Published as “The Pastor, the Council, and a Parish Assembly,” Today’s Parish 30:3 (March 1998): 20-23.
By Mark F. Fischer
Father Jim Keeley seems to be in an enviable situation. The number of his parishioners at St. Mary of the Snows Church in one of the mountain states has tripled since 1990. The desire of people to live in a scenic region, within commuting distance of a metropolitan area, has made the population burgeon. Father Jim recently opened a new Church building, constructed to seat 700, with magnificent views of the Rockies. On any given Sunday, he can look out upon hundreds of parishioners, many with young families, and take justifiable pride in the parish’s new sanctuary.
Now that St. Mary’s has a larger worship space other pastoral concerns have arisen, however, and Father Jim’s life seems less enviable. When I visited with him, with the parish council, and with Sister Joan, the pastoral associate, people were quick to share their concerns. They expressed a desire for a more hospitable outreach to newcomers, for Hispanic ministry to Mexican immigrants, and for youth ministry. Especially youth ministry. “We have been discussing youth ministry for two years,” said Frank, the council chairman, “but we can’t seem to do anything about it.”
Privately, Father Jim explained to me the youth ministry problem. He said that he and Sister Joan are the parish’s only professional staff members. They had made a deliberate decision to keep personnel expenses low in order to help retire the construction debt, now at more than one million dollars. Doubtless St. Mary’s wants a youth ministry, Father Jim added, but where are the resources to undertake it? “The council has identified a need and dumped it on us,” he concluded. “It’s a neuralgic issue.”
Neuralgia. It is a medical term for a pain, radiating along the nerves, which does not change the nerve structure but which puts the sufferer into paroxysms. Council members keep telling Father Jim that the parish needs youth ministry, but their words just cause him pain. He agrees with the need for youth ministry, but feels powerless to change the financial and ministerial structure of the parish. The council is frustrated, the pastor is in paroxysms, and the youth ministry remains on hold.
When Father Jim asked my opinion about the matter, I told him that St. Mary’s could benefit from a parish assembly. Such an assembly, I said, could help parishioners better envision what they want in the way of youth ministry. It could help them anticipate the kind of structural change which the establishment of a new ministry entails. And it might mobilize the necessary human and financial resources which the ministry would require. Let me explain how parish assemblies can accomplish these kinds of goals.
Mobilizing Parish Resources
St. Mary’s, I said, is saddled with an enormous construction debt. The debt prevents the pastor from hiring a youth minister. Such hiring might otherwise seem an obvious answer to the parish’s youth ministry problem, if only the debt were not so great. But the debt seems overwhelming. The parish apparently cannot achieve a simple solution to a straightforward problem due to a lack of resources.
As I reflected, however, the solution did not seem so simple, the problem so straightforward, or the resources so limited. First of all, neither councilors nor pastor knew precisely what they meant by youth ministry. Was it to establish a weekly youth meeting or a drop-in center? Would it also include Christian formation and sacramental preparation? Was the minister to work exclusively with young people or did the position involve the recruitment and training of adult volunteers? No one was able to say what “youth ministry” was supposed to be, and no one had ever asked the rest of the parish. An assembly could remedy that oversight.
Secondly, no job description for the youth minister had ever been drawn. Was it a full-time or part-time position? Would a youth minister work under Father Jim or Sister Joan? Could the youth minister assume some of their responsibilities? Council members at St. Mary’s though hiring a youth minister would solve their problems, but the pastor and pastoral associate knew otherwise. They knew that an additional staff member would require some restructuring of ministry. A parish assembly can help parishioners see the need for restructuring.
Finally, the parish had more resources, I suspected, than Father Jim had acknowledged. To be sure, the debt was huge and the parish was cash-poor. But with an ever-growing population, and a presumably widespread desire for youth ministry, I felt that the parish had untapped human and financial wealth. The resource problem was daunting but not insoluble. The challenge was to gather those parishioners who wanted youth ministry and let them wrestle with it. A parish assembly would allow such problem-solving to happen.
In short, I recommended an assembly because youth ministry is a parish-wide concern. By convening the parishioners, Father Jim and his councilors could clarify the needs of youth at St. Mary’s. The necessary restructuring of ministry could be identified and begun. And the whole parish could share in solving the problem of insufficient resources. Youth ministry is not the concern of Father Jim and the council alone, but of nearly the whole parish. Why not assemble everyone concerned?
Assemblies for Visioning
Envisioning the future, restructuring work, and solving problems: these are what assemblies can do, according to Barbara Benedict Bunker and Billie T. Alban. They are the authors of Large Group Interventions: Engaging the Whole System for Rapid Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997). The book describes group processes which have successfully solved the problems of industry, but it is also relevant to church councils as well. Bunker has a Bachelor of Divinity degree, and Alban has worked as a community organizer. They may not have written their book for churches, but its lessons are perfectly applicable to congregational life.
The first type of gathering described in Large Group Interventions aims at envisioning the future. It includes processes to refine the group’s mission and goals, and it does not contain many surprises. Large group processes to envision the future, comparable to the ones described by Bunker and Alban, have been a part of Church culture for at least twenty years. Assemblies or town-hall meetings to define a parish’s mission and goals are not uncommon in the United States. They energize parishioners by giving them a say about how the parish can be more faithful to the gospel.
