DPC LogoSmallThree Models of Parish Pastoral Councils

By Mark F. Fischer

Workshop at the 26th Annual Convention of the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, Omni International Hotel, Cincinnati, Ohio, March 16, 1999, 2:15 – 3:45 P.M.

Two years ago, Maria Elena Uribe of the Los Angeles Pastoral Councils Office invited me to chair an archdiocesan committee to revise the guidelines for parish pastoral councils. The last guidelines had been completed in 1991, under the direction of Jaime Mendoza, and they bore the marks of the era of the late 1980s and early nineties, the era in which coordinating councils made up of ministry heads were giving way to pastoral planning councils. I was honored to accept Maria Elena’s invitation, and our committee completed last summer the new guideline entitled “Consultation and Communion.”

As people asked us, “What’s different about the new guideline?” my answer was as follows: The distinctive feature of the new guideline is that it expresses the role of the pastoral council in terms of the Church’s official documents. In other words, it explains what pastoral councils should do by reference to what official documents say they should do. And in this way the new guideline sets itself apart from other guidelines. They are built more upon the good experiences of council practitioners than upon the Church’s prescriptions.

The more I though about this, the more I realized that we have, in today’s Catholic Church of the United States, at least three competing models of parish pastoral council. Allow me to clarify what these models are.

In the first place, we have the model–by now, venerable–of the Council of Ministries. This is the model enshrined in books such as William Rademacher and Marliss Rogers’ New Practical Guide for Parish Councils and Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden’s Models of the Successful Parish. Sweetser and Holden first used the term “council of ministries.” One can see this model in the parish council guidelines of Hartford and Detroit.1 The central feature of the Council of Ministries is a system of parish standing committees or commissions, which the pastoral council coordinates.

The second model is what I call the Comprehensive Planning Model. This is the model proposed in the new guidelines of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and in the popular and attractive guidelines for the Diocese of Greensburg, entitled New Wine, New Wineskins.2 The Comprehensive Planning Model (CPM), unlike the Council of Ministries, does not coordinate a system of standing committees which implement the council’s plans. The CPM sees the council as a planning body. It plans for the parish in terms of a number of planning areas defined by the diocese, such as workship, education, and so forth. The diocese sets the parish’s planning agenda.

The third model–the model to which I am committed–may be called the “Pastoral Instrument Model.” It is the newest model and, at the same time, the oldest. Newest, because our Los Angeles guideline is dated 1999. Oldest, because the first U.S. publication to speak of the parish “pastoral” council was the guideline of Portland, Oregon, and dated 1983. It was the work of the well-known canonist, Father Bertram F. Griffin. In his efforts on behalf of councils, Father Griffin strove to stay as close to the Church’s official documents as possible.

The Pastoral Instrument Model regards the council as an instrument of the pastor. He consults the council. He does so, not to have the members coordinate a system of standing committees or to follow a diocesan planning agenda, but to understand pastoral matters. He wants the council to help him understand these matters so that he can make wise decisions on the parish’s behalf.

Comparison of the Three Models

In order to clarify these three models, I want to compare them using three terms of comparison. The three terms are task, scope, and membership. After I compare them, I will summarize their strengths and weaknesses.

Task of the Three Models.

“Council of Ministries” Model: to plan and coordinate standing committees which then implement the plans.

“Comprehensive Planning” Model: to plan for the parish in designated areas (e.g., worship, evangelization, service, stewardship, and leadership).

“Pastoral Instrument” Model: to investigate pastoral matters, to ponder them, and to draw practical conclusions (canon 511).

Scope of the Three Models.

“Council of Ministries” Model: not just planning, but also coordination and implementation of parish policies and programs.

“Comprehensive Planning” Model: pastoral planning in designated areas, so that parishes express the diocesan vision in their own way.

“Pastoral Instrument” Model: pastoral matters investigated under the leadership of the pastor (i.e., anything not pertaining to faith, orthodoxy, moral principles, or laws of the Church–see the 1973 Circular Letter on Pastoral Councils of the Congregation for the Clergy).

Membership on the Three Models.

“Council of Ministries” Model: council membership is selected from the parish’s standing committees or by general election.

“Comprehensive Planning” Model: participative selection or discernment process, not popular election.

“Pastoral Instrument” Model: non-juridical “representatives” of God’s People chosen for their experience, prudence, and faithfulness (Vatican II Decree on Bishops, 1973 Circular Letter on Pastoral Councils of the Congregation for the Clergy).

The Council of Ministries

Now that we have looked briefly at the task, the scope, and the membership of the three models, let us see if we can summarize the strengths and weaknesses of each.

