Few parishes use lay pastoral associates

By 
  • February 8, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Lay pastoral associates have been active in the archdiocese of Toronto for more than 20 years, but today the position has reached a plateau.

“The number (of LPAs) has been static for a number of years,” said Bill Targett, leader of the lay ministry formation team in the Office of Lay Ministry, Chaplaincy and Parish Social Ministry for the archdiocese.

A lay pastoral associate is a lay person — but can also include religious Sisters and Brothers — who assists the pastor with the functioning of the parish, primarily sacramental preparation and outreach programs.

There are 35,000 LPAs in North America, 55 of whom work for the archdiocese of Toronto. The majority of the Toronto associates are religious Sisters and only five are male.

Targett suggests not many new positions have been opening up because parishes are unable to raise enough money to pay for an LPA. And priests who are comfortable with working with LPAs have already been paired up.

“Some pastors are still learning to work with deacons and the relationship between pastor and lay person is even more complicated. In many situations priests don’t understand how to share their pastoral role,” he said.

“Pastors take their leadership seriously. It’s not about power. They just have a clear understanding of what’s at stake.”

Two years ago Fr. James Hannah hired Karen Corcoran to work as an associate at his parish Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“I needed the help,” said Hannah, who piloted the lay pastoral associate ministry as the former director of the Office of Lay Ministry.

“An LPA brings a unique dimension to the parish. A lay person can call forth different gifts from the parishioners.”

A few months after she started there was an installation Mass for Corcoran where Hannah presented her with a list of all the parishioners’ names.

“It was a symbol to show that I am responsible for making sure that the parish is thriving. He makes who I am to the parish very public,” said Corcoran, who completed a masters of divinity from Regis College in Toronto before applying for the position.

Targett said that not all LPAs are acknowledged by the congregation, depending on how the pastor has introduced them to the parish.

One misconception is that “they are seen as a staff helper who is not playing a vital role in the pastoral leadership where in reality many are,” he said.

There is no standardized job description for LPAs.

“At some point (the archdiocese) will need to develop a really accurate job description so pastors and LPAs don’t feel it’s unclear,” Targett said.

“I had to feel my way through. I didn’t know what to expect when I was first hired,” said Corcoran.

Today, Corcoran’s duties are to co-faciliate the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults with Hannah, co-ordinate all sacraments of initiation (Baptism, First Communion, First Reconciliation, Confirmation), as well as to facilitate a women’s faith sharing group for seniors and help with the youth ministry program.

This allows Hannah to concentrate on presiding at all liturgical celebrations, preparing couples for marriage and taking care of the parish administration.

“Having a woman working with me adds an important balance to the leadership in the parish. People will raise different issues with Karen than with me,” said Hannah.

“If (Karen) wasn’t here those programs wouldn’t be happening and those people who the programs serve would not be coming.”

Not all parishes, however, are able to raise a salary for an LPA. The western portion of the archdiocese has the most lay pastoral associates, partly due to the larger-populated parishes bringing in more income than downtown parishes, said Targett.

There are suggested salary guidelines, which range from $31,000 to $55,000, that the pastor may or may not pay attention to. The higher end can be achieved only after 10 years of work.

While Corcoran signed a contract for a permanent, full-time position as a parish employee after completing a six-month probationary period, it doesn’t assure 100-per-cent job security.

“You are directly employed by the parish so when the pastor is transfered you are dependent on the incoming pastor,” said Targett.

The archdiocese has begun to include LPAs in the benefits plan, which Targett considers “a step forward.”

There is an attempt to organize a national organization for LPAs, but Targett said “the attempts have been spotty at best.”

Within the archdiocese of Toronto Targett has not sensed that LPAs are looking to be organized.

“I think if all the LPAs were married with families we’d have a different response, but the majority are religious Sisters.”

The lay pastoral associate is still an emerging ministry, said Targett.

“We aren’t comfortable to identify it as a vocation, so it’s emerging.”

“The role (of an LPA) is not to get more people to work in the parish, it’s to get people to go out and live out their vocations in the community,” said Hannah.

He added: “It’s a good witness to the people to see a lay person engaged in full-time ministry.”

“At the end of the day what everybody wants is a robust pastoral life,” said Targett.

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