Published as “The Pastor and the Successful Pastoral Council,” Today’s Parish 30:6 (October 1998): 20-24.
By Mark F. Fischer
Ask council veterans how to start a parish pastoral council and you will get a variety of answers. Some will advise you to avoid popular elections and instead choose members by a spiritual discernment. Others will insist that you state the ground rules: councils recommend, councils seek consensus, councils avoid meddling in day-to-day parish administration. Still others will advise that the first step in starting a council is to create a climate of spirituality and prayer.
All of these proposals have merit, but none of them touches upon the fundamental step in starting a parish pastoral council. That first step is to have the pastor define the matter about which he wants advice. The pastor must begin with the acknowledgement that he seeks counsel. Until he knows what he wants to consult about, everything else–elections, constitutions, prayer–remains abstract.
Wait a minute, some readers will say. Starting with the pastor–isn’t that clerical? Doesn’t it makes the priest, rather than the parish community, the center of attention? Other readers will fault the proposal for narrowness. If the pastor defines the council’s task, they will say, the scope of the council will be prematurely limited. Still others will ask, What about the council’s own initiative? Does a council merely react to the requests of its pastor, and never initiate matters on its own? The idea of starting councils with a pastor seems undemocratic.
To these objections I can only reply with reasons: the reasons for starting with a pastor. Having the pastor define what he wants to consult about, I argue, is practical, appropriate for a leader, authentically spiritual, and fully ecclesial. Let us look at each of these in turn.
The Non-directive Pastor
Not long ago, I visited a parish in Southern California with a dispirited council. The members told me that their pastor was a good and holy man, but not a strong leader. In the absence of clear direction from him, they spent their initial months tweaking the parish mission statement. After the council felt satisfied with it, they began to do an assessment of the parish ministries. They discovered how many there are, who participates in them, and other nuts and bolts of parish life. But the point of their assessment, and its value to the pastor, was not at all clear.
The pastor, for his part, was preoccupied with the day-to-day business of parish life: maintaining the parochial school, visiting the sick, celebrating Eucharist and the other sacraments. He liked the council members individually. He was grateful to them for helping him plan a major renovation of the school’s air conditioning system. And he recognized that, among the council members, there with people with extraordinary administrative and other gifts. But he had no burning desire, no focus for the council.
Then he told me, rather ruefully, that he did have one major headache. The parish church was originally built as a hall, he said, with the intention that a proper church building would be eventually constructed. But as the years went by, that ambition had faded. Now the old church hall needed renovation, and he had begun to think about a face lift for it. But when the bishop had visited for Confirmation during the spring, he had been very forceful. “You should not renovate the hall,” the bishop told him. “It’s time to build a new church.” Protests that the parish did not have enough money and that there was no will to build were of no avail. The pastor had been given marching orders.
When I heard this, I immediately saw that the council was the answer, or at least a partial answer, to the pastor’s problems. Building a new church, I said, is no easy matter. And raising the money to pay for it is only part of the problem. A new Church raises any number of pastoral problems. It forces the parish to think about liturgy, hospitality, the nature of communion, and its relation to the neighborhood. Why not ask the council, I told the pastor, to help you plan for the new church?
My motive was to give the council the planning role that rightly belongs to it. Councils have a distinct role, I believe, and pastors ought to emphasize it. No pastor ought to start a council without knowing what he wants. There is no reason for establishing a council unless a pastor believes that it will give him wise and prudent advice.
My Southern California pastor already had a council. Planning for the new church would be a good task for it. And by making the task clear, the pastor would find that recruiting new members will be easier. This is a general principle of council life. Gifted people are attracted to a clear goal. But it is difficult to recruit members for a vague task. People do not want to waste their time. Selecting council members without a clear idea of what those council members are to do, I believe, is plainly unfair to everyone involved.
Selecting Members with a Task in Mind
Why unfair? Because selecting a council before the pastor has clarified its mission runs a twofold risk. The council which is blindly selected may, in the absence of clear direction, set its own course. And the pastor may find this course irrelevant or even counter-productive. That is the first risk. The second is that a council which is blindly selected may not be adequate for the task the pastor ultimately requests. My Southern California pastor may decide to ask the council to help him plan for a new church. If the council members lack the patience or studiousness to plan–and I do not think they do–the pastor will regret that he had not spelled out his intentions earlier.
