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Published as “The Basics of a Successful Council Meeting,” Today’s Parish 31:3 (March, 1999): 24-27.

By Mark F. Fischer

I have before me the handwritten agenda for the October 7, 1985 meeting of the St. Joseph Parish Council in Berkeley, California, on which I served from 1984 to 1986. The agenda reads as follows:

  1. Call to Order.
  2. Opening Prayer.
  3. Additions to the Agenda.
  4. Ad Hoc Finance Committee Report.
  5. Catholic Charities Gala report.
  6. Upcoming parish council elections.
  7. New Business.

There the agenda abruptly stops. It is a brief list of seven items, and tells us little about the purpose of the meeting. If I had not been there, the agenda would mean nothing to me.

As I read the agenda today, I see one item simply entitled “Ad Hoc Finance Committee Report.” It says nothing about the report contents or why the report was being made. The truth of the matter was that several parishioners wanted better accounting of parish finances and did not like the pastor’s unsystematic accounting practices. It was only two years after the publication of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the pastor believed that the parish council sufficed as a finance council. Ad Hoc Finance Committee members thought that the creation of a permanent finance council would solve their problems. The pastor, knowing instinctively that the finance council proposal would complicate his life, was decidedly cool toward it.

My point about the handwritten agenda is simply this. It told council members nothing about the finance committee item, did not explain why it was raised or what was expected of the council, and opened the door to a rancorous dispute about the way we did financial accounting back in 1985. The agenda had no boundaries. Were we supposed to share our perceptions, deliberate the merits of a permanent finance council, or approve one in principle? No one knew, least of all the pastor.

Today I would say that the pastoral council agenda is a contract. When the pastor and council accept it, the agenda binds them to certain expectations. Like any contract, an agenda can be written well or poorly. A well-written agenda states what the participants can expect, helps them to prepare, and expresses a spirit of respect. A poorly-written agenda leaves room for unpleasant surprises, invites no preparation, and expresses nothing of the spirit of the group.

The Importance of an Agenda

Pastors and other council leaders should clarify in advance the scope and aim of meetings. Unless they know what they want to accomplish in a meeting, they can only hope that things will turn out well. Their hopes may not be realized. But leaders can make meetings turn out well if their goals for the meeting are concrete and specific. The more the leaders can anticipate what they want, the more they can achieve it. Even the most difficult kinds of meetings, the meetings to share decision-making and responsibility, can achieve their goals if they are well-planned.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating that anyone, least of all a pastor, embrace a crudely Macchiavellian policy of manipulating meetings or coercing others to do something against their will. Meetings ought to be occasions of freedom. There is no point in meeting if the outcome has been decided in advance. Pastors who pretend that they are consulting about a decision–when in fact they are announcing a decision they have already made–betray their councils. That kind of trickery inevitably backfires. Councillors feel used.

My point has to do with leadership and prudence in St. Thomas’ sense of the word. For St. Thomas, prudence does not refer to a paralyzing caution or an unimaginative conservatism. It refers to knowledge, knowledge of contingent affairs. The pastor who consults his council wants to make a good decision. Good pastoral decisions stem not only from the expert opinion of theologians, religious educators, social workers, architects, musicians, and so forth, but on knowledge of the parish community. Communities change and develop. Pastors consult councils in order to know their people and to shape decisions appropriate for them.

So when the pastoral council gathers, members need to know the issues they face. A good agenda helps them do it. Back on October 7, 1985, the St. Joseph Parish Council should have had more on its agenda under the heading “Ad Hoc Finance Committee Report.” Members should have had (1) the report in advance and (2) the committee’s proposal for a permanent Finance Council. Then, at the meeting, they could have heard the reasons pro and con for the new council. The pastor could have voiced his concerns and asked the parish council to further study whatever was still unclear. Such an expanded agenda would have shown more respect and would have helped members to prepare for the meeting. Let me say more about what good preparation entails.

Two Kinds of Difficult Meetings

There are few things as contingent as a meeting, whose success depends a great deal on the participants and the fluid events of the present situation. Prudence seeks the truth about what meeting participants ought to do. Being prudent in a meeting means three things to pastors and council leaders: first, knowing what they want; second, knowing that success depends on winning the approval of those with whom they meet; and third, creating opportunities for councillors to exercise their gifts for the common good.

