Inexperienced councils

DPC LogoSmallWhen the Pastor Is ahead of the Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “When the Pastor Is Ahead of the Council,” Today’s Parish (January, 1996): 9-11, 24-25.

Parish council members frequently complain that their pastors are dictatorial, close-minded, patronizing, inconsistent, or downright fickle. But it is no less true that some pastors are ahead of their councils, full of plans for the parish and wanting the council to plan with them, asking councilors for advice on matters the council knows little about. This can create its own set of problems.

Not long ago I visited a Los Angeles parish at the request of a pastor who recently replaced the parish’s founding pastor. The new man instituted a parish council–the parish’s first ever. In its inaugural year, the council faithfully carried out the work recommended in the archdiocesan guidelines for councils: the members worked together on a mission statement and discussed ways to achieve the mission. But the pastor was not satisfied.

He was painfully aware that the parish was undergoing a change. Newer and poorer families were moving in. Many of these were immigrant Asians and Pacific Islanders. The new families had problems which the older and more established parishioners did not face. In order to bring the newcomers to the council’s attention, the pastor wanted to hold a parish assembly. The council, however, did not see the value of it. The members were unenthusiastic. The pastor felt they were stonewalling him.

The council, for its part, was composed of older parishioners. Their vision of Church, formed under the sure hand of the founding pastor, was not the vision of Christian social activism which the new pastor held. Theirs was instead a vision of struggle to establish the parish, to build a Church and a school, to create a center of faith. The council members felt that the struggle had been successful. They believed that they represented the parish. Why, they asked, did the pastor want to consult further? After all, they said, the archdiocesan guidelines state that the parish council is a planning body, not an implementing body.

After speaking with the pastor, I realized that he wanted something from his council that the members had not anticipated when they joined. He wanted more than the memory of the successful campaign which they had waged and won in the early years of the parish. He wanted a council to share his own commitment to social activism. He wanted a council to help him reach inactive Catholics and others in the community. He wanted a council with a grasp of the principles of group dynamics and of consultation. But the new council simply did not have what he wanted.

The pastor’s dissatisfaction caused me to reflect on the nature of the parish council and the pastor’s role in leading it. Many pastors resent activism from their councils. My pastor, on the contrary, demanded it. Why did he believe that his council ought to help transform the parish in response to changing demographics within the parochial boundaries? Why did he believe that the council ought to have the skills of group dynamics and parish consultation? This raises a further question: what are our assumptions about the activist role of the parish council, and where did these assumptions come from? And finally, what can pastors do to form councils that draw on the councilors’ strengths and offer pertinent advice?

The Activist Council

One way to explain the Los Angeles pastor’s desire for an activist council is to review the image of councils in popular Church literature. From the years immediately following Vatican II to the present, many writers have given parish councils an activist role. Bernard Lyons struck the activist note in 1967. The subtitle of his book Parish Councils was Renewing the Christian Community. He believed that councils would do just that, renew their communities, despite the consultative role which the Vatican documents assigned to them. Other early books promoting activist councils are Robert C. Broderick’s The Parish Council Handbook (1968) and Charles A. Fecher’s Parish Council Committee Guide (1970). These books give councils the task of coordinating a system of parish standing committees, overseeing the delivery of ministerial services by parish volunteers. Even today, twelve years after the 1983 Code of Canon Law unambiguously spelled out the consultative nature of councils in canon 536, many authors continue to give councils the essentially administrative function of coordinating committees. The activist-administrator image of the council dies hard.

Adding to this image is the way in which many members join councils. One way is the “council of ministries” popularized by Thomas Sweetser and Carol Holden in their 1987 Leadership in a Successful Parish. They propose that the council draw members from the various ministries or standing commissions of a parish. This is supposed to guarantee that council members are dedicated and knowledgeable. But it may only guarantee that councilors are active ministers–ministers who may have no talent for study, consensus-building, or discernment. These talents may be more important for the council ministry than a track record of parish activism.

One final impetus for the activist council comes from Latin America. There the experience of small Christian communities has led some theorists to recommend that pastoral councils be composed of the heads or “animators” of the small communities. This is the position of Augustinian Father Gary C. Rye, writing in a 1992 social psychology thesis for the Pacifica Graduate Institute. Drawing on his experience as a missionary in Peru, he recommends such a council of base community leaders. This may well be appropriate where small communities are already established, especially if the small community representatives to the council are chosen for their ability to deliberate and discern. But the major U.S. advocates of small communities, such as Fathers Arthur R. Baranowski and Patrick J. Brennan, see the council as preparing for the advent of such communities–not itself composed of community representatives. Baranowski and Brennan do not want to weaken the leadership of small communities by drawing leaders off to serve on the parish council. But they do stand in the activist tradition, according to which councils prepare for the transformation of parishes, a transformation to be accomplished by small communities.

In short, there is ample precedent for the high expectations and activism which my Los Angeles pastor wants from his parish council. He knows some of the literature which gives councils an administrative role, which advises the selection of councilors from parish organizations, and which promotes the council as a force for transforming the parish. He expects this same activism from his own council.

Unrealistic Expectations?

Are these expectations unrealistic? Some, I believe, undoubtedly are. The consultative ideal proclaimed at Vatican II was never intended as a substitute for parish governance by a pastor. Councils are meant to advise the pastoral leader, not to replace him with a democratically-elected group of representatives who then take over parish administration.

To tell the truth, however, this is not what most Catholic writers seek for councils. Their concern is rather parish renewal by means of greater participation and shared responsibility. The elements of the activist council–its system of ministerial commissions, the selection of councilors from among the most active, and its advocacy of parish transformation–are all meant to reinvigorate the parish. The activist council is based on the familiar theory of participative leadership: give people an opportunity to participate in the decisions of the Church and they will be more committed to the Church.