For that reason, we can fault certain methods of councillor selection. The worst are popular elections of councillors without regard for their gifts or future task. Almost as bad are those methods which consist of a group process without explicit reference to the council’s mission. We find such a “process” orientation in an article by Father Michael Parise of Boston, entitled “Forming Your Parish Pastoral Council” and published in the July, 1995 issue of The Priest. To be sure, Father Parise’s article is not all bad. In fact, it does an excellent job of describing a council member selection process which is not superficial, which provides solid information about the Church, and which leads to a discernment which will build up the parish community.
But apart from some generalities about envisioning the “parish of the future,” the article tells us very little about what the council hopes to do. Father Parise reveals its goal only at the end of his article. He briefly says that he wants the council “to evaluate the 50 [parish] projects and programs now in place, to determine their evangelical potential and perhaps to recommend consolidation, elimination of old programs and the creation of new efforts to serve the People of God” (p. 46). This, I believe, is his real reason for establishing a council. It is a worthy reason. But he does not state this until he has described seven preparatory meetings and the selection of the council. Father Parise is practical and highly motivated. But I think he and other pastors ought to spell out the real reason for establishing a council from the outset. In his article, it is not clear why he believes that the seven-meeting discernment process is necessary, or what he hopes to achieve by means of it.
The official documents of the Church are vague about the criteria for council membership. They state that council members should be prudent, recognized for their gifts, and capable of making present the wisdom of the People of God. To my mind, more than this needs to be said. If a pastor cannot clearly state what he expects from a council, cannot say in practical terms what he wants the council to accomplish, he may attract people to the council who are ill-suited, or who have an understanding of the council ministry not compatible with the Church’s understanding.
Pastor as Leader of the Council
A second reason for starting a council by having the pastor define its focus concerns leadership. The absence of effective leadership is a common source of council malaise. Members selected for a council begin in a high state of enthusiasm, only to grow disillusioned as time passes and their raison d’être becomes more and more obscure. We saw this in our Southern California parish. The council members did not know what their purpose was.
The pastor who leads well avoids this problem. He begins with a clear sense of what he wants from the council. His goal can be many different things–an assessment of the religious education program, a study of the impact of new immigrants entering the parish, a plan for easing the transition to a new D.R.E. after the retirement of an old one. It can even be a plan for a new church building. But whatever the goal, the pastor ought to make it clear and focus the council on it.
In order to maintain the council’s focus, the pastor has to keep two things in mind. First, he has a duty as a leader to ask of the council no more than what it can realistically do. Lay council members are not experts, and it is a mistake for a pastor to ask them to make determinations which call for expert opinion. Experts capably can tell the pastor what only experts know–about architecture, catechetics, sacred music, civil law, and so on. But councils are not a source of expert opinion.
Councils offer practical wisdom. They are good at studying a situation and judging what is appropriate for the parish community. The good pastor should not ask of the council what only experts can do. He should acknowledge their essentially practical orientation. To be sure, councils mature and develop. What may be beyond the council’s capacities when it is new may be an easy reach for a council when it is experienced. The good pastor recognizes this, recognizes that the readiness of a council to study and judge a matter will grow. The good pastor knows that a more directive style of leadership is right for a council at the outset of its work. Later, when council members are familiar with their work and with each other, they need less directive leadership.
Knowing the capacities of his council, the good pastor adopts a style of leadership which is appropriate to it. But unless he is free to exercise leadership, unless he can explain to the council what he wants and show they how the members can accomplish it, then problems will arise. Lacking clear direction, the council may flounder. Unaware of its own limits, it may bit off more than it can chew. New and inexperienced, it may not anticipate how it will mature and grow. Pastors can help council avoid these problems. They must have a good idea of what they want from council members. They must lead.
The Pastor’s Spirituality
Spirituality offers yet another reason for having the pastor define his focus for a council before starting one. The good pastor explains to potential council members his fundamental concerns about the parish, the ones he wants to explore with them. He invites them to share those concerns with him as council members. He rightly assumes that they will not accept an invitation to serve on the council unless they are willing to make those fundamental concerns in some way their own. Serving on the council is, or should be, a participation in the pastor’s own spirituality.
