DPC LogoSmallSounding Out the Parish

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “‘Sounding’ Out the Parish,” Today’s Parish 35:6 (Oct. 2003): 16-19.

Some Catholics feel that parish pastoral councils are more trouble than they are worth. But the following story illustrates the kind of problem that a pastoral council can help pastors avoid.

From the time that St. Stephen’s opened its new church in 1995, parishioners have complained about the public address system. Some said that is difficult to hear the presider, lectors, and musicians. A few added that the existing loudspeakers were placed too high, and reverberation creates too many echoes. In the year 2000, when Father Seamus O’Sullivan became pastor of St. Stephen’s (the names have been changed), he resolved to do something to improve it.

Father O’Sullivan hired an acoustical engineer to undertake a study. The engineer found that the new church has a reverberation time of three seconds. This delay makes it difficult to understand the spoken word. The engineer proposed changes that would cut the reverberation time in half. He estimated the cost of these improvements at $150,000.

In addition to consulting an acoustical engineer, Father O’Sullivan also consulted his staff. Two of the newest staff members, the directors of liturgy and of music, were especially enthusiastic. They believed that the improvements would enhance the Sunday liturgies. New microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, they said, would better project the voices of cantors and lectors.

After consulting the engineer and his staff, Father O’Sullivan held two open parish meetings to discuss the problem. Unfortunately, the meetings were poorly advertized and poorly attended. At the meetings, the engineer presented his design to a combined 125 people. The meetings confirmed what Father O’Sullivan already knew – namely, that some people were dissatisfied with the PA system. So the pastor gave the green light to the acoustical engineer. He installed new loudspeakers, amplifiers, and microphones. New seat cushions dampened the reverb.

The improvements enhanced the ability of parishioners to hear both the spoken word and liturgical music. But they did not stifle complaints. Parishioners complained that the pastor listened more to his staff than to them. They complained that $150,000 was too much to spend on acoustical improvements to a brand-new church. They complained that the parish had more important things to spend its money on than seat cushions and electronics. Father O’Sullivan had thought he was responding to the needs of people. But parishioners remained dissatisfied. He had improved the sound system but had not sounded them out.

In Search of a Mission

Apart from the acoustic problem, Father O’Sullivan seemingly had inherited an ideal situation. When he took over in the year 2000, St. Stephen’s was a growing parish with about 1500 families. The founding pastor, Msgr. Declan Carroll, had established St. Stephen in 1988. He had overseen construction of the new church and, by his departure in 2000, had paid off the $5 million mortgage. When Father O’Sullivan arrived, his main duty was to maintain the parish’s high morale and to build upon the seemingly firm foundation laid by Msgr. Carroll, his predecessor.

The success of the founding pastor, Msgr. Carroll, was due to his charismatic personality and commitment to the dream of building a new parish. Parishioners had rallied to his winning style. During the early years of the parish, while its people rented another church building, they were generous with their contributions. When the new church opened in 1995, there was a procession through the town and a festive celebration. The people of St. Stephen had pride of ownership in their new church.

Msgr. Carroll, for all his vision and personality, was not good at developing consultative structures in the parish. To be sure, there was a pastoral council and finance council. They did exist. But they met infrequently, their members were pastoral appointees (not elected by parishioners), and half of them were parish employees. They were not essential to defining the parish’s vision. That vision was clearly articulated by the founding pastor himself. Msgr. Carroll confidently promoted the idea of a new church building for his new parish family. And while he was pastor, this vision sufficed. With the opening of the new church building, Msgr. Carroll brought the vision to completion.

When Father O’Sullivan took over as pastor from Msgr. Carroll, he found a parish with high morale but an uncertain sense of its future. It had paid off its debt on the new church, but was unsure about where to channel the considerable energies of its parishioners. It had to make a transition. It was no longer a new parish with a church to build. It was an established parish in search of a mission.

