Women in Church Leadership
Lay Ecclesial Ministers in the Catholic Church

The same God who called Prisca and Aquila to work with Paul in the first century calls thousands of men and women to minister in our Church in this twenty-first century.  This is cause for rejoicing.   (“Co-Workers in the Vineyard,”US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005, p. 45)

* Eighty percent of over 30,000 paid lay ministers in the United States are women.


  • As of 2005, there were 30,632 lay ministers working in paid positions of at least 20 hours per week in the U.S. Catholic Church. Laywomen comprised 64% of the total, laymen 20%, and women religious 16%.  (Lay Parish Ministers David DeLambo of the National Pastoral Life Center)
  • In 2005, two-thirds of all U.S. parishes had paid lay ministers, up from 60 percent in 1997.  Religious educators (41.5%) and general pastoral ministers (25%) account for two thirds of all parish ministers. (Lay Parish Ministers David DeLambo of the National Pastoral Life Center)
  • As of 1998,  25.5 % of all top diocesan administrative positions were held by women. (1995-1998 National Association of Church Personnel Administrators study of 100 participating dioceses)
  • “The Canon Law Society of America [CLSA] developed an administrative review process that allows for hearing grievances in situations involving termination of church employees or other conflicts.  In their studies, lack of due process...was often cited as a source of tension and injustice in pastoral and administrative positions.” (1994 report given to CLSA as cited in Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ [LCWR] Benchmarks report)


  • In 2005, forty-eight percent of lay ministers had a Master’s degree or better, a drop from 53% reported in 1990.(Lay Parish Ministers  David DeLambo of the National Pastoral Life Center)
  • In 2006, there were 3,306 graduate level seminarians in the U.S. There were 4,797 lay ministry candidates pursuing graduate degrees in ministry.  All together there were 16,037 laity enrolled in ministry education programs, 66% of whom were women. (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Georgetown University)
  • In a 2001 survey, 88% of 85 Catholic graduate schools who responded, offered financial assistance to lay ministers. 56% of 153 dioceses that responded offered some financial assistance for lay people in graduate ministry programs.

What We Can Do

  1. Provide personal support by recognizing and affirming the ministry of pastoral ministers in your parish.
  2. Make sure your pastoral minister is justly compensated and provide financial support through contributions to your parish so just compensation is possible.
  3. Find out if your diocese subsidizes the education of lay ministers, and if so at what level? Explore with local diocesan educational institutions what can be done to further the education of lay ministers.
  4. Find out if your diocese has a ceremony commissioning lay ministers. Is the ceremony covered in the diocesan paper?
  5. Does your diocese encourage personnel policies that allow competent women to serve in the diocese and in parishes?  These include: just compensation; position descriptions; clear procedures for hiring, evaluating, and terminating personnel; and settling grievances. Do such policies apply to the priest ministers as well as to the lay ministers?
  6. Does your diocese have a recognized grievance procedure for church employees?  How often is it used?
  7. Does your diocese have an office on lay ministry? If not, what diocesan institution or office represents the interests of lay ministers? If you don’t have such a commission or office, ask your Bishop to begin one. If you do have such an office, ask how they respond to the concerns of lay ministers and what you can do to support the participation of lay ministers in diocesan ministry and decision making.
  8. Find out how many qualified women serve in senior administrative positions in your diocese, and what kinds of positions woman hold in the chancery. Are woman equally represented on all diocesan and parish boards, including the finance committee?

5% of Catholic graduate schools responding estimated that their financial aid covered  50% or more of total tuition costs. Dioceses surveyed were not asked to make this estimate. (U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Lay Ministry 2001 survey). Seminarians’ studies, room and board are largely subsidized by their diocese or religious orders. In 2006, graduate seminary tuition averaged $12,582 per year.  Seminarian room and board costs averaged $7,596 per year. (CARA, 2006)


  • In 2005, the average salary for full time lay ministers was $35,261  per year, a significant increase from 1992, when the average salary range for full time lay ministers was $13,000 to $20,000 per year. Two thirds of lay ministers agree that their earnings were adequate for their needs.  (Lay Parish Ministers  David DeLambo of the National Pastoral Life Center)  A 2002 survey by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils reported that average priest salaries ranged from $15,291 to $18,478 per year. In addition to a salary, diocesan priests receive a package of benefits that may include a car allowance, free room and board in the parish rectory, health insurance, and a retirement plan.

