Common problems

DPC LogoSmallParish Pastoral Councils: Mission, Leadership, Membership

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Three Common Council Problems . . . And What to Do About Them,” Today’s Parish 29:6 (October 1997): 11-15.

Three of the most common problems every parish council faces are mission, leadership, and membership. With an unclear mission, councils drift from one agenda item to another, never deciding what is most important. Such councils dissipate their energy with precious little to show for it.

The second common problem is leadership. Who has the responsibility to point the council toward its mission? Some might argue that the chairperson has that responsibility, but I disagree. It is ultimately the pastor’s job to steer the council. He is, after all, the one consulting it. He is the one who wants the advice.

From whom does the pastor want advice? One would think he wants it from those who are good at advising. These are the people who can study, reflect, synthesize opinions, and express them well. But councils do not always attract these kinds of members. They frequently attract doers, not thinkers.

Despite the importance of mission, leadership, and membership, the three remain problematic. Much of the responsibility for the problem lies with the guidelines for councils, guidelines published by almost every U.S. diocese. These guidelines typically give councils so much to do, or state the council’s task in such vague terms, that pastors and council members cannot clearly say what their mission is.

Guidelines also fog the issue of leadership. They state that councils are consultative, underlining the fact that councils are not the final decision-makers. Then, in almost the next breath, they state that councils should reach decisions by consensus. That implies that councils are not just consultative, but actual decision makers — provided of course that everyone wants the same decision.

Members make all the difference, but diocesan guidelines are frequently unclear about their selection. Most guidelines state that council members are to be representative. But what is to be represented — a demographic profile, a point of view, a structure of parish committees? Guidelines frequently make a hash of member recruitment.

Mission, leadership, membership — with these topics every council must come to terms. Are these problems for your council? Then you ought to know why and what you can do about it.

The Ambiguities of Vatican II

Last summer, I visited New York’s archdiocesan chancery office. There I met Father Robert J. Aufieri, Director of the Office for Parish Councils. I was very interested to see how Father Aufieri and his staff support councils in 413 parishes by means of workshops and visits. After our conversation, he gave me a copy of the archdiocese’s “Parish Council Handbook,” a 42-page guideline principally drafted by him and his associate, Sister of Charity Rosalie Kaley.

Their handbook is a mainstream effort, upbeat, readable, and popular in tone. But it reflects many of the current ambiguities of the council movement in the U.S. For example, it is ambiguous about the mission of councils, and states their purpose in vague terms. Further, the handbook sends mixed messages about the consultative nature of the council, suggesting that it both is and is not a decision-maker. And the handbook offers a variety of ways to select council members, without thoroughly explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each. These ambiguities, I would say, are by no means peculiar to the New York handbook. They are common throughout the United States.

The New York handbook states that the purpose of councils is “to cooperate with the pastor for the good of the parish.” This is a good purpose, as far as it goes. But it fails to cite the relevant documents about councils from Vatican II and Canon Law, which do not define councils in terms of “cooperation.” In fact, today we commonly speak of “pastoral” councils, a term which the New York handbook does not use at all.

Father Aufieri and Sister Rosalie are not to blame for the ambiguities of the New York handbook. They have inherited them from the Vatican II documents. The Decree on the Laity called (in no. 26) for councils to assist the Church’s apostolic work, allowing councils to coordinate lay initiatives. This is the source of the mission undertaken by most parish councils in the U.S. today, the mission of coordinating a system of standing committees. The 1992 handbook for New York councils suggests five committees: education, liturgy, service, finance, and social activities.

But the Laity Decree was not the only Vatican II document to mention councils. The Decree on Bishops spoke (in no. 27) about the “pastoral” council which studies pastoral problems and recommends solutions. This description, which canon 536 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law extended to parish councils, became the source of another council mission. It is the mission of pastoral planning. The New York handbook states that identifying the needs of the people and attempting to meet them is a purpose of councils. This is a form of pastoral planning.

When councils today state that pastoral planning is their mission, they hearken back to the Vatican II Bishops’ Decree. When their mission is to coordinate committees, they hearken back to the Laity Decree. The problem is that coordinating committees is a day-to-day administrative task. Pastoral planning is future-oriented. Coordinating and administrating attract one kind of council member. Planning attracts a different kind. The differences between the two create tensions which are hard to avoid. But both missions of the parish council find a justification in the documents of Vatican II. If we want to clarify the mission of councils, we must go back to the documents.

Clarifying the Mission

One such effort to return to the documents was recently made by Father John Renken, Vicar General for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. In 1993, he published an article in the canon law periodical The Jurist entitled “Pastoral Councils: Pastoral Planning and Dialogue Among the People of God” (pp. 132-154). Father Renken argued that the Bishops’ Decree, not the Laity Decree, is the proper basis for pastoral councils. Studying pastoral problems, pondering them, and recommending solutions — this language of the Bishops’ Decree, said Father Renken, is the language of pastoral planning. The language was re-echoed in canon law, which spoke of parish pastoral councils, and did not quote the Decree on the Laity. Pastoral planning, argued Father Renken, is the proper task of councils, not the coordination of a committee system.