The Expertise of the Parish Staff

As a new pastor, Father O’Sullivan’s first goal was to ensure that the parish’s liturgy continued to be of high quality. St. Stephen parish had a tradition of vibrant liturgy with good music. Father O’Sullivan believed that the best way to ensure the continuity of this tradition was to develop the parish staff. So with the high parish income – now that the mortgage was paid – he hired new staff members. These included a full-time liturgy director, a full-time music director, and a full-time business manager. They were trained professionals. But they were new to the parish, and took over many duties formerly done by parish volunteers.

Father O’Sullivan felt that the people of St. Stephen’s – affluent, well-educated, and dedicated – would appreciate the new professionals on the parish staff. The professionals would win the people’s loyalty, he believed, and would maintain and even improve the quality of the liturgy. Father O’Sullivan wanted to promote lay participation and collaboration. He felt that, by hiring competent professionals and giving them scope for innovation, he was being a collaborative pastor.

In the eyes of many parishioners, however, the new staff members were cool and distant professionals. They were new to the parish and did not know its people. By taking over many jobs formerly done by parish volunteers, the professionals seemed to imply that volunteer efforts were no longer as necessary and were not up to par. Veteran volunteers dropped out and fewer new people offered their services. Some parishioners moved to the other parish in the city. The level of weekly contributions dropped. Parishioners had begun to lose their pride of ownership.

As Father O’Sullivan noticed the drop in attendance and collections, he turned to his parish staff. He trusted them. After all, he was still new to the parish. He was not sure which parishioners to listen to. But he had hired the staff members and they were loyal to him. They gave him the best advice they could. They told him that he was able to reach more parishioners through the Sunday liturgy than through any other means of communication. So he should invest parish resources in making the liturgy the best experience possible. Father O’Sullivan took their advice and that of the professional sound engineer. He upgraded the public address system.

This upgrade, however, did not reverse the decline in attendance and the drop in weekly collections. Father O’Sullivan was frustrated. He had focused on the liturgy, the moment during the week that he reaches the majority of his parishioners. He had done everything he could to form a parish staff with liturgical expertise. He thought that, with vibrant liturgies, he could touch parishioners and make Christ especially present in their lives. By their frequent complaints, however, and by voting with their feet and their wallets, parishioners indicated widespread dissatisfaction.

Analysis of the Problem

A new publication sheds light on Father O’Sullivan’s situation. Two chapters in The Parish Management Handbook (Twenty-Third Publications – Bayard, 2003), edited by Charles E. Zech, focus specifically on parish vitality and the importance of information to pastors in large parishes.

One chapter addresses the question of the importance of the liturgy. Liturgical quality and style “are not the best indicators of overall vitality” in the parish, writes Michael Cieslak. Cieslak (Director of Planning for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois) analyzed 55,000 questionnaires administered to diocesan parishioners in 1997. His findings contradict the conventional wisdom that the quality of the liturgy is the best indicator of parish vitality. “That honor is reserved for the variables that measure leadership,” he writes (p. 130), “especially the one measuring encouragement for the laity to become involved.” In vital parishes, pastors and staffs encourage people to participate. Participation is even more important than a well-executed liturgy.

Cieslak’s chapter suggests that Father O’Sullivan was wrong to think that hiring a new Director of Liturgy and a new Director of Music would be the best way to maintain high morale at St. Stephen’s. It was not enough to put competent professionals in charge of liturgical planning and coordination. Such professionalism can displace volunteers. More important is to encourage lay people to become involved in parish ministry, including liturgical ministries.

Another chapter of the Parish Management Handbook relevant to Father O’Sullivan’s situation was written by Francis Kelly Scheets. Entitled “Parish Information Systems,” the chapter emphasizes the importance to pastors of accurate knowledge about the parish. Scheets, a Crosier priest and researcher, reports that 71% of all US Catholics attend Mass in parishes with more than 3000 Catholics and 1200 households. He argues that, the bigger the parish, the more difficult it is for parish leaders to know their people. In such parishes, regular face-to-face meetings between pastors and parishioners are not always possible and communication solely via announcements and parish bulletins is not adequate.

