Arousing interest?

DPC LogoSmallTo Plan or to Arouse Interest?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “The Conciliar Passion,” Today’s Parish (April/May 1993): 23-25.

When I was working on pastoral conventions in the Diocese of Oakland in 1985 and 1988, my associates and I used the language of “consultation.” the Bishop of Oakland, we said, was “consulting” the people of the diocese. Bishop John S. Cummins was inviting them to discuss the goals of the diocese and the essential features of parish life. The language of consultation made it clear that the bishop, as the chief shepherd of the diocese, would make the final decisions. But he wanted the wisdom of his people. Their insights would enable him to make wise pastoral choices.

The language of consultation suggests a movement upward. When a pastor consults his people, their knowledge informs his leadership. They are serving a hierarchy. That, I would say, is the first purpose of Church consultation.

In my experience, however, that upward flow is only part of the story. Yes, it may be the most important part in terms of Church governance. But it may not be the most consequential or long-lasting part.

Why? Because informing a pastor is but one result of consultation. Writing a conclusion and presenting it to a pastor forces us to distill and condense many experiences. Such a distillation produces heat and light — as well as a final report! For those of us who worked on the Oakland conventions, the work made us friends, brought us to prayer, created in us an experience and vision of Church, and revealed to us our “enemies,” if that is not too strong a word for those who hindered the development of our vision. It generated in us a “conciliar passion.” I call this the second purpose of consultation.

Today it is generally recognized that Church consultation serves these two purposes. It does so on the diocesan and on the parish level, in pastoral councils, town hall meetings, and diocesan assemblies. In this essay, I will analyze the “conciliar passion,” the way consultation arouses interest and builds motivation and commitment. I will show how it works, why it is important, and the pitfalls it presents.

Participative Management

Church consultation serves the same purposes as participative management in the corporate world. Chief Executive Officers have used participative management explicitly to define goals and objectives at least since Kurt Lewin showed its relevance to human motivation in the 1930s and 40s. By permitting subordinates to help set the standards by which they will be judged, CEOs get better standards. In addition, participative management increases the commitment of subordinates to the corporation’s goals. Thus goals become more realistic and subordinates are more willing to reach them.

Translating this into the language of Church consultation, we can say that pastors who consult are doing two things. First, they are asking for advice. And second, they are inviting their people to commit themselves to the matter of consultation.

This second purpose is in some ways more complex than the first. That is because the pastor builds commitment indirectly. He wisely does not say, “I think this matter is important, therefore you should too.” Instead he says, “We have a pastoral problem which I cannot solve.” Rather than compelling or wheedling, the pastor invites.

Several assumptions underlie this indirect approach. The pastor rightly assumes that he honors people by asking them to share their insights. People are usually more than willing to study a problem relevant to parish life. It is a fair guess that, in trying to solve it, they will invest themselves in it. By inviting a consultation, pastors affirm, educate, and motivate.

The Upcoming Charleston Synod

A good example of this is now taking place in Charleston, South Carolina, where Bishop David Thompson has scheduled a diocesan synod in 1994-95. A synod is the formal term in canon law for a convention by which invited participants advise a bishop, who may then legislate synodal declarations and decrees. Preparations for the Charleston synod involve extensive consultations, according to Mercy Sister Bridget Sullivan, Executive Secretary of the Synod. She said that from October 1991 to January 1992 the diocese held “listening sessions” in Charleston’s four deaneries to generate material for the synod. This material is now being studied throughout the diocese’s 113 parishes and missions.

“Bishop Thompson made it clear that he has no fixed and firm agenda for the upcoming synod,” Sister Bridget said. “In the listening sessions, he was virtually proclaiming to the diocese, ‘You tell me what you think the synod should discuss.'”

This is a good example of the indirect pastoral method of building commitment through consultation. And it has so far succeeded in generating the conciliar passion. Sister Bridget described the reaction of one man at a listening session who was moved by the invitation to share his concerns about the diocesan Church, an invitation he had never before received. “Thank you, Bishop,” he said, “for giving our Church back to us.”

Participative Change in Cincinnati

One of the by-products of Church consultation is what managerial theorists (following L. Coch and J. R. P. French in the 1950s) call participative change. When change is needed–for example, in response to the demands of the marketplace–managers strive to win support for the change by creating a positive attitude toward it. They identify informal leaders in the organization and try to make them allies for change. If the informal leaders back it, there is a good chance that the rank and file will follow their pattern of behavior.

Church consultations apply this approach by inviting recognized parish leaders to lay the groundwork for change. Sometimes the approach is startlingly effective, as the experience of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s “Ministry 2000” program suggests. The program, in which ultimately all eleven deaneries will collaborate in developing plans for parish ministry, staffing, and structure, began in 1991.

By December of that year, the 17 parishes of central Dayton had presented to Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk their preliminary models for future ministry, according to Jeff Rexhausen, Director of the archdiocesan Office of Research and Planning. In light of the declining number of priests, aging facilities, and limited resources, the 17 parishes focused on lay ministry. The archbishop met with in January of 1992. He asked the task force to define the most important goals and recommend strategies for accomplishing them.

Impressed with the seriousness of its task and the enthusiasm it had generated in central Dayton, the task force requested additional support from the archdiocese, said Rexhausen. But Ministry 2000 was just getting started, ten other deaneries had to be brought on board, and monetary resources were meager. The request for additional support was denied.

Instead of getting discouraged, the central Dayton parishes took stock. They had a core group which was deeply committed. They had a firm desire to ensure successful ministry. They wanted to share their vision with all the Catholics of their area. So what did they do? Rexhausen reports that the 17 parishes, on their own initiative and at their own expense, hired a consultant from Management Design, Inc., a firm specializing in Church consultations. MDI will help them complete their group process and strategic plan.