Few leaders find meetings difficult if they are to accomplish a limited and specific task by people who are perfectly qualified to do it. Every Tuesday, for example, my wife meets with some women of the choir to go through the choir members’ music binders. They put away last week’s music and insert the music for the rehearsal and for Sunday Mass. It is a specific task, not particularly challenging or interesting. But it is made enjoyable by the fellowship of the other women. Many, perhaps most Church meetings are like that. Stuffing envelopes, counting the Sunday collection, preparing hospitality for a reception&emdash;these kinds of parish meetings are concrete, practical, and relatively unproblematic. They require preparation, but not too much.

But two kinds of meetings do not have a limited and specific task. In the first kind of meeting, participants have to make a decision, and no one knows the decision in advance. The decision must arise in the meeting itself. It is difficult because no one can predict the outcome. That is the first kind of difficult meeting. The second kind of difficult meeting is when the leader wants the participants to assume responsibility. He or she wants to motivate them. No one can foresee whether participants at a meeting will accept an invitation to share responsibility. It is a moment of freedom.

Decision-Making Meetings

So meetings become difficult when we need to make decisions and get others to share responsibility. Let us begin with the first kind of meeting, the meeting to plan and make decisions. A decision-making meeting is complex in the Catholic parish because the parish is legally entrusted to a pastor. Although he may share the decision with others, he is the ultimate decision-maker. So decision-making meetings take the form of a pastor who consults his parishioners in order to plan well.

In such a consultative planning meeting, the pastor is making a specific request. He asks the councillors, as canon law says, to help him “investigate . . . all those things that pertain to pastoral works, to ponder them, and to propose practical conclusions about them” (ca. 511). He consults, and they offer advice. They know that their vote is “consultative only.” In theory, consultation is simple.

No so in practice. The biggest problem with consultative planning meetings is that the pastor-leader ought to know clearly what he is consulting about, and often he is anything but clear. He ought to give his consultors or councilors a clear idea about what he needs to know. But many pastors do not do this. If you ask them, they will say, “I’m not sure what I want to consult about; if I were sure, I wouldn’t need to consult.” So they hold meetings which are often unfocused, poorly-directed, boring, argumentative, and unproductive.

The Value of a Limited Focus

The truth of this came to me quite forcefully two summers ago. My pastor asked a group of us to form a parish search committee for a Director of Music Ministries. He was, in effect, asking us to plan the search and recommend to him a candidate.

At the outset, I was disappointed because the pastor expressly told us not to restate the mission of the parish’s music ministry. I thought he had prematurely curtailed our scope. I also thought, incidentally, that if we could restate the mission statement, we could define the music director job description in a way that would give my kind of candidate an advantage. In retrospect, however, the pastor was right and I was wrong. We did not need a new mission statement. And we were able to recruit a terrific music director.

The lesson I draw from this is a simple one. It is better to give a consultative group a specific task, a reasonable deadline, and a limited mandate. It is far worse to give it a too-broad portfolio and no boundaries. Consulting is different from implementing. The good pastor does not consult because he wants to surrender a decision to others. He consults because he wants to know the truth about a matter before committing the parish. The more he trusts his consultants, the less inclined he is to make a decision against their considered advice.

Meetings to Delegate

Meetings to plan and make decisions are the first kind of difficult meeting in the parish. Let us now consider the second kind of difficult meeting, the meeting by which we try to share responsibility for a task with others.

I have had a chance to study this in the past few months on our parish’s Liturgy Committee. The Liturgy Director is a gifted and detail-oriented volunteer who is a scientist by profession. He asked me to attend the meetings as a friendly observer. As I studied the Liturgy Committee, my heart really went out to the director. He attends most weekend masses. He monitors the myriad details of the supporting ministries, such as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, choir members, cantors, ushers, and greeters. Often he winds up coordinating the ministers himself. Privately he said that his wife complains because he spends so much time at church. He is a prime candidate, in my mind, for burnout.

