Elitism in Ministry

For some folks, it is a thin line to walk between the notion of quality and the ill-favored view of elitism, or a special-privilege-driven way of being or doing Church.

Often, history has shown the Church is ready to bestow special honors or recognition for generosity with wealth, or with folks who have lots of free time on their hands to help out. In one sense, the squeaky wheel does get the grease–and sometimes that’s unavoidable.

I’ve been accused of elitism for reserving the big Christmas Masses and Holy Week for kids who have a proven track record as servers. Is it elitism to choose girls and boys who know what a thurible is? Or who have a perfect attendance record for the past two or three years? I don’t think so. All altar servers at my parish are called to excellence, knowledge, good attendance, and helpfulness. Those who perform less well self-select out of special involvement. I can only hope I had 110 kids vying for Holy Week spots, their cancelling sports and Easter trips to the grandparents just so they could go to the Easter Vigil.

I believe the Catholic Church can use more believers who are more strongly intentional in their faith lives than they are. What do I mean by that? Relatively speaking, the occasipict4.jpgonal Massgoer might consider going every Sunday. The non-involved congregant might come early, stay late, pray and sing with gusto. The Sunday-engaged parishioner might consider her or his gifts and discern a path to feed the hungry, tutor a student, or join a choir. You get the picture.

In my mind, the problem is not so much that the Church cultivates an elite, but that large numbers of semi-involved people more or less wash away to leave lots of room for other committed Christians. I see it less than a shiny tower rising up on the plain, and more like the river washing away everything but small islands around scattered trees.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Elitism in Ministry

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    This is commentary on the classic case of 20% of the folks doing 80% of the work … and the rest taking undeserved pot-shots when their jealousy gets too high.

    I belong to a small parish (400 active members) and we have a lot going on. We are a committed group of people who gladly undertake a huge financial responsibility and keep many and good ministries alive. But we do have volunteer burnout and getting replacements is tough. There are simply too many “pew potatoes” in the Church.

    For years I was a member of a small (250 members) evangelical church and “pew potatoship” was actively discouraged. When you joined the church you weren’t asked if you wanted to do something; you were asked about what you were going to do! Those who didn’t want to help out and carry on the ministries of the church soon moved on. I’m not talking about those folks who couldn’t do much because of health reasons, work and family commitments, etc. I’m referring to those who expected the church to be there for them whenever they wanted something, but weren’t willing to help provide what was needed. We simply couldn’t afford to, nor wanted to, carry uncommitted folks with us.

    Now, if that is elitism, so be it. We were better off for it.

  2. KiwiNomad06 says:

    I am a pew potato ‘occasionally’. Mostly I am not there at all. If I feel “judged” as a pew potato, I am even less likely to be there.

  3. Tony says:

    This reminds me of a very trying time in my music ministry. We had a young girl about 17 who was in school, but with no real work or family committments. She had a nice voice, and spent all of her waking hours with the choir director helping with the children’s choir, rehearsing with the adult choir, singing with the ensemble, ringing handbells, etc.

    This girl was slated as cantor for almost every mass on the weekends. We had at least a half a dozen committed cantors in the cantor program, but none of them were called.

    One year, when the gentleman who sang the Magnificat at Easter vigil went to Italy for Easter, guess who was slated for the Magnificat? You guessed it.

    Did I feel slighted? You bet. Did I think about speaking to the choir director? You bet. Did it mess with my worship at Mass? You bet. Did I ever do anything about it? Nope. I thought it over carefully, and decided to “offer it up”. I got my peace back and was able to continue in music ministry at my church.

    Why was this girl slated for all the roles? Probably because she didn’t have any other life but in the music ministry of the church. The rest of us had lives, jobs and families that we had responsibilities for. Does that make us “pew potatoes”? I don’t think so.

    Was it the girl’s fault? No way. It took me a long time to come to the realization that she was 17 and was excited about her ministry. The fault lied with the choir director.

    What about certain “plum” ministries in church? Do you believe people ought to be rewarded for “being more intentional in their faith lives” because they simply have more time to do it by virtue of not having job and familial obligations that interfere with their “church time”.

    And how do you tell the difference beween “intentional Catholics” and “suckups”?

  4. Neil says:

    I suspect that, in most parishes, as Jimmy Mac suggests, a minority of the members does the majority of the work. But that’s different than elitism, “or a special-privilege-driven way of being or doing Church,” in Todd’s words.

    How do we know when we’ve become “elitist”? Two quick suggestions:

    1. We have become elitist when we sense that our parish is merely replicating secular patterns of social ranking and exclusion. Do we listen much more closely to the voices of males, members of a particular ethnic group, the wealthy, or those who happen to be fluent in the languages of academia or corporate culture?

    2. We have become elitist when a minority in the parish has developed their own common language to such an extent that newcomers cannot easily participate in the ecology of the parish. The newcomers’ gifts to the Body of Christ simply go unrecognized.

    Some of this is natural. When a group of friends has been conversing for some time, they inevitably develop a common language – certain things go without saying, certain references are immediately understood, and there is a common set of memories to draw upon. If I happen upon their conversation for the first time, I will likely find myself a few steps behind, missing subtle shades of meaning, and unable to speak without hesitation.

    Again, this is natural. But, during the conversation, do I sense that I am still welcome, and, after a few conversations, will I be finally able to fully understand and be understood?

    If a parish is, more or less, run by a group of people with a common language that is forbidding to newcomers who generally find it very difficult to learn, then I think we can call it “elitist.”


  5. Todd says:

    Tony, given the problem you’ve presented, my primary diagnosis would be laziness. Possibly, there would be an overworked choir director who didn’t take the time to integrate others into important ministries. That would tend to move against Christ’s explicit example in the Gospels. Jesus realized that relationships were primary over tasks (even miracles). He cultivated his relationship with the Father through prayer. He called particular disciples, men and women, to talk with him and to serve and be served by him.

    The example you gave was one of “favoritism.” I don’t know enough to guess if that was a favoritism of convenience or even possibly an inappropriate relationship. I would hesitate to call it Christian.

    “And how do you tell the difference beween “intentional Catholics” and ‘suckups?'”

    Easy. By the focus of their ministry. For suck-ups it’s all about “me.” For intentional Catholics, it’s all about others.

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