Pastoral & Finance

DPC LogoSmallShould Finance Councils Answer to Parish Councils?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Should Finance Councils Answer to Parish Councils?” Today’s Parish (March 1994): 21-23, 32.

A woman religious came to me recently with a problem about her parish’s finance council and pastoral council. They were at each other’s throats. The parish councilors were jealous of the finance council, saying that it was made up of the pastor’s cronies and interested only in the parish’s financial bottom line. The finance councilors distrusted the parish council, accusing it of rashly spending parish money without a care for where the money would come from.

This parish’s problem, I said, is a structural one. The structure of the two councils is unclear. And this unclarity is widespread throughout the North American Church. Consider the following two finance councils.

At Santa Maria Church, the finance council is a standing committee of the parish’s pastoral council. Lucia Sanchez, owner of the town’s Hallmark Shop, chairs the finance council. As chairwoman of the finance council, she also has a seat on the parish council. She likes it that way. “In the finance council, we focus mainly on detail work–preparing the budget and the quarterly reports,” she says. “But at the parish council, I get to share my broader concerns–and my knowledge of finance helps us figure out what the parish can afford.”

Ten miles from Santa Maria Church lies St. Mark’s, a different parish in a different diocese. At St. Mark’s the finance council is not a standing committee of the parish council but a separate consultative body. Chairman Fred Jones describes it as “the other council in the parish.” Membership on the finance and pastoral councils does not overlap–diocesan guidelines forbid it on the grounds that the two councils have separate functions. “I’m an accountant, and I’m good at budgeting and reports,” says Jones. “I’m happy to pass on our work to the parish council, but quite frankly, I don’t want to be involved with evaluating religious education, drafting mission statements, or planning parish assemblies.”

Two different finance councils with two different views. Although the two parishes are fictional, the two views are not. A brief sampling of diocesan guidelines for finance council reveals that the greatest single difference in the way we understand them has to do with the relation between the finance and the pastoral councils. Some dioceses see the finance council as a standing committee of the parish council, and some dioceses regard the two councils as independent.

What is the basis for this difference? In this article, we will take a look at the way seven different dioceses understand the parish finance council. When guidelines differ, we will ask why, and state the assumptions which underlie the differences. Finally, we will weigh the strengths and weaknesses, and try to answer the question: which is the better model–Santa Maria or St. Mark’s?


In preparing this article, I looked at seven different guidelines for finance councils published by the dioceses of Harrisburg, Richmond, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. I was curious to find out how finance councils–a relative novelty in the Church–are understood in the U.S.

The charter for finance councils is provided in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the first revision of the Church’s official law since 1917. The one canon devoted to finance councils is brief and general. First, it states that the finance council is mandatory in every parish (unlike the parish pastoral council, which can be mandated if the diocesan bishop judges it “opportune”). Second, the code states that each bishop should, in accord with canon law, regulate the finance councils within his jurisdiction (that is why diocesan guidelines differ). And finally, the code states the purpose of the finance council, namely, to “aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods” (canon 537). Apart from other canons about parish administration, there is scarcely more detail than that.

The details emerge in the diocesan guidelines. On a few points, almost all of the seven guidelines agree. For example, every diocese states that the finance council should help the pastor prepare the parish budget. And six out of seven state that the finance council should assist the pastor in making periodic financial reports, and should coordinate with the parish pastoral council. The one exception is the finance council guideline contained in the1990 Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. It says nothing about financial reports and states that the finance and pastoral councils are separate. But in in the other six dioceses, budgeting, reporting, and communicating with the pastoral council are definitely finance council duties.

Then there is a second set of duties which four or more of the seven dioceses recommend. In these dioceses, the finance council has the following duties:

  • advising the pastor on major expenditures or long-term contracts,
  • overseeing the parish’s accounts and financial record-keeping,
  • financial planning and advising on parish investments, and
  • monitoring the parish’s financial security and collections.

Why is it that not all dioceses give these responsibilities to the finance council? Various reasons. For example, advising the pastor on major expenditures is not a finance council duty in Milwaukee, because that is policy advice, and only the pastoral council recommends policy. In San Antonio, surplus funds go to the chancery, so the finance council makes no recommendations about parish investments. And in Los Angeles, a new Parish Budgeting Manual spells out accounting procedures, so a finance council need not advise the pastor about them. But in other dioceses, these duties belong to finance councils.