“Accountability for decisions,” wrote Scheets (p. 201), “rests with the parish council and implementation with parish staff.” In large parishes, where most American Catholics worship, the pastoral council helps the pastor make good decisions, which are then carried out by his staff.

Good decisions, Scheets argues, depend upon good information. By investigating and reflecting on pastoral matters and recommending conclusions to the pastor, councils help a parish to judge how well it is accomplishing its mission. Scheets identifies the kinds of questions that pastors and councils ought to ask (p. 204), illustrates how these questions can promote a sense of accountability (p. 206), and suggests four ways to use accurate data for parish management (p. 212). He shows that pastoral planning councils help parishes see whether they are succeeding.

The chapter by Scheets suggests that Father O’Sullivan overlooked important information that his pastoral council could have gathered for him. Pastoral councils fulfil their role best, according to Scheets, when they help pastors judge how well the parish is accomplishing its mission. At St. Stephen Church, Father O’Sullivan’s council could have studied (1) how well the musical and liturgical ministries were doing, (2) who was leaving the parish and why, and (3) the reasons for diminished Sunday collections. If council members had investigated these questions in an objective way, they would have discovered that newly-hired staff members were indirectly discouraging volunteerism and that ordinary parishioners were losing the sense that the parish belonged to them. But Father O’Sullivan never asked the council to look into these matters.

How to Sound Out the Parish

Recently, however, Father O’Sullivan has taken a renewed interest in his pastoral council. Recall that he had inherited the council appointed by Msgr. Carroll, half of whose members were parish staffers. Father O’Sullivan met irregularly with them during his first years as a pastor, but had no long-range plan for the council. At meetings he would update the members about parish events and ask for their reactions, but did not give them explicit directions. He used to think that the council should generate its own agenda. He used to say, “If I wanted something done, I would ask my staff to do it.”

Canon 536 states, however, that pastors consult councils. They are not autonomous boards that work independently of pastors. Rather, pastors consult them with a specific purpose. And official church documents teach that pastoral councils should be representative. They do not represent parishioners like congressmen represent districts, but they represent by making present the wisdom of the parish community. So Father O’Sullivan is now thinking about a renewal of his council by holding open parish elections.

He does not need to have staff members on the pastoral council, he came to realize, because he meets with his staff regularly during the week. Undoubtedly he wants to avoid hurting the feelings of staff members who have been on the council in the past. But if he seeks from his council accurate information about how the parish is doing – including measurable information about parish programs – he needs members who will be objective.

The task he has in mind for his renewed council is a study of parish hospitality. He wants to know what will attract new parishioners and win back the disaffected. In the past, St. Stephen’s gained adherents by involving people in the establishment of a new parish. The founding pastor, Msgr. Carroll, tirelessly proclaimed the construction of a family church in which all would find their spiritual home. But now that the church has been built and paid for, that vision no longer suffices. The prospect of further building plans (e.g., of a parish center or parochial school) so far has failed to ignite popular enthusiasm. St. Stephen’s has yet to find its new mission. Father O’Sullivan hopes that a renewed pastoral council, by studying how to make the parish more hospitable, can discover new ways to make St. Stephen a spiritual home for its people.

In order to attract new councillors, Father O’Sullivan is planning to hold three open parish meetings in the fall. He has announced that the theme of the meetings is “rediscovering our true home.” Through these meetings, he plans to educate parishioners about the reinvigorated role he foresees for the pastoral council. Its new role is to help investigate how St. Stephen’s has been a spiritual home for parishioners and how to make it even more “homey.”

Participants will be asked to describe the indicators of parish vitality and propose ways by which future council members can define and measure that vitality. Through these meetings, parisioners will be able to judge who among them would make suitable council members. Finally, at the last of the three meetings, participants will be asked to elect councillors from among their number. In that way, Father O’Sullivan will not only gain a renewed council. He will have truly sounded out the parish.