A good example of this style of gathering is contained in a 1997 “Workbook” published by the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The 146-page “Workbook” is meant to accompany the dioceses’s parish pastoral council guidelines, entitled New Wine, New Wineskins, created in 1996 by Greensburg’s Office of Parish Life and Ministry. The “Workbook” (pp. 86-89) contains plans for two parish assemblies, each two hours in length. The first assembly is designed to help parishioners state the parish’s mission and goals. The purpose of the second is to help parishioners define objectives for reaching their goals.
I have participated in such assemblies in the past, and they are exhilarating. By sharing concerns with a large group of Catholics, expressing hopes for the parish, and reaching agreement about common goals, participants deepen their insight and grow in commitment. Assemblies put flesh and blood on the skeleton of faith.
Other Kinds of Assemblies
Bunker and Alban’s Large Group Interventions defines other types of gatherings apart from those to envision the future. Their second and third types are somewhat novel, at least from the standpoint of Church practitioners. It is relatively uncommon to hold parish assemblies to restructure ministry or to solve problems. Far more common are open parish meetings to dream a future vision, such as those recommended by Robert G. Howes in his book Parish Planning (Liturgical Press, 1994), and meetings to consult and report to parishioners, as endorsed by the authors of Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council , edited by Arthur Deegan (Paulist, 1995). No guideline or handbook that I know recommends meetings to restructure and solve problems.
Yet these meetings are not without precedent. Many dioceses today are having to restructure parishes in light of the priest shortage. Their efforts frequently include large meetings of parishioners to share information about the priest shortage and to brainstorm ways of coping with it.
In the Archdiocese of Louisville, for example, five parishes out of 121 are without resident pastors. The archdiocese instituted a “Parish Staffing Study” in 1994 to predict the size and type of staffs its parishes will need by 1998. This study built upon an earlier gathering of more than 1,000 Catholics to draft archdiocesan goals. The Louisville effort, described in Diocesan Efforts at Parish Reorganization (a study edited by John Flaherty and published in 1995 by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development), is an example of assemblies for restructuring and problem-solving.
Some parishioners may be reluctant to advocate these types of assemblies. They may fear that, if a parish acknowledges problems and a need to restructure its ministries, parishioners will be demoralized. My experience, however, suggests the opposite. Core parishioners, the ones most likely to participate in parish assemblies, already know of a parish’s problems. They will be relieved to have a problem out in the open, I suspect, and happy to work on its solution.
An Assembly for St. Mary’s
If Father Jim, the pastor of St. Mary’s, asked me to design a series of parish assemblies to confront the problem of youth ministry, I would invite the pastoral council to work with me as a design team. Before any gathering, a lot of planning is needed. I would immediately ask the council to undertake two kinds of research. The first would be youth ministry in general. The councilors should read some books on the subject, I would say, such as George Boran’s Youth Ministry that Works (Paulist, 1996). Then they should meet with their diocesan director of youth ministry to discover the types of ministry which a parish might undertake.
Secondly, I would ask the council to research the actual need for youth ministry in the parish. How many “youth” are there? In what age categories and grades? In how many families? What civic and public school resources already exist for youth? Parishioners will want to know the answers to such questions, and the council members ought to have them at their fingertips.
Once the council had done its research, then I would ask the members to plan the actual assemblies. The first assembly, for example, would aim at informing parishioners and inviting them to reflect on the need for youth ministry. The diocesan director of youth ministry might be a featured speaker. The goal would be to tell parishioners about youth ministry and allow them to discuss what types are right for St. Mary’s. At the end of the meeting, there would be a summary and an invitation to the next assembly.
The goal of the second assembly would be to clarify and reflect upon the work of the first. At the second assembly, parishioners would be given a summary of what the first assembly heard and said. Father Jim could then explain that the parish’s resources are limited, and that every kind of ministry needs resources. If the parishioners want an ambitious and large-scale youth ministry, the costs would be relatively high; if a more modest program were chosen, the costs would be lower. When the second assembly gained a realistic sense of what youth ministry entails and chose a type appropriate for St. Mary’s, then the assembly would achieve its goal.
The third and final assembly would facilitate the commitment of parishioners to establishing the ministry. The primary aim of the assembly would be to create a youth ministry committee or team to refine a plan for the ministry. The plan would include a description of the ministry itself, the leadership and volunteers needed to create the ministry, and a process for fund-raising. The plan would be presented to Father Jim in the form of a recommendation.
In addition to the primary aim of the assembly–the aim of creating the team–there would be a secondary aim as well. The secondary aim would be to discern who, from among the parishioner-participants in the assemblies, has gifts of knowledge, time, and material resources essential to the ministry. It is not enough for parishioners to say what they want in the way of youth ministry. They must also consider how the ministry will be incorporated into the ministerial structure of the parish, and how the problems of funding and staffing will be solved.
Council and Assembly
Pastoral council members are not usually selected according to whether they would like to put on a parish assembly. Some members might feel that the work of doing an assembly, the work of planning a group process, organizing leaders, creating publicity, welcoming participants hospitably, and preparing a meaningful experience of prayer, is more than they bargained for. Where does it say, they might ask, that council members must have all these skills?
The answer is, it doesn’t say. No pastoral council guideline, to my knowledge, states that council members ought to be chosen for their ability to put on a parish assembly. What council guidelines do say, however, is that councils investigate pastoral matters, reflect on them, and make practical recommendations to the pastor. Hosting a parish assembly falls squarely within the category of investigating pastoral matters.
Council members may be daunted by the prospect of such an assembly. But as this article has shown, there are ample precedents and many published resources available to those who want to give the parish assembly a try. When a parish faces apparently intractable problems, such as the need for youth ministry in cash-strapped St. Mary’s, an assembly can point the way to a solution.