Parish & diocesan councils

DPC LogoSmallShould Parish Councils Be Like DPCs?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “How Should Councils Spend Their Time?” Part II, Today’s Parish (October 1991): 18-20.

My vision of what parish councils should be was formed by Oakland’s Diocesan Pastoral Council. I was director of the DPC Office from 1984 to 1990. Oakland’s DPC was a “pastoral” and a “planning” council. That is, it focused on the concerns of the pastor, the Bishop of Oakland, John S. Cummins. And it recommended to him goals with general plans for achieving them. Pastoral planning, I believe, is what parish councils should do.

But some would oppose my application of a DPC model to parish councils. And they would have two arguments in their favor.

First, they might argue that Vatican II distinguished between DPCs and parish councils, assigning different areas of competence to each. The Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops says that DPCs ought to treat “pastoral” matters (sec. 27), and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity says that the scope of parish councils is “apostolic” work (sec. 26). This distinction was blurred, however, by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which recommends the establishment of “pastoral” councils in parishes (ca. 536)–in effect, applying to parishes the DPC model.

Second, my opponents might argue that parish councils should not confine themselves to recommending future plans, as the Oakland DPC did. Instead, they would say that parish councils ought to coordinate parish ministries, as in the so-called “council of ministries” model. Such coordination is a possibility for the “apostolic” councils recommended in Vatican II’s decree on the laity, but not for the “pastoral” councils as described in the decree on bishops.

In short: opponents of the pastoral planning model for parish councils could argue that such a model contradicts or abbreviates the letter of Vatican II. In this essay, I want to say why the pastoral planning model of the Oakland DPC is applicable to parish councils; and why, far from contradicting Vatican II, such an application harmonizes with the Vatican II vision of Church consultation.

Why the DPC Model Is Applicable to Parish Councils

Oakland’s DPC worked well because its task was sharply focused, its members were well chosen, and its leadership was wisely exercised. This is no less important for parish councils.

Task. The Oakland DPC always knew what it was supposed to do. The 1985 council was to define goals for the diocese and recommend plans for reaching those goals. The 1988 council was to describe the essential features of healthy parish life and recommend ways for parishes to strengthen those features. In both cases, a two-weekend-long diocesan convention preceded the election of the councils. Each convention, comprising more than 300 delegates, produced a general body of work: diocesan goals or parish essentials. The task of the DPC over its three-year term was to refine that general work and draw conclusions from it.

Of course, temptations to lose focus were always present. But whenever the DPCs were tempted to shift attention from their main task–as in 1987, when the diocese celebrated its 25th anniversary with a festival; or in 1989, when the diocese was deliberating whether it ought to adopt a renewal program for its parishes–the councilors kept to the straight and narrow path. Their main task was not to plan a festival or to deliberate the merits of this or that renewal program, but to recommend general ways to achieve diocesan goals and to strengthen parish essentials. Most parish councils, I suggest, could profit from a clearer focus.

Members. Oakland’s 20-member DPC was elected at a diocesan convention. The conventioneers included two lay people chosen from each of the 87 parishes, as well as pastors, associates, religious men and women, and representatives of Catholic institutions. At different points in the convention, they were put in small groups. On the Saturday of the second convention weekend–after people had been working with one another for at least three days–the small groups reflected on the gifts of their members and on the gifts needed in the DPC. Then they nominated candidates for DPC membership. On Sunday, the DPC was elected.

The election was not based on who could represent the various ministries or interest groups of the diocese because the DPC task was not to coordinate them. Rather, choices were made largely on the basis of the candidates’ gifts for the task of planning diocesan goals and parish essentials. Upon the election of the DPC, the bishop commissioned its members. Those who were elected truly felt themselves to be elect. They knew that they had been recognized for their gifts by a group which knew what gifts were needed. Most parish councilors, I suggest, lack this confidence.

Leadership. Effective leaders enable council members to use their gifts. Such leadership requires a sound group process. Oakland’s DPC drew on the talents of excellent process planners who made sure that the agendas of the six-hour monthly meetings were well planned and executed. Instead of mostly hearing reports on various diocesan ministries, the councilors spent their time between small group brainstorming and large group deliberating. There was also prayer and faith-sharing, as well as time to plan the committee work which took place between monthly meetings. I believe that most parish councils give little attention to group process.

Was the Oakland DPC effective? It knew itself to be a consultative group without deliberative authority to make diocesan policy. But it profited from the active participation of the diocesan chancellor, an ex-officio member of the council, who was committed to seeing that the council’s recommendations were realistic, persuasive, and acceptable to diocesan staff members and pastors.

