DPC LogoSmallThe Pastoral Council and Expert Planning

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “The Pastor, the Experts, and the Pastoral Council,”
Today’s Parish 34:3 (March 2002): 12-15.

Not far from the birthplace of Richard Nixon, my wife and I attended a Mass and dinner last November. There, a few miles west of the Nixon ancestral home in Yorba Linda, lies the palm-studded parish of St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada. We drove more than an hour to a volunteer appreciation dinner held at Gannon Hall. This new and spacious multipurpose building, with a well-lit stage and restaurant-style kitchen, is named for the parish’s veteran pastor, Father Patrick Gannon. He celebrated Mass and presided over the buffet supper for more than 200 people, including several members of the parish pastoral council.

Our hosts at the dinner were Tom and Luz Connolly. Tom is justifiably proud of the million-dollar-plus facility. He works in the aerospace field and currently chairs the pastoral council at St. Paul’s. The council, Tom told me over dinner, was instrumental in helping plan for Gannon Hall. Although planning cannot be accomplished by councils alone (but must include expert advisors, parish staff and committees, as we shall see), it is the task most specific to councils, and it renders pastors a valuable service. In order to appreciate just how valuable the service is, consider Tom’s story.

Planning at St. Paul of the Cross

St. Paul’s had been planning to build a multipurpose hall for more than five years when Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, visited in the spring of 1998. The cardinal had come to confirm the parish’s young people. He listened with interest to the parish hall building plans, then raised a challenging question. Should not St. Paul’s rather rebuild the parish’s fifty-year-old church, the cardinal asked, before it constructs a multipurpose hall?

Cardinal Mahony’s query raised a big question in the mind of Father Gannon. The pastor was in the final stages of architectural design for the multipurpose hall. Parishioners at St. Paul’s had already contributed more than $200,000 to the project. Now Father Gannon had to rethink his plans. The parish wanted a hall, but also wanted to renovate the Church.

Father Gannon turned to his key advisors, including the parish deacon and the pastoral council. They decided to seek the advice of a larger and representative group of parishioners. They invited the members of important parish committees (such as the Building Committee and Finance Council) to a two-hour meeting in the summer of 1998. St. Paul parishioners, they reasoned, would ultimately foot the bill for the project, whether it was a church or a hall. Parishioners should have a say about where their money goes. Meeting participants agreed that, since the parish had been fundraising more than five years for a multipurpose hall, reassigning the funds to the construction of a new church building would put the good faith of parishioners at risk.

Everyone, however, took seriously Cardinal Mahony’s suggestion that St. Paul’s rebuild its church. Indeed, parishioners had originally intended to do exactly that, but only after the construction of the hall and not before. In light of the cardinal’s suggestion, they wondered whether they could do both projects simultaneously. So the pastor, council chairman, and other key leaders consulted with the architect, Victor Newlove, about the cost of building the hall and renovating the church at the same time. The costs, however, were prohibitive. St. Paul’s could not afford to do what the cardinal wanted and also build the parish hall.

The council and key leaders reviewed with Father Gannon the results of their investigation. They affirmed that the funds collected for the hall should not be reassigned to the construction of a new church. They advised Father Gannon that the parish should hold fast to its original intention. Taking the council’s advice, he returned to archdiocesan officials and sought their permission. After meeting with the archdiocesan Building Committee and financial officials, Father Gannon got a green light to build a hall. Regional Bishop Joseph M. Sartoris, who had supported the construction of the hall and actually made a contribution to the building fund, was present for its opening in April of 2000. Parishioners affirmed the bishop’s suggestion to name the hall after their pastor.

The Role of the Council

At the volunteer appreciation dinner, I asked Tom Connolly whether the Gannon Hall project had been a success. He said it had, and attributed much of it to the trust that existed between Father Gannon and the pastoral council and other key leaders. Father Gannon, Tom said, had found himself in an awkward position. He had embarked on one plan, the plan to construct a hall, and felt confident about it until Cardinal Mahony had suggested another possibility. The cardinal was not only the Archbishop of Los Angeles, but also the source of archdiocesan construction loans. As Tom Connolly said, everyone wanted to take the Cardinal’s suggestion seriously.

Father Gannon had to be both a good steward of his archdiocesan office and a good pastor. He needed to weigh his options and make a wise choice. The pastoral council helped him do so. Its members represented the common sense of parishioners. They did not want to be told that money saved for the parish hall would be spent on a different project. Moreover, the councillors realized that bringing the hall to a successful conclusion would enhance the good will of parishioners. Indeed, an attractive hall that could be rented out for wedding receptions and other events would be a source of parish income. Parishioner good will and additional income would be necessary for the next step, the renovation of the parish church itself.

