after and given a high level of security in terms of housing, the necessities of life and on-going security in work. This same system, however, cannot be used for lay people who are employed in the parish, or who volunteer to be engaged in parish ministry.

Many lay people have families for whom they are responsible. There are other spheres of life in which they need to be engaged. Indeed, family and other contributions to the wider community are part of their Christian responsibility, and one could argue such contributions add to the experience and attributes they bring to their ministry. Therefore, it is inappropriate that lay people be expected to work beyond their agreed hours of responsibility, that they always be available, and that they work without adequate recompense.

Catholic dioceses, and all Christian denominations for that matter, face the challenge of how to be exemplars in workplace practices relating to lay pastoral ministry. In recognising that working for a church or church organisation can be different from working in secular workplaces, the Catholic Church has the opportunity to develop models of workplace practice which reflect the Gospel values it espouses and which draw on its own strong social teachings about work. At the same time it faces theological problems about the nature of ministry and the distinction between lay and ordained roles, as well as practical problems to do with appropriate training, job security, ability to pay, and so on. Growing practical recognition of and appreciation for the role of lay pastoral workers will enhance the life and the mission of the Church in Australia.

Stephen Reid


Dixon, R., 2014. ‘The Science of Listening: Context and Challenges Facing the Catholic Community in Australia’, Australasian Catholic Record, July, Vol. 91:3, pp. 264-280.

Hughes, P. and A. Kunciunas, 2008. Rural Churches in the Uniting Church in South Australia: Models for Ministry. Research Paper No. 7. Christian Research Association, Melbourne.

Hughes, P. and A. Kunciunas, 2009. Sowing and Nurturing: Challenges and Possibilities for Rural Churches. Christian Research Association, Melbourne.

McGrath, A., P. Hughes and S. Reid. 2015. Exploring Lay Pastoral Ministry in the Catholic Church. Project Report to the Australian Catholic Council for Lay Pastoral Ministry. Christian Research Association, Melbourne.

This article was published in Pointers: The Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 25, no.4, December 2015, pp. 8-10.