To begin, let us consider the Council of Ministries. The fundamental feature of this model is its coordination of a system of parish standing committees. The councils plans for these committees, and invites them to give a good account of their faithfulness to the parish’s mission. A comprehensive parish mission, encompassing every facet of parish life–e.g., liturgy, formation, works of charity–that is this model’s broad and laudable aim. It hopes to accomplish that aim through widespread parish participation in the standing committee structure. All of that is a strength of this model.

But the standing committee structure is also a source of weakness. It is, first of all, extravagant in scope. Its premise is that the pastoral council can coordinate all facets of parish life. But what pastoral council can do this? By its nature, the pastoral council is a group of volunteers who meet once per month. How can they realistically hope to coordinate all the ministries and standing committees of the parish?

Moreover, membership is a problem. The Council of Ministries draws its members as representatives of those standing committees. By doing so it runs a great risk of developing adversarial relations as the councillors compete for the parish’s resources. If my goal is to ensure that my ministry receives adequate resources, I may be jealous of the resources allotted to other ministries.

And finally, the relation between council and committees is problematic. The council may wind up being driven by its committees. The committees may demand that the council hear their reports, arbitrate their disputes, respond to their requests. The council who accepts this role may never be able to turn its attention to the parish’s mission and plans. The Council of Ministries was borne out of a powerful image of shared responsibility and participation. But that powerful image is also an ambitious image. I believe it is too ambitious to succeed.

Comprehensive Planning Model

Next, let’s try to summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the Comprehensive Planning Model. This is the model that regards the council, not as a coordinator of parish ministries, but as a parish planning body that draws its planning themes from the diocese. This is a noble, unified, and catholic model. In it, the bishop articulates a vision. Parishes apply that vision at the local level.

The Comprehensive Planning Model avoids the adversarial relations to which the Council of Ministries is heir. It does so by clearly maintaining the council’s consultative identity. The pastor consults the council, but does not require that it direct a system of standing committees. The council plans, the pastor and his staff implement with the help of volunteers. Implementation is not the council’s responsibility.

The CPM also emphasizes prayer and consensus. This emphasis is designed to augment the council’s cohesiveness and communion. Councillors who pray together, who seek consensus, who reflectively discern issues–these councillors should not be adversaries. These are the strengths of the CPM.

But even with the lowered expectations of this model, even with its wise refusal to coordinate a system of committees, the CPM is too ambitious in scope. It tries to plan for the parish in every area specified by the diocese. This is not only too wide in scope, it may well be unnecessary. Not every aspect of parish life needs attention at every time. Not every parish planning effort needs to be comprehensive.

Indeed, we can well ask: why should the diocese drive the parish’s planning agenda? Doesn’t the pastor know what he needs to plan for? And if the diocese is calling the planning shots, the pastor may well lose heart. There is a lot of pastor resistance to items flowing down the diocesan funnel. Pastors have their own worries. Don’t get me wrong: I like the lowered expectations of the CPM. But to my mind, the jury is still out on it.

Pastoral Instrument Model

This brings us to the third model, the Pastoral Instrument Model. The great advantages of this model are its realistic expectations and clear task. The task of the council is nothing more or less than what canon law prescribes. Councils, according to canon 511, are to investigate, ponder, and draw conclusions. There are no inflated expectations about coordinating a system of committees or accomplishing a diocesan agenda. The pastor, according to this model, knows his parish. He consults the council about the parish’s needs. The council assists him by its study, reflection, and considered recommendations.

Of course, the drawbacks of this model are also apparent. It sees the council as a “pastoral instrument.” Among other things, that means that the council is an instrument of the pastor. Canon law does not speak of councils as instruments of lay leadership. The pastor remains the leader. The good pastor invites the council to examine issues of real importance and he relies on the council’s wisdom. The poor pastor does not. The Pastoral Instrument Model is not a remedy for poor pastoring.

Moreover, it offers no guarantees of widespread parish participation in planning or ministry. If a pastor turns the council’s attention to a narrow or insignificant topic, no council member can say, “But Father, the diocesan guideline says that we are obligated to plan for liturgy, evangelization, and education.” The model offers no due process for councillors who believe that the pastor has wasted their time.

Since the official documents of the Church do not assign topics to the council, the Pastoral Instrument Model does not assign topics. It presupposes good pastors, pastors with serious matters about which they want the council’s advice. Its premise is that a good pastor wants to know the reality of the parish, so he can love and serve it better. This model is not designed to correct the failings of poor pastors. It suffers them. And so does every model of pastoral council.

To sum up, the Pastoral Instrument Model represents the Church’s thinking about pastoral councils. They are composed of wise parishioners with a gift for three things: investigating pastoral matters, pondering them, and drawing practical conclusions. This model gives pastors a lot of leeway–and gives pastoral councils freedom to do the three things that they were designed to do.