At the end of each DPC’s three-year term, the council was able to celebrate a job well done. The councilors grew in understanding of the bishop’s office, of the challenges of Christian leadership, and of the importance of a thorough group process. There were, of course, some disappointments. The implementation of the first DPC’s recommendations was not as effective as the council hoped, and the spirit of the second DPC was sapped as a diocesan financial crisis overshadowed the council’s work. This crisis, incidentally, has delayed plans for a third convention and council in Oakland.

Implementation was not the DPC’s primary responsibility, however, and financial management was not its reason for being. The DPC’s disappointments do not undercut, in my opinion, its applicability as a model for parish councils. They can learn from the clarity of the DPC’s task, from the discernment which led to the selection of its members, and from the leadership which enabled members to use their gifts.

A Blurred Distinction

Does the application of the DPC model to parish councils blur the distinction between the two kinds of councils? That is the first objection, and my answer to it may seem odd: yes, applying the DPC model does blur the distinction; but that is not a bad thing. To be sure, Vatican II did distinguish between diocesan “pastoral” councils and special “apostolic” councils. This must be acknowledged and understood properly.

The distinction between “pastoral” and “apostolic” reflects the Vatican II understanding of the role of bishop as chief pastor of the diocese. According to the council documents, it is pre-eminently the bishop who exercises the pastoral function of governance. Parishioners are understood as apostles sent by Christ to serve the community. So a diocesan “pastoral” council, according to Vatican II, advises the bishop on matters of pastoral governance. Special councils on the parish level are concerned not mainly with governance but with the good works of the Church’s apostolate.

That explains the difference in Vatican II terminology. But the distinction between “apostolic” and “pastoral” does not mean that parish councils are forbidden to do what DPCs do, which is pastoral planning. Such planning may well be needed to accomplish the goal of parish councils, which the laity decree said is “to assist the Church’s apostolic work.”

Parish councils can hardly be forbidden to treat pastoral matters, if by “pastoral” we mean those things that pertain to a pastor’s care for parishioners. This is a broader meaning of the word “pastoral,” a meaning which the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in describing parish councils as “pastoral,” indirectly affirms. That is why I say that the Code blurred Vatican II’s distinction between “pastoral” and “apostolic” councils. Indeed, it is an irony that parish councils today frequently refer to themselves as “pastoral” councils precisely to suggest that their concern is not administration or governance (what Vatican II called “pastoral matters”) but the Christian well-being of the parish.

A Narrowed Focus

Is the DPC focus on pastoral planning too narrow for parish councils? That is the second objection, and it is the real problem with applying the DPC model to them. Many commonly believe that parish councils should not just plan but coordinate. One sees this belief in parish councils which are structured as “councils of ministries.” According to this model, councilors are mainly drawn from the various parish ministries, each of which chooses one or more representatives. The council’s main work is to coordinate and give direction to those ministries.

The warrant for this model of parish council is the possibility, expressed in but one sentence of the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, that councils concerned with apostolic works “can take care of the mutual coordinating of the various lay associations and undertakings, the autonomy and particular nature of each remaining untouched” (sec. 26). Because this coordinating is “mutual” and because the associations and undertakings enjoy “autonomy,” the decree hardly suggests a kind of supercouncil which orders and directs bodies of lesser authority. Rather, the hope is for voluntary coordination of groups which operate on their own.

To this extent, the decree does suggest that parish councils may “coordinate” parish ministries, at least in the sense of fostering mutual cooperation. The question, then, is this: if we apply a pastoral planning model like that of Oakland’s DPC to parish councils, does that unduly limit their scope by preventing them from coordinating parish ministries?

Here the answer is yes and no. Yes, the application does limit the scope of parish councils whose role as coordinator of ministries is quasi-administrative. The pastoral planning model reserves administration to the pastor and his staff. Strictly speaking, pastoral councils cannot administrate because they are consultative groups which advise pastors. This brute fact becomes clear whenever the pastor refuses the council’s advice. The pastoral planning model, according to which a council recommends plans which the pastor may implement, clarifies the pastor’s authority. The model may well seem too restrictive to councils which understand themselves as coordinators of the parish’s ministries.

But I would argue that the application of the pastoral planning model to parish councils is not unduly restrictive. At the very least, the model does not prevent the council, in making its pastoral plans, from promoting the kind of mutual coordination of which the laity decree speaks. Yes, this model subordinates coordinating to pastoral planning. But the laity decree itself subordinates this to the council’s main work of assisting the Church’s apostolate.

Indeed, I am persuaded that such a pastoral planning model not only harmonizes fully with the intention of Vatican II, but can solve many persistent problems of parish councils: the problem of unclear focus, the problem of members who represent special interests rather than the well-being of the parish as a whole, and the problem of having to respond to so many ministerial concerns that the vision of the council and the gifts of its members are never able to develop.