The lesson from Cincinnati is illuminating. A situation of limited human and material resources called for change. Key leaders were identified and put to work. They generated an enthusiasm that reverberated throughout their area. It mobilized new resources, accelerating the forces for change, creating a climate for it. Informal leaders are helping transform the local Church.

Readiness for Participation

Professionals in Church work usually understand the theory of consultation, and they participate genially and effectively. They feel comfortable with strangers, enjoy sharing their faith, and are good listeners. They often make excellent group facilitators.

But it is one thing to participate in a consultation and quite another to accept its results as binding for oneself. Because Church professionals understand consultation so well, they can be critical of its results and unwilling to accept them. After all, Church consultations are usually consultations with non-experts, and few experts indiscriminately embrace the judgment of those who are not their peers.

This is the point at which a pastor–whether of a parish or a diocese–must be firm. The pastor who invites a consultation must decide, at its completion, what he will do with the results. Weighing the results with his staff, he must eventually pass judgment. The pastoral decisions which stem from this judgment are ultimately his decisions, not those of the consultation.

Without a clear understanding of the relation between the pastor and those he consults, the pastor may be tempted to “soften” his judgment by explaining to his staff that his decisions are “the result of the consultation.” With this phrase a pastor may attempt to distance himself from the decision, apparently shifting the responsibility for it to others.

This can be interpreted by the pastoral staff as implicit permission not to carry out the decision, or to carry it out halfheartedly. The expert staff member may even feel a tacit complicity with the pastor, a complicity which (if it found words) might say: “Those Yahoos may order us around, but we’ll show them!”

Such staff members lack a genuine readiness to engage in participative planning because they feel superior to the other participants. Members may well engage effectively in the planning sessions, but they distinguish–and rightly so–between consultation and pastoral leadership. They are not ready to take direction from a group process. They need a pastor to translate the language of the consultation into an authoritative new direction.

Participative Planning Remains Secondary

Another problem that can arise in participative planning is the substitution of planning for action. We easily forget that generating a conciliar passion is the second purpose of Church consultation. It is subordinate to the main purpose, that of shaping the decisions of pastors.

Participation satisfies the needs for affiliation and esteem, two of the five basic human work needs identified in 1954 by Abraham Maslow. It helps people feel that they are “in” on the decisions that affect them. But participation alone does not satisfy the highest need which work affords, the need to actualize one’s own capacities. By itself, participative planning may not give us the satisfaction of doing a job which allows us to achieve and develop. Plans need to be implemented.

While working in the Oakland diocese, I participated in one group planning process which did not yield concrete results, and the effort was very frustrating. A chancery task force was established in June of 1988 to study how the diocese could implement the recommendations of the Diocesan Pastoral Council about lay leadership, the development of which was named a diocesan priority.

The DPC had completed its recommendations about lay leadership in 1987. The report recommended that the diocese ought to concentrate its efforts on supporting existing lay leaders at the parish level, meaning the unsalaried people who are already committed to leading parish committees and ministries. This group, the DPC felt, is already in place and readily identifiable. Moreover, it could benefit from diocesan support in terms of educational opportunities, days of retreat, workshops, etc.

The 1988 task force’s goal was to study how to implement this in the concrete. But when I left the chancery in June of 1990, the task force, which had already had 17 meetings, had shifted its original focus. It had become deeply involved in the question of how to develop small Christian communities. As far as I know, the task force is still meeting and no closer to completing its work.

Part of the task force’s problem was that, during its first two years, several key diocesan administrators had lost faith in the DPC’s original recommendations for lay leadership. Those recommendations had come to be seen as rather simplistic because they did not address how leaders emerge in the parish and how they are to relate to their followers. The diocesan leaders of the task force had come to believe that these questions are better addressed in terms of Small Christian Communities. But instead of sharing this new insight publicly, disbanding the task force, and undertaking a new consultation about SCCs, the task force plodded unsatisfactorily onward.

It is a poor example, in my opinion, of participative planning. Cut off from its original focus, the task force became a kind of open-ended think tank. The clear understanding of the purpose of the task force evaporated. The immediate goal of shifting resources to parish leaders never materialized. Without a doubt, we members were honored to be consulted. But the honor was no substitute for the results we had hoped for.


In sum, the conciliar passion is a secondary purpose of Church consultation, but an important one. When a pastor asks his people for advice, he invites them to commit themselves to a pastoral problem. This unleashes powerful energies. It can affirm, educate, and motivate people for ministry. North American pastors are well aware of this. That is why we find consultations about diocesan goals taking place in Sacramento, Dallas, Omaha, and Newark, in addition to Cincinnati and Charleston. Consultations generate enthusiasm, heighten interest, and raise consciousness.

There is some indication, however, that the secondary purpose of Church consultation occasionally overshadows the first. Consultations whose main goal is to build support for existing Church structures or to inform people about emerging pastoral problems are not really consultations. Real consultations tap people’s wisdom to improve the leadership of pastors. Lose sight of this and a consultation may become a gimmick to produce the illusion of dialogue for a pastor who is not really listening.

My experience in Oakland made me a believer in participative planning as a way of building up the Church. But it also made me wary of it as an instrument for staff management or as a substitute for action.

When was the last time your pastoral council undertook a genuine consultation of the parish about its goals or mission? Such a consultation can help the parish see where it should concentrate its energies. Moreover, it can generate a conciliar passion, engaging the parishioners in the ministry, expanding their vision, building community.