Lay Leaders Can Be Pastors? Sort Of

When I was in high school and college, I was very involved in youth ministry and campus ministry. I helped lead many retreats, was a catechist for the confirmation preparation program, and served on many social justice and service experiences.

One of the questions I was asked quite often was if I was considering becoming a priest in the Catholic Church. Some asked because they were simply curious. Others asked because they wanted me to think about that vocation.

In truth, I was thinking about it. I was attracted to the idea.

As I progressed through college, I noticed a trend in ministry that I was not really old enough to pay attention to before. There were many leaders in the church that were not ordained. These lay leaders were responsible for all sorts of aspects of parish life, including, in some circumstances, leading a church as the assigned administrator.

I soon discovered that what attracted me to the priesthood was the potential to lead a church. I liked the idea of being the leader of an organization. I also felt like I had the gifts and skills for a role like that, after some more personal growth.

What I was not attracted to in being a priest was presiding at Mass, doing the sacraments, and pastoral care. These were roles that, often times, can only be assigned to a priest.

I eventually discerned that becoming a priest was not in the cards for me. Today, I know that was the right decision.

To this day, I recognize the role that lay leaders play in the church. In some dioceses, including my own in San Jose, there are lay leaders that have been assigned as the leader of the church. These churches don’t have pastor. The lay leader is responsible for the pastoral care of the church and they partner with priests who tend to have responsibilities for the sacraments.

I have not spoken much about my adventure to obtain my doctorate degree. On April 8, 2013, I successful defended my dissertation and am now cleared to graduate in May of 2013 with a Doctor of Ministry degree in the field of Organizational and Leadership Development.

My dissertation is on the topic of Ministers of Parish Life in the Diocese of San Jose. These are the lay leaders I speak of that are called to lead churches, not as priests, but as lay people.

What I propose in my dissertation is a system to recruit, train, assign, and support these types of leaders. Throughout the dissertation, I touch upon the importance of an intentional plan to develop these leaders, while building it all on the foundation of official church teaching and canon law.

As a layperson myself, the writing of my dissertation is not my attempt or desire to remove priests from pastoral leadership. I greatly value and support the many good works of the ordained priest, admiring them for answering the call that God has bestowed upon them and entering a wonderful and demanding ministry. I am inspired by their ability to openly and willingly serve God’s people day in a day out through their unique calling.

My purpose for doing this work is to explore how lay leaders and priests can work together in furthering the mission of the Church by reexamining our traditional leadership structures. Priests bring tremendous gifts to the Church. As my dissertation highlights, lay leaders do the same. Together as partners, lay leaders and priests can more effectively meet the changing and dynamic needs of the people of God in the Roman Catholic Church.

I’m looking forward to the publication of my dissertation and I hope that it will aid the Diocese of San Jose.

By the way, lay leaders cannot technically be pastors, according to canon law. The term “pastor” is reserved solely for priests. However, a bishop can assign a lay leader to be responsible for the pastoral care of a parish.

Question: What questions do you have around the topic of Ministers of Parish Life?

John Rinaldo

As the Business Manager at St. Catherine Catholic Church in Morgan Hill, CA, Dr. John Rinaldo serves as the administrator over operations and finances for the parish in support of all parish ministries. Previously, John served as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, empowering parish communities to minister to the needs of youth and young adults. John is also an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University teaching pastoral ministry courses to graduate students.


John Rinaldo


As the Business Manager at St. Catherine Catholic Church in Morgan Hill, CA, Dr. John Rinaldo serves as the administrator over operations and finances for the parish in support of all parish ministries. Previously, John served as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, empowering parish communities to minister to the needs of youth and young adults. John is also an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University teaching pastoral ministry courses to graduate students.



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