Planning Pastorally

Pastoral Planning by Councils

By Mark F. Fischer

San Gabriel Regional Pastoral Council PPC Training and Certification, Ramona Convent Secondary School, 1701 W. Ramona Road, Alhambra, CA  91803, Saturday, November 13, 2010, 8:30 AM-1:00 PM

Our theme today is pastoral planning.  Our assumption is that pastoral planning is the work of pastoral councils.  This is clearly affirmed in our guidelines for pastoral councils, entitled “Communion and Consultation” and published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  “What do pastoral councils actually do?” ask the guidelines.  “The answer,” they state, “is pastoral planning.”  The LA guidelines then go on to explain what pastoral planning is.  According to our guidelines, pastoral planning is precisely the work of councils.

Recently, however, this assumption has been challenged.  In a book published this year by Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James Gaston, entitled Build a Life-Giving Parish, the authors disputed the assertion that pastoral planning is the main work of pastoral councils.  They wrote:

We no longer view pastoral councils as the primary planning body in a parish.  Planning is not an essential council function; it can be delegated to a staff or to another parish group.[1]

This is an important challenge to our basic assumption in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the assumption that pastoral councils plan for the parish.  So in my presentation this morning, I want to explain why the archdiocese insists upon pastoral planning, and show why the authors of the new book, Build a Life-Giving Parish, are mistaken.

Pastoral Planning by Councils

Let us begin with a basic description of pastoral planning by councils.  The Church assumes that wise pastors want to consult their people before they make decisions on the parish’s behalf.  The wise pastor knows that his viewpoint is limited.  In order to be a good shepherd, he needs to study what will help his flock.  He wants to bring them to green pastures and flowing waters.  So he consults his council because he believes that its investigation and reflection will lead to wise recommendations.  The council, for its part, puts its gifts of study and discernment at the service of the pastor.  If the council does its work properly, its recommendations will be so wise and prudent that the pastor will freely accept them and implement them.  This is the payoff for the council.  It knows that it has contributed to the parish’s well-being by shaping the pastor’s decisions.  Incidentally, the satisfaction of the council will make it easy to recruit new councillors when the terms of the veteran councillors expire.

That is pastoral planning, and it appears to be good for pastors and for councillors.  So why do Brenda Hermann and James Gaston, the authors of Create a Life-Giving Parish, deny that pastoral planning is the primary work of councils?  Before we can see why the two authors are mistaken, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and explore their objections to pastoral planning.  If we can understand their argument, and still hold fast to our view that pastoral planning is the work of councils, we will be on firm ground.  So let us see why Hermann and Gaston, these two experienced pastoral practitioners, believe that planning is not an essential function of the pastoral council.

Their book criticizes the pastoral planning role for councils from two points of view.  From the first viewpoint, pastoral planning overlooks something important.  Here’s what the authors say:

The planning model focuses primarily on the parish, its programs and its activities.  Too often this is done while neglecting to ponder the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people, churched and unchurched (p. 103).

In other words, the authors do not necessarily want to consult the pastoral council about the programs and activities of the parish.  They want to consult about something they consider more important, namely, “the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people.”  Only a minority of Catholics, for example, attend church.  Brenda Hermann and James Gaston may want to consult, not about the minority, but about the majority of Catholics.  Falling Church attendance is certainly worth consulting about!

Implicit Critique of Comprehensive Planning?

There is another reason, I believe, why Sr. Hermann and Msgr. Gaston do not want pastoral councils to do pastoral planning.  We read in the book that Msgr. Gaston, the book’s co-author, was once responsible for the development of pastoral council guidelines in his home diocese.  We read that he “oversaw and participated in the development of pastoral council guidelines for the Diocese of Greensburg” in Pennsylvania (102).  The Greensburg Guidelines have been published, and I own a copy.  They confidently assert, “The primary responsibility of the parish pastoral council is pastoral planning.”[2] So we can say that, in 2001, when Msgr. Gaston oversaw the development of these guidelines, he was in favor of pastoral planning as the primary responsibility of the parish council.  Ten years later he was not.  Something changed between 2001 and 2010.