Apart from these common duties–budgeting, reporting, advising, overseeing, planning, and monitoring–there are a number of other duties assigned to finance councils, duties which vary in different dioceses. Some of these duties are not explained in detail, but merely listed in the parish pastoral council guidelines in a supplementary section for finance councils. For example, St. Louis’ 1985 Guidelines for the Ministry of Parish Councils calls for finance councils to promote tithing. None of the other guidelines mentions that. To give another example, the 1985 edition of Harrisburg’s Parish Council Policy and Guidelines states that the finance committee shall help the pastor see that invoices, installments, and loan interest are paid in a timely fashion. Few diocesan guideline go into that kind of detail!

The greatest number of duties, interestingly enough, belong to the two dioceses, Cleveland and Richmond, which have separate publications for finance councils (apart from the publications for pastoral councils). Richmond’s 1991 Norms for Parish Finance Councils, a hefty 18 pages plus 51 pages of appendices and exhibits, assigns to the finance council the task of auditing the parish’s books. And Cleveland’s 1991 Parish Finance Council Policy, a 44-page document, asks the finance council even to establish a program of job classification and salary administration for all employees. A finance council would have to be highly skilled to accomplish these kinds of specialist tasks.

So there is a great variation from diocese to diocese in the duties of finance councils. But the most important difference, to my mind, is between those guidelines which portray finance councils as standing committees of the parish council and those for which the finance council is independent. This is the difference I highlighted in my opening anecdote about the parishes of Santa Maria and St. Mark. Santa Maria’s finance council is a “standing committee” of the parish council–a structure recommended in the guidelines of Harrisburg, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. St. Mark’s finance council is “independent” of the parish council–a scheme recommended in the Richmond, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Los Angeles guidelines.

Standing Committee or Independent?

What is the basis for the difference between the two structures? The argument for the “standing committee” finance council is that pastoral policies ought to dictate the use of parish monies. Since the pastoral council is primarily concerned with pastoral policy, the monetary concerns of the finance council are subordinate to it. The Harrisburg guidelines put the matter succinctly: “Because the parish council is preeminently responsible for the advancement of the parish’s mission, it supersedes every other parish organization, board, and committee” (p. 8). In the Harrisburg diocese, financial administration is one of the “missions” of every parish. The parish council coordinates the missions, and so the finance committee is a standing committee of the parish council.

That is the rationale for parishes such as Santa Maria, where Lucia Sanchez, chairwoman of the finance council, is also a member of the parish council. She reports to the parish council what takes place in the finance council. But what then is the rationale for parishes such as St. Mark’s?

The argument for the “independent” finance council is that parish finance is a technical field for which members should have specialized skills. By contrast, the pastoral council is a “generalist” group whose members need experience with the parish, skill in deliberation, and common sense. The 1991 Parish Pastoral Council Guidelines for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles describe the independent nature of the finance council in this way: “While the Finance Council has responsibility for the stewardship of parish financial resources, it is not the role of the Finance Council to recommend directions, priorities, or programs other than those related to its delegation namely, fiscal stewardship” (p. 18). This is the attitude of Fred Jones, the chairman of the St. Mark’s Finance Council: “Let me get on with the business end of things, and let the parish council discuss the parish mission.”

That is not to say that the “independent” finance council is unrelated to the pastoral council. The guidelines of Richmond, Cleveland, and Los Angeles explicitly state that there should be a cooperative relationship between the two. But the one is not subordinated to the other, as a standing committee of the parish council. Parish council members may not understand the technical aspects of budgeting, and the value of financial reports does not depend on whether parish council members grasp every detail of accounting procedure.

Underlying Assumptions

What underlies the difference between the “independent” and the “standing committee” finance council? There may be a fear that the financial tail will wag the pastoral dog. Milwaukee’s 1991 Parish Committee Ministry suggests this when it notes that the finance committee “does not decide priorities for the parish–that is the responsibility of the parish council” (p. 46). It prepares the parish budget “based on the goals and objectives determined by the parish council” (p. 48). Pastoral concerns, not financial, should remain paramount. Subordinating the finance council to the parish council is meant to ensure just that.