By contrast, some council veterans advise a general approach to council spirituality, an approach not specifically linked to the pastor’s concerns about the parish. One finds this, for example, in the recommendation that councils should spend a third of their time in prayer. The unexpressed assumption is that such a commitment will make the council more spiritual. Others recommend the use of prayer programs linked to the liturgical year, without insisting that such prayer ought to be adapted to the issues faced by the council. They recognize the value of prayer, and give it a general endorsement.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with devoting a third of council meetings to prayer or with employing generic prayer programs. The Church’s liturgy of the hours may be called, after all, a multi-purpose program of prayer. But unless the council’s prayer is somehow adapted to its situation, the prayer can dissipate, rather than enhance, council spirituality. Disengaged from the work of the council, prayer may become the mere recitation of pious phrases.
Although many parish councils have embraced the practice of rotating prayer leadership from one council member to another, I believe this is usually a mistake. First, it violates the principle of gifts. Not everyone has the gift to lead others in prayer. To pretend otherwise is to close one’s eyes to God’s Spirit. Second, the pastor is ordained to lead the community in prayer. That is his fundamental vocation. The council should honor it.
Ultimately, the rotation of prayer leadership may district the members from a spirituality which ought to be driven by the council’s mission. Councils should be praising God for forming the parish as a community of faithful people, thanking God for the opportunity to grapple with important parish issues, and asking God to help the members discern wise solutions to pastoral problems. The pastor’s leadership of the council, especially his leadership in prayer, should be a constant reminder to council members of their importance to the parish mission. The more the pastor can explain the spiritual basis of the council’s work, especially to potential council members discerning their readiness for the council ministry, the more they can judge whether this is the spirituality to which they are called.
The Ecclesial Reason
A final reason for starting councils with a clear and explicit statement from the pastor about their mission is that this is what the Church envisions. The basic definition of the pastoral council given in Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops makes that much clear. In the Decree, we read that the council is to investigate under the pastor’s direction all that pertains to pastoral matters, to reflect on them, and to propose practical conclusions. The pastoral council envisioned at Vatican II has a threefold task. It investigates, reflects, and makes practical recommendations to the pastor about the matters he places before it. Since that is the basic task of pastoral councils, potential members have a right to know about it in detail.
Some might conclude from this threefold definition that the Church’s view of pastoral councils is too constricting. Yes, councils are to investigate, ponder, and recommend. But that sounds somewhat theoretical. Much is left unclear. What does it mean to “investigate” and “ponder”? What are “pastoral matters”? And if councils are only to “recommend”–does that mean that they merely advise, without any clout at all? It sounds as if councils are simply to put on the rose-colored glasses of the long-range visionary, blinding themselves to those administrative issues where the pastoral rubber meets the parochial road.
But these questions reflect a crisis of identity that stems from an absence of good pastoral leadership. A good pastor does not make the parish council discover an identity on its own and without him. A good pastor does not let the council decide by itself what to do. A good pastor is not indifferent to the council’s focus. On the contrary! Good pastors recognize that the council is their once-a-month refuge from parish activity and immediate decisions. It is a refuge where they can face pastoral problems which call for something more profound than a snap decision. Good pastors do not waste a council’s time by making it come up with something to do do. They have questions, questions which require serious thought. They gratefully turn to their council to help them study what they cannot study on their own.
The pastor who directs the council is not being clerical. He is not selfishly forcing his own concerns upon others. He is not unduly limiting the council. He is inviting the council to become what the Church means for councils to be. It is the essential nature of councils to investigate pastoral matters, reflect deeply on them, and draw practical conclusions. When a pastor asks a council to do that, he is not relegating to the council a passive role. Rather, he is asking the council to exercise its full powers of creativity, initiative, and thought. He is asking the council to be what the Church intends.
The Southern California Parish
I do not know whether my Southern California pastor will ask his council to take the lead in planning for the new church. All I know is that the planning task is one he does not want to shoulder on his own. He has capable council members, and the prospect of recruiting gifted and well-motivated parishioners when the terms of the present members expire. He has a clear goal and knows how the council can help achieve it. He is inviting the council to share in a project which has the greatest spiritual consequence. And the task of the council, the task of study, reflection, and practical advice, is what the Church envisions. It sounds like a perfect fit between council and pastor.