Lay Ministers and the Priest Shortage

  • In 2006, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 75% of the 18,000 active diocesan priests in the U.S. are over 55 years old, but only about 350 new diocesan priests are being ordained each year. Presuming ordinations remain constant, in 20 years, there could be as few as 11,500 active diocesan priests for 19,000 U.S. parishes.
  • In 2005, 22% of U.S. parishes had pastors responsible for more than one parish. This percentage “will only grow in coming years if trends continue.  (Lay Parish Ministers  David DeLambo of the National Pastoral Life Center)
  • A 2005 report from CARA showed  600 U.S.parishes were led by a pastoral life coordinator (administrator of priestless parishes). Sixty percent were women.

Access to Decision Making

  • In 1995 the National Association of Lay Ministers (NALM) conducted listening sessions that found lay ministers have difficulty obtaining recognition commensurate with their contribution to parish life.  Lay ministers reported high frustration at exclusion from decision-making processes in their areas of expertise. (NALM as cited in the LCWR Benchmarks report)
  • In 1994 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called for alternative ways in which women [lay ministers] can exercise leadership in the Church and called for further study of the possibility of linking jurisdiction to baptism rather than ordination. (“Strengthening the Bonds of Peace”, U.S. Catholic Bishops)
  • In 1996, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious noted: “as long as jurisdiction (the power to govern) is tied to ordination, a very limited number of roles with authority will be open to women. The relationship of jurisdiction to ordination creates a glass ceiling for women in the church.” (Benchmarks)

Witness of Scripture/Church Teaching

  • The Christian Scriptures give ample evidence of Jesus’ calling of women and men to discipleship and to ministry. Some of these include the married missionary couples Prisca and Aquila and Junia and Andronicus (Romans 16).  Other prominent women leaders seen in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters include Mary of Magdala, Martha and her sister Mary, Susanna, Joanna, the Samaritan woman, Phoebe, Lydia, Nympha, Evodia and Syntyche.
  • In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “CoWorkers in the Vineyard,” the culmination of a five year process to formally recognize and issue guidelines for the emergence of lay ecclesial ministers in the Church.
  • In 1995 Pope John Paul apologized for past historical injustices to women and called for full equality for women in all arenas of life. (Letter to Women) In 2006, Pope Benedict publicly acknowledged the need to “to offer more space, more positions of responsibility to women.”

Is your pastoral minister:

  • Involved in decision-making about parish matters?
  • Present in a visible role at liturgy?
  • Being paid a just wage?
  • Permitted to preach on appropriate occasions?
  • Named with priest ministers in parish publications and  announcements?
  • Invited to meet twice a year with the Bishop to discuss concerns?
  • Blessed with a parish welcome and farewell celebration when s/he arrives or leaves?


Lee, Bernard J. S.M., Fleischer, Barbara J., and Topper, Charles (1995). A Same and Different Future: A Study of Graduate Ministry Education in Catholic Institutions of Higher Learning in the United States. New  Orleans, LA: Loyola Institute for Ministry.               

Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (2006). Catholic Ministry Formation Enrollments Statistical Overview for 2005-2006 .Washington, DC: Georgetown University.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2005). CoWorkers in the Vineyard.

Leadership Conference of Women Religious (1996).Creating a Home: Benchmarks for Church LeadershipRoles for Women. Silver Spring, MD. LCWR.

DeLambo,David, (2005). Lay Parish Ministers New York: National Pastoral Life Center.

Fox, Zeni. (1997) New Ecclesial Ministry. Kansas City, KS: Sheed and Ward.

National Association of Lay Ministry (1998) No Turning Back: A Lay Perspective on Ministry in the Catholic Church in the United States.

Cusak, B.. and Sullivan, T.G  (1995) Pastoral Care in Parishes without a Pastor Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America.


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