But I wonder if there is more to it than the priority of pastoral concerns. In most cases, finance council members are appointed by the pastor. Parish council members are usually elected or selected in a more democratic way. Could there be fear that finance councils, made up of the pastor’s appointed cronies, may be less concerned about the parish mission than the “representative” parish council? Is that why the guidelines for Harrisburg and St. Louis insist that finance council members are appointed after consultation with the parish council?

There is no answer to this speculative question. But it is clear that, in those guidelines which subordinate the finance council to the parish council, the parish council seems to enjoy sweeping powers. Milwaukee’s guideline says that the parish council “is responsible for governance of the parish” (p. 5). Harrisburg’s guideline states that no parish organization “can have goals or policies which are in contradiction to the goals and policies of the parish as expressed by the [parish] council” (p. 8). St. Louis’ guideline states that the parish council is “to ensure that the stated goals, objectives, and priorities [of the parish] are implemented and maintained” (p. 27). These tasks of parish governance, representation, and administration go beyond, it seems to me, what one normally understands by a “consultative” parish council.

Against Financial Standing Committees

This moves me to the opinion that finance councils should not be subordinate to parish councils as a standing committee is subordinate. I prefer the independent finance council of St. Mark’s to the Santa Maria model. My reasons for this preference are as follows.

No one disagrees that pastoral concerns (rather than a balance sheet) should shape the mission of the parish. But does the establishment of a standing committee type of finance council achieve this? Supporters of the standing committee finance council argue that it should be governed by the parish council, to whose policies it should conform, and that the parish council should oversee it and its work. But I question this argument for two reasons.

First, according to canon law and the documents of Vatican II, the pastor is ultimately responsible for parish governance. The parish council shares responsibility, but the pastor has the final say. Consultative bodies, such as the parish council, should neither legislate nor administrate. They develop policies with the pastor, not on their own, and they do not direct other parish organizations. As a consultative body, parish councils are not entitled to direct. As a group of generalist-parishioners, they may not be competent to direct the finance council.

My second reason for questioning the standing committee proposal is a practical one. Most parish councils are composed of volunteers who meet once or twice a month. It is not fair or reasonable to ask them to govern the parish, set all goals, make all policies, and direct all ministries. To be sure, there are competent and generous people, like Santa Maria’s Lucia Sanchez, who want to serve on both councils. But they are the exception. Parish councilors are not meant to govern the parish. To say that they can or should blurs the relationship between pastor and council. Let the finance council report to the pastor, just as the parish council does.

Does this collapse the distinction between the two? Does the parish wind up with two councils, the parish council and “the other council in the parish,” as Fred Jones of St. Mark’s said? I think not, because the two councils have distinct jobs. Finance advises the pastor in the management of parish goods. The pastoral council studies pastoral problems and recommends solutions. The point of cooperation between the two should be the pastor–not a hierarchy of consultative bodies.

Two Questions for Your Councils

Question 1: Does your parish council feel superior to the finance council because the the first is concerned with “pastoral” problems–not “filthy lucre”? Or does the finance council feel superior to the parish council because financial matters have practical consequences (unlike pastoral speculation)? If so, then the two groups do not appreciate that each has a particular role to play and demands special qualifications. The qualifications of the finance councilor are easy to name: accounting, business, and financial acumen. But the qualifications of the parish council are no less particular: experience of the parish, the ability to reach the truth in dialogue, and pastoral concern. The two types of qualifications are equally important.

Question 2: Do you find that the finance council spends too much time actually doing the books and making reports, and not much time discussing, weighing, and making recommendations to the pastor? It could be that the finance council is not acting like a council, advising the pastor and his staff, but has become an adjunct staff, in effect doing the actual administrative work of the parish. If so, then ask yourself whether the council is able to do its work with objectivity (as a real council might look on the work of the parish bookkeeper). The finance council cannot “counsel” the pastor if it has no distance on the financial practice of the parish.