Sr. Hermann and Msgr. Gaston do not explain what changed.  But if we look at the Greensburg Guidelines, we can hazard a guess.  The guidelines published by the Diocese of Greensburg advocate a type of council that I call the “comprehensive planning” model.  According to this model, the council has responsibilities in each of seven areas: evangelization, worship, word, community, service, stewardship, and leadership.  The guidelines imply that the pastor will be consulting in all seven areas.  “The agenda of the council,” according to the guidelines, “is primarily to research, consider, and propose for action those matters considered to be truly ‘pastoral,’ those matters that directly relate to the seven elements” (p. 63).

Let us suppose, however, that the pastor does not want to consult about all seven areas.  Suppose that he only wants to consult about a single area, because only one needs attention.  If he does so, the pastor may frustrate the council members.  They may think that they have a responsibility in all seven areas, because the guidelines state that they do.  They may feel that they should be setting goals and objectives in all seven areas.  If they aren’t, they may feel that the pastor is not sharing responsibility with them.

The pastor, by contrast, may not want to listen to reports on programs and activities in each of seven areas.  Like Sr. Hermann and Msgr. Gaston, the pastor may want to consult about something different.  He may want to ask about broader changes occurring in the lives of the people. He may feel that the “comprehensive planning model” advocated by the Greensburg Guidelines prevents him from consulting about the things that he feels are important.  I’m not certain why Msgr. Gaston has turned against the comprehensive planning model in the Greensburg Guidelines, but he certainly has, and it could be that he does not want to be told what he must consult about.

Let’s stop for a moment and gauge our progress.  The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I said, states that the work of the parish council is pastoral planning.  But Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James Gaston in their new book Create a Life-Giving Parish reject the idea that pastoral planning is the main work of councils.  They argue that the pastoral council need not do pastoral planning, but should instead ponder the changes in society.  My supposition is that the two authors grew weary of the comprehensive planning model in Msgr. Gaston’s home diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  He oversaw the creation of that model in the year 2001 but he now repudiates it.

Two Lessons from Build a Life-Giving Parish

What are we here, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to make of the argument of Hermann and Gaston?  I think it can teach us something important.  To be sure, I remain committed to our own local doctrine, the doctrine that pastoral councils are planning bodies.  Pastoral planning remains the work of councils.  But the argument of Hermann and Gaston reminds us of two important lessons.  First of all, it is the pastor who is doing the consulting.  Secondly, there are many ways to plan.  Let me expand on each of these two lessons.

Pastoral planning is a shorthand expression in the USA for the main purpose of pastoral councils.  That main purpose was first described in the 1965 Vatican II Decree on Bishops.  The Bishops Decree stated this about the pastoral council:

It will be the function of this council to investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them (no. 27).

The Vatican II Bishops Decree is the basic charter of pastoral councils.  It affirms that they have a threefold task – investigating, considering, and drawing conclusions.  Council members undertake this work under the direction of the pastor.  He consults the council, but is not obliged to accept its recommendations.  The Church does not want to force pastors to take poor advice.

The threefold task of the council (investigating, considering, and recommending conclusions) is described in bare-bones terms.  The official documents of the Church do not explain how councils are to accomplish it.  They rarely use the term “pastoral planning.”[3] We can see, however, that investigating, reflecting, and recommending conclusions is a form of pastoral planning.  That is why the Archdiocese of Los Angeles states that pastoral planning is the main work of councils.  But there are many ways to do pastoral planning, and the “comprehensive planning” model of the Diocese of Greensburg does not exhaust the possibilities.  The recently-published Concise Guide to Pastoral Planning by William L. Pickett (Ave Maria Press, 2008) shows that pastoral planning has many other dimensions.  There is no one size that fits all.

This is an important insight, and we should be grateful to Brenda Hermann and James Gaston for reminding us of it.  They also remind us that it is the pastor that consults the council.  This has important consequences, and I would like to elaborate on them.

The Role of Pastoral Planners

The basic charter for pastoral councils, the Vatican II Decree on Bishops, and subsequent Vatican publications[4] have made it abundantly clear that the pastoral council is not a lay forum, not a prayer group, not a sounding board.  The official teaching of the Church affirms the pastoral council’s threefold role.  Although many people[5] have mistakenly written that the pastoral council exists to coordinate a system of committees or lay initiatives, this is not the case.  The pastoral council does not primarily serve what the Church calls the apostolate of the laity.  The council’s main concern is not the work of lay people in the world.  No, the council exists to serve the apostolate of the pastor.  This is the apostolate of leading Catholic parishes.  Councillors contribute to the pastor’s apostolate by their work of study, reflection, and recommendation.

