Making the Ministry of the Pastoral Parish Development Assistant Work in America

By Harriet Pepps Wilson

The question of the role of the laity is an important one; one which the Church here in America has failed to address adequately. Granted, the Orthodox Church has always maintained the concept that the Church is comprised of both clergy and laity, and without each other there is no Church. The Church, of course, wants and needs lay workers. Yet the question of lay theologians—ministers—is another issue.

What one usually finds in our parishes is that the priests beg parishioners to volunteer their services in various areas. Then he is responsible for overseeing what those parishioners teach. Today, however, we find lay theologians graduating from our seminaries and desiring to be utilized by the Church. They want an opportunity to serve Christ in His Holy Catholic Church. And yet, we see the Church does not really know what to do with them or how to utilize their services.

What one sees upon graduation from seminary is the male seminarians, if ready, being ordained and sent to parishes to serve as second priests. If the seminarian is not ready for or does not choose ordination, or is not male, then s/he is basically left on his/her own to find a position for him/herself as a lay theologian. The seminary tries to make students aware of positions available in communities, but that is basically it. There is no formal Placement Office, nor systematic work within the lay ministry, nor any sort of follow-up procedure.

Areas of Need to Make It Work

In regard to the ministry of the lay theologian, there are some areas of need which must be addressed to make this ministry work.

First, as stated above, is the vital need for a formal Placement Office and systematic procedure for finding positions. This is vital not only for the practical reason that it makes communities and students aware of mutual needs, but even more because it places upon the ministry a mark of approval and practical function in the life of the Church.

Second is the need to establish some uniformity in the ministry. At this point, the position of this ministry depends totally on the particular parish hiring. Thus, one parish may utilize the lay theologian in a professional way—giving sermons, ministering to the sick, etc., while another parish may see the individual merely as an office worker—typing, running off materials, working in a less professional capacity. When we look at the office of the priesthood, we see a uniform set of duties viewed in a professional way.

Granted, each priest sees his ministry in a unique way depending on his gifts and the needs of his people; yet there is consistency present. There is a need for some sort of uniform, systematic job description for lay theologians, flexible enough to meet the individual parish needs, but basically uniform for consistency. The term “professional” needs to be emphasized because too often communities fail to realize that this individual has received a Masters Degree in a particular area of Theology.

Also, a guideline of salary and benefits should be established. This will vary as it does for the priests; yet, it should be addressed, for the professional lay theologian is a highly educated person.

Third, along the lines of uniformity and professionalism, a title for the professional lay theologian should be established and used. This would mark the ministry with the authority of the Church.

This title would in no way take away the flexibility of the individual lay theologian or the particular needs of a particular parish; just as we see that each priest has an individual ministry that depends on many variables. Today, we see some communities referring to their lay theologian as “lay assistant,” “youth director,” “administrative assistant,” etc. I believe a title incorporating the concept of “pastoral assistant” better expresses the ministry, for although we are lay persons, our service is to assist the pastor and the community where they need us.

Effectiveness of This Ministry

In regard to the “effectiveness” of this ministry, until now it has been difficult to measure, since it is a relatively new concept for our Church today. We find our Church is in a state of reserve, watching to see what this position is all about, even though if we look into the teachings of the Church we will see it is not contrary to the Faith. If our seminaries and various Archdioceses assist graduates to establish the role of this ministry, communities will become more aware and encouraging. Any lack of “effectiveness” of this ministry up to this point is due in large part to a lack of communication about and direction of the ministry.

Just as our priests need support, the pastoral assistants also need to feel support. This is why I sense a need for a Placement Office which maintains contact with the pastoral assistant and provides feedback. Pastoral assistants need to get together for seminars and retreats, just as the priests gather to learn from one another, and need peer contact. Perhaps the pastoral assistant could combine with the priests for some seminars. It appears that once the lay theologian leaves the Seminary, s/he is almost forgotten. The lay theologian needs to maintain contact with fellow coworkers and with the seminary.

In looking at the needs of our parishes today, realistically speaking there is an obvious need for pastoral assistants in parish life. There is a shortage of priests. There are many communities too large for one priest to handle, yet not large enough to require another priest. In our medium to large parishes the pastoral assistant becomes the solution to the problem. Also, this individual, having a theological background and yet maintaining an identity with parishioners as a layperson, can contribute a vital ministry to the life of the Church. Depending on the parish and its needs, this ministry at times could be more useful than that of a second priest.

My Personal Experience

I have been asked how the priests and parishioners in the communities where I have served accepted me. Both the communities I have had the pleasure of serving have wanted me. My working relationships with the priests and the parishioners have been wonderful. Both priests accepted me as a professional and both made it known that I was a graduate of the school of Theology with a Masters in Theology. I have felt very comfortable serving in this capacity. Of course, it has been a learning and growing process for us all—community, priest, and assistant (me). This is a new concept and there will be growing pains.

I would encourage lay theologians who intend to go into parishes to deal with who they are and what strengths and weaknesses they have. They must really develop a positive and realistic concept of what they will be able to achieve in a community. They must learn to perceive themselves as professionals and to maintain a professional job stance with ease. It is very easy to get caught up in the maintenance end of Church life. Granted, as a pastoral assistant you will have to do some of that, just as the priest has administrative duties. Nevertheless, it is vital that priorities be set up and maintained so that the pastoral assistant is utilized in the best possible way.

I also suggest that a solid relationship be established between the priest of the community and the pastoral assistant. Weekly they should sit and discuss programs or concepts of ministry, etc. It is important that their individual ministries become one ministry. The pastoral assistant will often represent the priest, and thus must know and represent a unity of ministry.

Job Description Varied

In regard to the job description and the ministry, it will vary according to the needs of the community. If a community has a large number of youth, then that may be a major area of ministry for the pastoral assistant. The pastoral assistant should not, however, be only a Youth Director. Our Church needs to ministry to all our people’s needs: youth, senior citizens, women, men, children. To isolate them is dangerous. We see in today’s society a lack of “family” interaction. Families do not even eat meals together anymore. Kids go one way and adults another. The Church must be family (total) oriented. We need Youth Programs but we also need our youth to become involved in, not separated from, the life of the Church. Examples of areas I would suggest as part of the ministry are: responsibility for the religious education of the parish (all types of programs), responsibility for the senior citizens, responsibilities for hospital visitations, counseling and lay ministries, spiritual renewal activities and activities the pastor needs assistance with.

The position of the pastoral assistant is an exciting, terrifying, wonderful, life-changing experience—“it is a ministry.”

I conclude by raising the question, “Is the Church ready for the pastoral assistant?” There is a need in the Church that this role can fulfill.

There is much work for many hands in the vineyard of Christ. We want to serve… and the harvest is ready.

Reprinted by permission from Orthodox People Together (1991), 5045 Eldridge St., Golden, CO 80403.

Harriet Pepps Wilson, a 1980 MTS graduate from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, has served as a Lay Assistant since her graduation at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, FL, and at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Cleveland (North Royalton), OH.

She is presently with the Greek Orthodox Department of Religious Education, Brookline, MA.