But the council did not simply rely on its intuitions about parishioner sentiment. It also undertook a thorough investigation of the cardinal’s suggestion. With the pastor, councillors met the archdiocesan Building Committee. With Newlove, their architect, they estimated the cost of an expanded project encompassing both hall and church. They discussed the matter with archdiocesan financial officials. And they sounded out parish committees, such as the Building Committee and Finance Council. Their cooperation, support, and leadership, Tom Connolly said, were essential. Then and only then did the pastoral council make its recommendations to Father Gannon.

When I spoke with Father Gannon at the volunteer appreciation dinner, he was lavish in his praise of the pastoral council. After all, the members had helped him in a very delicate situation. He had the difficult task of integrating the wishes of his archbishop and his parishioners. The fact that he ultimately won approval for the project and completed it testifies to the soundness of his council’s advice. Top archdiocesan officials appreciated the way the pastoral council had studied the feasibility of the project. And Cardinal Mahony, by extending to St. Paul’s a $700,000 construction loan, himself acknowledged the council’s wisdom.

Planning by Experts

The Gannon Hall project succeeded because it was based on reliable knowledge and good advice. The search for such knowledge and advice is precisely the role of every pastoral council. Such councils are to investigate pastoral matters, reflect on them, and reach conclusions which are then recommended to pastors. St. Paul’s parish pastoral council was doing precisely what councils everywhere are supposed to do.

Someone may well ask, however, whether the pastoral council at St. Paul’s ought to have played such a decisive role. After all, it might be said, the council members were not experts in finance, architecture, or archdiocesan policy. Should Father Gannon not have deferred rather to the opinions of the experts?
In order to answer this question about pastoral decision-making, we have to distinguish between the importance of expert opinion and practical wisdom. Experts can tell the decision-making pastor what is best as a general rule and in most cases. Practical wisdom seeks, from among the many things an expert might recommend, what is prudent in an actual parish situation. Both kinds of knowledge—the expert and the practically wise — are important.

Archdiocesan finance officials could tell Father Gannon how to budget for construction and schedule the repayment of a loan. The architect, Victor Newlove, could advise him about the building of church halls and how to get the most for his construction dollar. But these experts did not know the parish as well as the parishioners themselves. They could not anticipate the will of the parish community, predict all of its construction needs, or gauge what is appropriate in the parish’s own situation. Father Gannon needed this practical wisdom as well as expert opinion. For that reason he consulted his pastoral council. Councillors consulted the experts, yes, but they had something that the experts could not provide. They had knowledge of the parish itself.

Planning by Councils

Many are tempted to think that pastoral planning is something of an abstract exercise. They see it as merely the formal application to a concrete parish situation of theoretical principles. This application, they believe, should be performed by experts—architectural, financial, liturgical, what have you—on behalf of the parish community. Key decisions are to be made only by those with specific training in technical professions. Ordinary parishioners, according to this view, should have no authoritative role.

The construction of Gannon Hall at St. Paul of the Cross, however, suggests that this view of pastoral planning is shortsighted. Were pastoral planning only the abstract application of general principles, there would be no need for discussion. But in fact the cardinal’s suggestion spurred the council on to plan in earnest. Had Cardinal Mahony not spoken, the parish would have proceeded without testing its assumptions as thoroughly as it did. It had assumed that it could not afford to simultaneously build the hall and renovate the church. At Cardinal Mahony’s prompting, the council tested that assumption by consulting the architect and financial officials. The cardinal’s suggestion motivated a more profound study, deeper reflection, and more effective planning.

As my wife and I drove home from the volunteer appreciation dinner at St. Paul of the Cross, we passed the turnoff for Whittier, where Richard Nixon had gone to college. We reflected on different leadership styles. Some leaders fear popular participation in decision-making. The surround themselves with experts and distrust the voices of ordinary people. But that was not Father Gannon’s way in the construction of his parish hall. By consulting the pastoral council, he not only invited a thorough reflection on the opinion of experts, but gained prudent insights about the common sense of his own people.

Seven Rules for Pastoral Planning by Councils

1. Plan with the pastor. If he does not believe in the plan, he will not accept it or implement it wholeheartedly.
2. Plan with parishioners. If the council does not give parishioners regular opportunities to give advice, they will not support the plan.
3. Expect course corrections. Responsible opposition to a plan provides valuable knowledge of which the council must take account.
4. Report regularly. Inform parishioners of the status of the plan, especially of changes made in response to parishioner advice.
5. Cast a wide net. When you think you have studied a matter thoroughly, publish the results. You will inevitably discover new viewpoints that need to be considered.
6. Talk to experts but reserve judgment. Experts can tell you what is generally true, but not always what will apply in your situation.
7. Do not hurry the process. The council that plans thoroughly will reach sound recommendations that pastors are likely to accept.