DPC LogoSmallPresiding in the Parish Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “The Role of the Leader in Building an Effective Parish Council,” Today’s Parish (September 1996): 32-35.

My earliest memories of Father Bill go back to the seventh grade, the year the Beatles arrived in America. I served Mass for him on a regular basis, and on at least one occasion he called me out of math, a subject I hated, to serve at a funeral Mass. This was a coveted assignment, not only because of the missed math, but because I was “tipped” $5.00–more than enough to buy my first L.P., “Meet the Beatles.”

Father Bill also loomed large in my university years. He gained some notoriety for being arrested in demonstrations on behalf of the United Farm Workers Movement, against the Vietnam War, and against the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Father Bill had grown up in Livermore, and the fact that nuclear weapons were developed in his former backyard especially rankled him. Many disagreed with his politics, but everyone knew that he stood for the gospel.

When I resumed my studies in 1975, I joined the local parish, where Father Bill had become pastor. There I met my future wife, married, completed my studies, and began to raise a family. After I got my first job, I remained in the parish, and was soon elected to the parish council. Before long, I became the secretary.

Today, as I look over those parish council minutes from 1983-1985, I recall how frustrating the meetings were. Our agendas were a barely-developed list of topics. We discussed everything from “What is the purpose of the parish?” to “How much should renters of the parish hall be charged for janitorial services?” We answered every question by taking a vote. Father Bill presided, not by directing, but mainly by participating. The meetings, as an experience of discipleship, left much to be desired.

As my frustration grew, I began to see some of Father Bill’s limits. He did not relish the council meetings, and did not invest in them much of his considerable creative energy. Indeed, he seemed relatively impatient with parish administration. Sitting down on a monthly basis with parishioners who would second-guess his decisions about finance, the liturgy, and the parish school was a cross he reluctantly bore. I wanted to reconnect with the prophet, spiritual leader, and disciple of Jesus who had influenced me as a boy and young man. But I could not find him in the pastor who suffered through parish council meetings.

Presiding over the parish council requires specific and unusual skills. Pastors learn some of them (the organizational elements of motivation, goal-setting, organizing a task, and assessment) by taking courses. But other presiding skills hinge upon the pastor’s own spirituality. These skills, such as getting to know and love the council members, showing them the connection between their task and genuine discipleship, praying and building community with them, cannot be readily taught. Presiding, I would say, is a largely spiritual discipline–and well worth the attention of pastors and council members alike.

The Limits of the Age

Many of Father Bill’s limits were simply the limits of our understanding of councils in the mid-1980s. Most council members, then and now, feel enthusiastic about participating in parish life, and see in council membership an opportunity to share responsibility for the parish. On that, almost everyone agrees. But certain ways of sharing responsibility have not been conspicuously successful, and Father Bill had inherited several.

For example, parish councils were linked, from the very start, with a particularly American understanding of democracy. In the late 1960s, when books about councils began to be published, most writers proclaimed that councils would restore the vigor and the voice of a passive laity. The pastor’s task, some suggested, was to unleash this voice. To avoid unduly swaying the council, they suggested that he assume a deliberately low profile.

Indeed, some guidelines from the period maintained that the “president” of the council should be an elected lay person. Today, after the publication of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, we know that pastors themselves are to “preside,” perhaps with the aid of an elected chairperson, over the council. But that was not clear in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in my parish council minutes from 1985 I spoke, not of a pastor-presider, but of our elected lay “president.” Father Bill may have adopted a deliberately low profile in order to encourage us, but I suspect that was not his only motive.

Another onerous inheritance from the 1960s and 1970s was the idea of the parish council as an open forum. During my days as parish council secretary, we heard parishioners:

  • request the purchase of a 16 mm. projector for the religious education program;
  • propose a spring dance to raise money;
  • urge a parish evaluation by a utility inspector so as to reduce energy costs;
  • call for the establishment of paid section leaders in the choir; and
  • affirm the importance of bingo as a fund-raising activity.