So let us return to the question with which we began.  I said that I would explain this morning why the archdiocese insists upon pastoral planning, and why the authors of the new book, Build a Life-Giving Parish, are mistaken.  The archdiocese insists upon pastoral planning because pastoral planning describes the proper work of pastoral councils.  When councils study some aspect of the parish reality so that they can understand it more deeply, they are planning.  When they reflect on what they have learned, prayerfully discerning its consequences for the parish, they are planning.  When they synthesize the various viewpoints of councillors and propose their conclusions to the pastor, they are planning.  Pastoral planning is a broad concept, and there is no one way to accomplish it.  Pastors have to make decisions on behalf of the parish, and they are wise to ask astute councillors to study the matter and reflect on it with them before proposing their conclusions.

Brenda Hermann and James Gaston are wrong, I believe, when they say that pastoral planning is not the primary work of councils.  The Church’s official documents describe the work of councils by speaking of investigation, reflection, and recommendation.  This can certainly be called pastoral planning.  The authors of Build a Life-Giving Parish do not spell out why they disagree that pastoral planning is the primary work of councils, but I think we understand their reasoning.  They want pastors to be able to consult freely, and the Church certainly gives pastors that freedom.  It says that pastors may consult their councils about virtually any practical matter.  It may well be that Hermann and Gaston dislike pastoral planning because they equate it with the style of comprehensive planning described in the Diocese of Greenburg’s pastoral council guidelines.  The two authors rightly remind us that pastors may ask councils to investigate and reflect in a variety of ways.  There is no one thing called pastoral planning.  We in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles would do well to remember that.

Let us remember that our planning is pastoral.  By that we do not mean that it is confined to a particular subject matter, like the seven topics in the Greensburg Guidelines.  We do not mean a particular style of discussion, such as parliamentary procedure or the search for consensus.  We do not even mean that we pray for a certain length of time during our meetings.  Pastoral does not refer to a content, meeting style, or prayer.  It means that the council exists to serve the apostolate of the pastor.  It serves by providing the study, reflection, and recommendations that help him make wise decisions.

Our work as pastoral council members is to share in the very apostolate of pastors.  The Church describes the pastor as a good shepherd.  He knows his own and his own know him.  He cares for his flock and wants to know it better.  He is even willing to lay down his life for it.  We councillors share in his spirituality of pastoral care.  We help him to know his people.  We help him to find for them green pastures and clear waters.  We help him to call his people by name, to lead them, and to discern the voice of the Lord.  We help him to hear God’s Word.  That is why we are proud to share in his work, and to call ourselves pastoral planners.

[1] Sr. Brenda Hermann MSBT, ACSW and Msgr. James T. Gaston, MA, STL, Build a Life-Giving Parish: The Gift of Counsel in the Modern World(Ligouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 2010), pp. 102-3.

[2] Mary Ann Gubish and Susan Jenny, S.C., with Arlene McGannon, Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council: A Workbook (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2001), p. 97.

[3] The clearest examples of Church teaching about councils and planning come from the Congregation for Bishops.  In its “Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” (Ecclesiae imago, May 31, 1973), the congregation had this to say about the pastoral council: “By its study and reflection, the council furnishes the judgments necessary to enable the diocesan community to plan its pastoral program systematically and to fulfill it effectively. (no. 204).  The 1973 Directory for Bishops, however, is almost forty years old.  It no longer has canonical force, because it was replaced by the 2004 Directory for Bishops (Apostolorum successores, Feb. 22, 2004).  In the new Directory, the congregation had a little more to say about pastoral councils and planning, but it focuses on councils at the diocesan level: “The Bishop may propose themes for the council to discuss in connection with the pastoral activity of the diocese: these include the pastoral plan, various catechetical, missionary and apostolic initiatives, ways of improving the doctrinal formation and sacramental life of the faithful, assistance for the pastoral ministry of the clergy, and various means of raising public awareness regarding concerns of the Church” (no. 184).

[4] The most important of these are the 2002 “Instruction” by the Congregation for the Clergy entitled “The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community,” and the 2004 “Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” (Apostolorum successores), by the Congregation for Bishops.

[5] The so-called “council of ministries” was given this name by Thomas P. Sweetser and Carol Wisniewski Holden, Leadership in a Successful Parish (this 1987 title was republished by Sheed and Ward in 1992).   William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers also advocated a “council of ministries”-style council in the New Practical Guide to Parish Councils (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988).


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