Such a theory is sound and is can draw ecclesial support from the documents of Vatican II. If all share in the ministry of Christ by virtue of their baptism into his body, then all have a right to exercise that ministry, at least within the bounds of good order and according to their gifts.

The crucial words are good order and gifts. Pastors are the supposed guarantors of good order, but they exercise the ministry of good order with greater and lesser skill. One skill that should be in the pastor’s repertoire is the discernment of gifts, but not all pastors have that skill. If a pastor does not recognize a parishioner’s gift, he cannot call for the exercise of it. If he does not understand it, he cannot fit it into the overall parish order. If he does not appreciate the gift, he cannot judge where it is most appropriate, or what its limits are. Pastors ought to call for the exercise of gifts in a parish council. But ordering those gifts, giving them a truly “holy” order, is no mean feat.

My Los Angeles pastor is learning this the hard way. First of all, he inaugurated a parish council without precisely spelling out what he wanted–namely, a council which would share his pastoral ideal of responsiveness to the changing makeup of the parish. He was not clear from the outset that he wanted a council which would actively survey the parish community and gather it regularly for parish assemblies.

Because this was not clear, he attracted people to the council who did not know what he wanted. When he called for an assembly with a sophisticated group process, a process designed to identify needs and to set general goals, the council did not understand him. He was talking a foreign language.

Not only did the pastor fail to attract the kind of council which would have been most beneficial, he did not at first see his failure. Instead, he wondered what was wrong with the council. “They do not want to roll up their sleeves and get to work,” he told me. This was unfair. It would have been more true to say that they were not ready to accomplish what he wanted. They did not understand it conceptually and they lacked experience with the kind of hands-on consultation he envisioned. They were not lazy or ill-intentioned. They were just unconfident and inexperienced. In a word, their readiness was low.

Being a Servant Leader

Knowing that his council is inexperienced, a good pastor does not throw up his hands and write the group off. Instead, he meets the council on its own turf. He asks it to do what it feels able to do. My Los Angeles pastor recognized this. Finding that his newly-formed council was composed of intelligent professionals, he asked the group to develop a mission statement. This was something many of them knew from the world of business. At the same time, it stretched the council because few members had grappled before with the idea of the parish’s mission.

It is one thing to ask a group to do what the members already know, such as drafting a mission statement. It is quite another to ask from them something entirely new. My pastor’s council had never experienced a parish assembly. Council members did not know how to invite or select people to attend. They did not know what group process they would use. They did not know what goal they wanted to achieve or what they would do with the assembly results–not to mention how they would organize refreshments, registration, and liturgy. They were on unfamiliar ground.

This is the ground, however, to which the pastor wants to lead them. The exercise of such leadership is appropriate for a pastor and must be rightly understood. It is common to cite Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership (1977) to suggest that the good leader serves the needs of his followers. But servant leadership can be misunderstood as simply a reversal of the traditional order of leaders and followers: instead of followers heeding leaders, the leader becomes a mere follower. He should obey them, rather than vice versa. That is a misunderstanding of Greenleaf. Yes, the servant leader helps followers achieve their goal, just as Greenleaf says. But the leader is able to serve precisely because he knows the goal of the followers. He continually clarifies that goal for them. The same is true for the pastor. He is a servant leader when he helps parishioners achieve their Christian goal, and he does so by continually clarifying it with them.

How does this apply in the case of the Los Angeles pastor? In the first case, he can help them see that the idea of a parish assembly is a commonplace in today’s parish. Much has been written on the topic. Robert G. Howes’ Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council (1991), Mary Benet McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom (1987), and The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils (1988) by William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers, all include chapters on parish assemblies. My pastor can show his council that his consultative vision is not a novelty item.

Reading about consultation is no substitute, however, for consultation itself. Here the principle of gradualism applies. The pastor must introduce the council to the practice of consultation in a gradual way. He can begin with an evening meeting of reflection, for example, inviting just a segment of the parish population. Such an evening requires no pre-registration, elaborate refreshments, or liturgical pomp–just a desire to gather people around a given topic. Once the council has facilitated such conversations, then it can graduate to more extensive meetings and eventually to a full-blown parish assembly. All the council needs is experience.

A pastor who wants his council enter more deeply into the spirituality of the parish and the needs of parishioners may at first discover puzzlement and feelings of inadequacy in the council. If the pastor refuses to attend to these feelings, he risks alienating the council. But if he informs the members, shares his motives for asking the council to help him consult further, and leads the council slowly into uncharted territory, he may be surprised–surprised by their talent, surprised by their zeal, surprised by their willingness to be led by one who is committed to serving them. When a pastor wants something new from a council–such as the facilitation of a parish assembly–how does he go about getting it? The first and fundamental step is to select council members who are willing and able to do the new task. That means spelling the task out in advance, inviting interested parishioners to learn about it, and allowing them to identify themselves as potential council members, capable and ready to meet new needs. A pastor wanting council-facilitated assemblies must attract council members who can facilitate.

What about the pastor who wants something new from an existing council? In this case, the pastor himself has to raise the council’s readiness level. He must model good facilitation in council meetings, explain the why and the how of parish assemblies, and gradually give his councilors an appreciation of group dynamics. This is challenging, arduous, and time-consuming. It may mean putting aside the normal council agenda and devoting the agenda to council training. But such devotion is true leadership by the pastor–and better than writing off the council as inadequate and ineffectual.