Each of these items has a certain importance, but a council which meets only two hours per month has to be discriminating about its use of time. In the name of being an open forum, we wasted time on trivia and slighted what was truly important.

One last holdover from the 1960s: it has been common, from the earliest days of the parish council movement, to state that the pastor “ratifies” council proposals. This term was meant to express the consultative nature of councils (i.e., their proposals are not binding unless “ratified” by pastors) while at the same time affirming the council as a proposal-making and policy-implementing body. In my opinion, however, the term “ratification” is misleading. It assigns the pastor a relatively passive role, that of blessing (or vetoing) council initiatives, instead of the active role which I believe pastors ought to take. Father Bill was mainly passive in our meetings, responding to (but usually not initiating) council business. He had unfortunately embraced the old ideal of “ratification.” By keeping a low profile, allowing a lay parishioner to preside, using the council as an open forum, and seeing himself as a ratifier, Father Bill had uncritically accepted parish council theories which today seem questionable.

Building Up the Council

When we turn from the mistakes of the past and ask what we have learned in thirty years of parish council experience, the importance of a strong pastor-presider springs to mind. The pastor, most would agree, consults the council. And in the word “consults” lie three beliefs. First, we believe that the council has a certain wisdom, certain insights, certain gifts, all of which the pastor needs. Second, we believe that he recognizes these needs, and (with the council’s help) can fill them. And third, we believe that he knows how to use the council’s advice, and we trust him to do so. This last belief concerns the love, the properly Christian love, which ought to exist between pastors and parishioners–a point to which we shall return.

As to the first belief, the belief about the council’s wisdom, this should lead to a better method of selecting councilors. No pastor wants to preside over a council in which he lacks confidence. Rather, pastors have an interest in attracting councilors who can give them sound advice. That is the norm. But occasionally the concern for achieving a “representative” council can distort the norm. A parish may elect such a representative council–a council which represents parish ministries, represents ethnic groups, and represents neighborhoods–but is utterly lacking in common sense.

Most members of Father Bill’s council had common sense. But one member lacked even the rudiments. Outspoken, outrageous, out-of-bounds, with a histrionic flair that would make Madonna seem shy and retiring, this particular council member dominated every meeting she attended, demanding that the council orbit around her manic sun. She was elected, I believe, on the strength of a persuasive personal statement to the election committee, and because most parishioners did not know her personality. She was an object lesson in how not to select councilors.

Father Bill never challenged her right to be on the council, but her participation undermined his confidence in it. He and the rest of the council tolerated this member because she was democratically elected, but all of us knew that she did not belong. Today I would say that priestly presiding includes a say in how to select councilors. It means devising a selection process that gives parishioners an opportunity to discern who is really suited to the ministry. Without gifted councilors, no pastor believes that consultation is worth the trouble.

Good presiding also means that the pastor exercises care in developing the council agenda. But Father Bill, I must admit, did not exercise much control over it. The agenda was usually handwritten by the lay “president” of the council and distributed at the start of the meeting. It reflected the president’s concerns, and often the council’s as well–but frequently not the pastor’s. So he felt alternately bored or bullied by it. He and the president became adversaries.

Today I would say that the pastor’s hands ought to be all over the agenda. Believing that the council has wisdom from which he can profit, the pastor should ensure that the agenda focuses, informs, and guides. It should tell council members about the issues they face, the state of the question, and the means by which the council is to address it, whether by brainstorming, reporting, expressing opinions, or making decisions. Through the agenda, pastors guide councils to what is important and prepare them to exercise their gifts. Only then can the pastor-presider benefit from the council.

Knowing the Council

Our second belief about parish consultation is that the the good pastor-presider recognizes his need for a council. Whenever he faces big issues, he turns to the council for advice. But when I think back to my old parish council, I do not recall Father Bill ever distinguishing big issues from little ones, or defining an area in which he wanted advice. To be sure, he eagerly reported parish efforts to picket a neighborhood pornography store, willingly discussed with the council the nature of Christian community, and enthusiastically expressed his support for refugees from El Salvador. But he never challenged the council to develop a common parish vision in these areas.

