By Maureen Smith
Since the Catholic Diocese of Jackson does not have enough priests to staff every parish and mission full time with an ordained pastor of its own, the church has called on lay members to help with administrative, educational and other jobs. These people, called lay ecclesial ministers (LEM), are appointed by the bishop, go through a formation process through the diocese and fall under the supervision of a priest. Pastoral ministers, such as music leaders or youth leaders, also serve their church using their gifts, but are not appointed by the bishop the way LEMs are.
“LEMs have the regular administrative duties a pastor would normally have – such as presiding over the parish council and finance committee, maintaining sacramental records and serving as administrator of parish property. LEMs are also empowered by the bishop of the diocese to preach the Word of God at a daily Communion service or at a Sunday service in the absence of a priest; and baptize in the absence of a priest, as well as coordinate and perform other sacramental and liturgical ministry,” explained Sheila Przesmicki, who serves as the LEM at Booneville St. Francis of Assisi parish.
Paula Fulton became the LEM at Louisville Sacred Heart Parish June 1, replacing a retiring Barbara Sturbaum who served in the position for 21 years. She will work with two assistants to serve the Catholic community there. “I want our church members to find projects and participate in the community.
Hopefully our membership will grow and include more young families,” said Fulton. She became interested in lay ministry when a pair of nuns came to run her parish because of the priest shortage. She said now she is committed to the idea of lay leadership. “If our church is going to continue to grow and thrive, lay leaders must evolve and become committed to continuing our presence in small communities,” she said.
A pastor must first recommend someone to start training to be an LEM. The training, offered and coordinated by the Office of Faith Formation includes academic and practical knowledge. “Lay Ecclesial Ministers, Pastoral Ministers and others who serve as lay leaders have the opportunity for an annual weekend retreat, a week-long training every June at Lake Tiak O’Khata, participation in LIMEX or Spring Hill College courses, as well as theology courses provided through the Diocesan Catechist Certification process,” explains the training document from the Faith Formation office on how a lay person becomes an LEM. They also have the opportunity to take classes to learn other practical skills such as parish administration, team leadership and education.
Both Spring Hill College and the University of Loyola in New Orleans, which offers the LIMEX program, offer extension programs in the diocese in which people can earn a master’s degree in theology. LEMs need this kind of academic training when they are running the day-to-day operations of a parish, planning liturgical celebrations and dealing with issues in a parish, but LEMs do not administer sacraments. The LEM will collaborate with the priest who ministers to the spiritual needs of a community.
Przesmicki said she did not have an ‘a-ha’ moment leading her into lay leadership, but has been involved in the work of the church since she was a child. “My first job in ministry was in the fourth or fifth grade when Father (her pastor) asked me to straighten up the books in church and make sure the kneelers were up on Mondays. He paid me a dollar to do it and I was just so pleased to have something to do,” she said. She took on larger roles as the years passed until she was called to replace a retiring sister who ministered to the parish in Houston. She said the gradual call kept leading her to more and more work in the diocese.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) outlines the role, supervision and training of lay people who serve in ministry in a document called “Co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord.” “Today in parishes, schools, church institutions, and diocesan agencies, laity serve in various ‘ministries, offices and roles’ that do not require sacramental ordination but rather ‘find their foundation in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, indeed, for a good many of them, in the Sacrament of Matrimony.’
“What Pope Paul VI said of the laity thirty years ago—and what the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically repeats — has now become an important, welcomed reality throughout our dioceses,” reads part of the introduction. The Diocese of Jackson has 17 parish LEMs and countless other lay catechists, parish leaders and more.
“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,” continues the USCCB document.
By Maureen Smith