The Catholic Church continues to experience much pain. More revelations of abuse have been exposed. These included not only a cardinal but also a very prominent and well-known lay person. We have made great strides. There’s more accountability and safeguards especially concerning our children and youth. People have suffered. The Church as the Body of Christ has been harmed. The reputation of the Church as a public institution has been tarnished.

With all that has happened in the Church I am frequently asked, “How can you stay?” and “Why do you remain Catholic?” My immediate response, from the heart, is “How can I leave?” I want to help foster good changes within my Church. I have too much invested in the Church. Christ has too much invested in me. Even though I have thought about leaving the Church, I cannot abandon the Church when it needs me the most. Most especially, I cannot abandon the good parish priests who have been steadfast in their ministry. The Church needs good clergy to foster healing and growth. It also needs lay people for the same reason. It needs leaders. Do you think that the clergy should be the only leaders in the Church?

Who leads the Church? Of course, we follow Jesus Who is the true leader of the Church. We look to the pope and our bishops for Spiritual and practical guidance. Locally we are led by our pastors, priests, deacons and religious. These are not the only people who can and should lead the Church. 

In 1980, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral statement: Called and Gifted: The American Catholic Laity. With this statement, the U.S. bishops affirmed the importance of lay men and women answering the Lord’s call and encouraged the laity to take an active and responsible role in the mission of the Church. This was restated in 1995 and 2006 in the U.S. bishops document, Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium. The Church supports and affirms the role of the laity: “Sharing in the function of Christ, priest, prophet, and king, the laity have an active part of their own in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity within the Church communities is so necessary that without it the apostolate of the pastors will frequently be unable to obtain its full effect” (Apostolate of the Lay People, 10).

Lay people with their diverse knowledge and experience have a right and a responsibility to contribute to our shared understanding of what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. 

“[The laity] are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church” (Lumen Gentium: The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Second Vatican Council).

Lumen Gentium no. 31 defines the laity as all faithful except those in holy orders and those in religious state sanctioned by the Church. Through our Baptism we are made one body with Christ and established as people of God. The laity share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ. They carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian faithful with respect to the Church and to the world. This is a special quality of lay people.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (897-913) also reinforces the role of the laity in the Church. 

There is an important distinction to note between clergy and laity. The priest, by virtue of Holy Orders, is charged with the threefold ministry of teaching, Sanctifying and governing. Priests are co-workers with the laity. Lay people cannot perform ministerial functions but can assist the priest in performing pastoral care. The pastor is in charge of the parish. As such, lay people do not have authority over him but both are co-responsible for care of the faithful and the success of the parish. Ideally, the individual gifts and charisms of the laity will be used by the pastor to share in the appropriate pastoral responsibilities.

So now that we know that since lay people can assume leadership positions in the Church, what should this leadership look like?

Leadership means to lead, guide or influence. Some assume leadership positions to assume power, control or prestige. People don’t like to follow these kinds of leaders. Ideally, a parish leader will be a disciple who wishes to serve others. This is where we get the term Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership is a philosophy in which the leader’s role is to serve others or serve the well-being of the organization. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main role is to promote the success of the organization and is not so much concerned about people. 

The true servant leader serves followers by helping them achieve their goals.

Servant Leadership is best defined by Jesus Himself: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:26-28). As followers of Christ, all leadership should be Servant Leadership.

The disciples asked for a place of honor when Jesus returned to Heaven. But Servant Leadership does not come with glory, power, and positions of honor. Jesus modeled the true servant style of leadership. He was the Son of God, yet He bent down and washed their feet, teaching them the true meaning of leading by first serving others (Jn 13:12-17). There are many who want to exercise authority but few who want to take the towel and basin and wash feet. Every Christian is called by Christ to be a servant. A servant leader invests herself or himself into the lives of the people of the community so that as a whole, the Church community is challenged to grow and be more like Christ.

Servant Leaders are humble and selfless. They focus on building the Body of Christ and the support of the community. They create safe and positive environments that foster innovation and vision. They promote unconditional dignity and respect for all people.

The Church needs leaders now more than ever. Lay leaders are needed to serve in roles to assist the pastors who are overloaded with responsibilities. Lay leaders are needed to serve in roles to help the Church heal. Lay leaders are needed to serve as role models for our children and youth. There are all kinds of ministerial opportunities in the Church for servant leadership. It could be as simple as facilitating a prayer group. It could be teaching about your faith as a catechist. You could serve on the parish pastoral council. 

While all parishes welcome someone to coordinate the annual parish picnic or be the chairperson for the next fund-raiser, leading the Spiritual life of the parish is much more than that. Pastoral leadership involves discipleship. Servant leadership involves serving others, helping them to grow in their faith and increasing their closeness to God. The beauty about servant leadership is that the leader grows in faith along with the one who is served.

If you are invested in your Catholic faith as Christ is invested in you, then seek opportunities to help the Church heal and grow from within. Work with your pastor to take advantage of your talents and gifts that can be applied to grow the faith life of your parish.

Rick Swenton is a parishioner of St. Pius the Tenth Church in South Yarmouth and is a member of the choir and a cantor. He received a certificate in Lay Ministry from the Archdiocese of Hartford with a focus on Liturgy and Music and is a published composer. He resides with his wife, Gail, in South Dennis.