He generally left to the council itself the responsibility for defining its agenda. And what seemed most important to the council–namely, sound financial practices and the well-being of the parish school–were not Father Bill’s primary interests. When in late 1983 the lay president proposed the creation of a parish finance council, Father Bill said that a new council was not necessary. He was content to let the parish council function in part as a finance council. When a new bookkeeping process was recommended, he did not want to disturb Sr. Mary Cyprian, who had always handled the parish books. When the parish council finally proposed the establishment of a separate finance council, in June of 1985, it took two months to persuade Father Bill. He generally agreed to what the council proposed, but he did not take the lead.

Thirty years of council experience teaches, however, that effective presiding at the parish council emphatically means taking the lead. The pastor must define the key issues and focus the council’s attention, preventing detours and avoiding the “open forum” approach. To be sure, the pastor need not dominate the agenda, preventing frank discussions and the free exchange of opinions. But he ought to make it clear that he has some definite questions, seeks advice in certain important areas, and does not want to be distracted.

I wish that Father Bill had seen the connection between his passion for social justice and the council’s passion for fiscal responsibility. I wish that he had urged the council to strengthen finances so that the parish could more effectively minister to the neighborhood through social services and the parochial school. I wish that he had affirmed the council’s fiscal insights as a sign of good stewardship and mission-centered zeal. For that is good presiding: focusing a council, clarifying its task, connecting the work of the council with the work of the gospel. It builds morale and yields good advice. But instead, Father Bill felt brow-beaten, clubbed into accepting a program for which he had no stomach.

The Motive of Love

I said earlier that we would return to the motive of love, the properly Christian love, which ought to exist between pastors and parishioners. This love is the foundation for our belief that a pastor knows how to use the council’s advice, and for the council’s trust that he will do so. Love is the most powerful reason for establishing a council. The good pastor loves his councilors, longs to help them experience themselves as Christ’s own body, and values their insights as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit working in the Church. When he assembles the council, he leads the members into a deeper understanding of the mystery of the parish, helping them to see its pastoral problems, and inviting them to generate and clarify solutions. Good presiding means, above all else, linking the council’s work to that of God’s kingdom.

Love is also the motive for joining a council. Wise council members love the parish and love the pastor as its chief instrument. In addition, they may have a personal allegiance to him, as I had for Father Bill, seeing in him a special manifestation of Christ’s demand for compassionate but hard-headed justice. The councilor’s love, however, is not the kind that overlooks mistakes or uncritically affirms. Indeed, such love would not be love if it could not speak the truth in charity. But the wise council member loves the parish and the pastor because in them, God becomes present. He or she offers sound advice in order to build up the Church.

This spiritual motive is also the basis for council prayer. Whenever the pastor assembles the council, his first responsibility is always to acknowledge the spiritual communion which binds the members. They are, first and foremost, members of a communion in Christ. This communion must always and again and be reconstituted. By asking the council members to share their faith, by inviting them to express their spiritual sense of the matter at hand, by proclaiming the Word of God and allowing time to reflect on it in silence, by giving thanks for God’s presence in the council, the pastor-presider builds a communion among council members.

Some books about parish councils state that the pastor’s role in the council is akin to his role at Mass. In both cases he presides, calling forth the gifts of the community, upholding gospel themes, and ensuring good order. The analogy between presiding at Mass and at the council merits reflection. The pastor-presider at the parish council connects gospel and parish. He calls forth talented people to render their gifts of insight and wisdom, gifts which he places before the community and God. He brings order to the many expressions of community wisdom, and gives thanks for what God is doing through it. That is the council’s liturgy of the Word, offertory, and Eucharist. Over it the pastor presides.

Father Bill never led his council in a prayer which was Eucharistic. But I wish he had. His faith was firm, unsentimental, and concrete. The council was committed and sincere. He had our loyalty and trust. We wanted someone to lead us, focus us, connect with us, pray with us. We needed, not just someone to receive our advice, but a presider.