You would think that the best way to improve his situation would be to share the director’s workload with the Liturgy Committee members themselves. And to tell the truth, my friend tries to do this. A typical Liturgy Committee meeting includes a review of past liturgies and of liturgies in preparation. In the meetings, my friend often makes a general plea for assistance, saying that he “could use some help” with this or that upcoming liturgy. And usually, a member of the committee volunteers to help.

The members help, yes, but they rarely assume responsibility to the degree he would like. In my opinion, the Liturgy Director should not be recruiting volunteers at the meeting itself. He ought to be inviting committee members, far in advance, to assume the responsibility of coordinating specific liturgies. Then he could use the liturgy committee meeting time to motivate, train, coach, and help his volunteer coordinators&emdash;and spend more weekend time with his family.

Lessons about Shared Responsibility

Why do I recommend this? My friend has set a high standard for liturgical coordination. He fears that someone less responsible will undo the organization and attention to detail he has labored to cultivate. He does not want just anybody’s help. He wants the help of people who know the liturgy and care for it as he does. By inviting coordinators in advance, he would be able to select those most able to assume responsibility, and assign them helpers who still need to learn the ropes.

My friend could use the recognized techniques of delegation, such as what we find in Charles Keating’s minor classic from 1982, The Leadership Book. He could ensure that his volunteer liturgy coordinators understand the scope of their duties, are well-prepared, and remain accountable. But instead, Liturgy Committee meetings are too general and not especially helpful. In the Liturgy Director we have very capable man who is moving toward exhaustion.

What can pastors and council leaders learn from this? First of all, it is difficult to share responsibility. But share it we must, if we want to raise the level of lay participation and have healthy parishes. Second, we can learn how to share responsibility. Meetings may well be a place to identify qualified volunteers, but not to recruit them by means of a general and unspecific plea, an exasperated “I could use some help!”

If we want people to assume responsibility, let us use meetings to gather those who are interested, share information with them, and identify potential collaborators. After we know those with whom we want to work, we can take a page from the noted New Jersey pastor, William Bausch, and wield the power of the pen. Bausch says that a well-written letter from the pastor to a parishioner can accomplish a great deal. A letter that explains the pastor’s request, clarifies details and expectations, states the authority he is delegating, and indicates how accountability shall be maintained&emdash;this kind of letter will gain the pastor serious and committed volunteers. Such a volunteer will come to a meeting with clear expectations and a readiness for work.

Councils and Hope

At the outset I said that the agenda for the pastoral council meeting is like a contract. It binds participants to certain expectations. The agenda states what the pastor and the leaders expect to take place at the meeting. At a more profound level, it expresses their hope. Participants at a meeting hope that the meeting will further the goals which have brought them together in the first place.

Hope is the virtue that ought to guide meetings of the pastoral council. In councils, pastors and councillors have hopes that are complementary. Pastors hope to learn more about the issues they face. They hope to share their knowledge of the pastoral reality with trusted colleagues. They hope, finally, to gain prudent knowledge so as to make wise decisions. Such decisions maintain the parish’s unity.

Council members, in turn, hope to put their gifts of prudence and wisdom at the service of the parish. If they are well-chosen, they have the patience to look at pastoral matters deeply. They desire to probe them and weigh their significance. They listen to their colleagues and integrate everyone’s opinion. They are united by a hope for common wisdom. This is related to the communion for which faithful people long.

We might suppose that the success of meetings depends merely on good technique&emdash;the techniques of creating an agenda, of ensuring that participants are well-prepared, and of facilitating the meeting smoothly. But that is false. Agendas, preparations, and good facilitating are excellent things, but the success of meetings depends on more than that.

I believe that a good meeting depends, more than anything else, on a specific kind of knowledge, the knowledge we call prudence. Prudence is the kind of knowledge that books cannot give. It is the knowledge of changeable things, things like the spirit of a parish and the heart of its people. Good pastors and leaders know that, whenever they convene a meeting, their goal is wider than the concrete agenda before them. No matter whether the meeting is to review the budget, assess the CCD, or develop a vision for liturgy, the meeting is always also about maintaining communion.

Formulating a good agenda aids that communion. Whether the meeting is to simply accomplish a routine task or to do the more difficult work of planning and sharing responsibility, we should consider it in the light of the hope which binds us together. We express our hope for God in the way we meet one another.