One may well question whether canon 536, which quoted the Decree on Bishops, was meant to exclude the language of the Laity Decree. Father Renken’s argument, which would remove from parish pastoral councils the responsibility for coordinating lay initiatives (or standing committees), may not be decisive. Although canon 536 ignored the Laity Decree, nevertheless the documents of Vatican II have priority over the Code of Canon Law, and Laity 26 may still be relevant to councils. But Father Renken makes a good point. The Church’s official language is the most precise way to describe the parish council. It is more precise, for example, than that of the New York handbook, which states that the council’s purpose is “to cooperate with the pastor for the good of the parish.” If we do not want to blur the mission of the council, then we must describe that mission in authoritative terms, the terms of the Church’s official documents.

Saying that the council is “to cooperate with the pastor” is not wrong. The pastor remains the leader of the parish community, and he exercises his leadership in the council by presiding at council meetings. But councils are a creation of the Church, not of an individual pastor. Their purpose is more specific than merely cooperating with him in general. When the pastor exercises leadership in the council, he is asking the council to cooperate in accomplishing a specific purpose, such as pastoral planning or coordinating the apostolate. If your council is unclear about its purpose, it may be trying to do two very difficult jobs at once, planning and coordinating. You and your pastor ought to discuss just what ought to be the focus of the council, and limit itself to doing fewer things in a more thorough way.

Qualms About Leadership

Leadership means influencing others to help accomplish a task in a given situation, a situation shaped by the ability of others to do the task. The Church’s official documents may well define the task of the council. But unless the pastor exercises leadership, the task will never get done. The pastor is the principal leader. He influences his council to perform the task — whether pastoral planning or coordination — within a given situation. The situation is defined by the needs of the parish and the ability of the council to do the task. The pastor must gauge the situation, size up the abilities of the council, and ask for its help. In that way he leads the council.

But many shy away from the term leadership, fearing that it connotes domination. Psychologist Barbara J. Fleischer’s 1993 book Facilitating for Growth (Liturgical Press) is a good example. The book is primarily designed to assist Bible study groups and small Christian communities, but is also valuable to parish councils and committees for its discussion about group process. The book shows how groups ought to coalesce, how a facilitator can clarify what members feel, how groups resolve the issues of control, and how members develop affection for one another. Fleischer synthesizes the insights of organizational development and pastoral care.

But Fleischer is wary of the term leadership. “The leader’s power is ‘over’ the group and group members are seen as ‘followers,'” she writes. “A ‘facilitator,’ on the other hand, is a servant of the group, a person there to help the group achieve its purpose” (p. 21). In Fleischer’s view, facilitation is a ministry, a form of skilled participation, and a way of animating the group. But it is not a higher gift (in St. Paul’s sense) or specialized office. “Nearly everyone at one time or another,” she writes, “takes on a facilitative role.” Leadership, by contrast, is a power trip. Fleischer’s vision is egalitarian.

For that reason, her book is of limited usefulness to parish councils. It does not treat the special dynamic of consultative bodies in which one person alone, the pastor, presides. Councils are not egalitarian. To be sure, the pastor may choose to make decisions by building consensus within the group, utilizing a facilitator to ensure that no one dominates and that all are heard. But the pastor remains the one consulting the council. He is the one seeking its advice. He can share, but cannot surrender to the council, his responsibility for the parish.

Consultative Leadership

Here we meet the ambiguity about whether a council makes decisions or is consultative only. The New York handbook states, at p. 18, that councils are “consultative rather than decision-making.” Then at p. 37 it treats “consensus decision making” at some length, implying that councils do make decisions. The handbook is aware of the ambiguity. It tries to clarify it by stating that councils are not “decision making” but rather “decision reaching.” The process leading up to the decision, says the handbook, is more important than the decision itself.

But this blunts the sticking point, namely, the consultative nature of the council and the freedom of the pastor to consult as he sees fit. What the New York handbook does not state is the implicit faith of good pastors. They know, as did Socrates, that they do not know everything. They desire to maintain the unity of the council, a unity as intimate as a vine and its branches. They often put aside their own prerogative as pastoral leader and defer decisions until they and their councilors are of one mind and heart. When a pastor seeks consensus, he has chosen to delay a decision until all are agreed. He persists in consulting until there emerges a single, communal sense of the matter at issue.

Ambiguity about the consultative role of the council surfaces when pastor and council disagree. The pastor may be unwilling to accept a given recommendation. Or he may grow weary of the consultative process and come to distrust council members. When these problems arise, he must again exercise leadership. The pastor must state why he cannot accept a given recommendation. And if he wants to maintain faith with the council, he needs to explain what would enable him and the council to reach accord. A pastor who simply dismisses the council’s advice will soon have no council at all.

The Ambiguity of Lots

This brings us to a final area of ambiguity in the council movement in the U.S., the area of member selection. It is ambiguous because there are so many ways to choose council members. The New York handbook allows for the election of council members and for the appointment of them by the pastor. But it recommends that councilors be nominated by themselves or others and that names be drawn by lots. Appointed members may be perceived as the pastor’s cronies, states the handbook, and parishioners may be reluctant to run for council seats, fearing that they may lose the election. Superior to appointment and election, says the New York handbook, is the selection of members by drawing lots. With lots, no one loses and the cloud of cronyism is dispersed. New York councils who elect or appoint may still continue their practice, but the drawing of lots has the benefit of being neutral and less distressing.

Let us remember, however, that drawing lots has its own shortcomings. The principal one is that the drawing of lots severs the selection of members from the criteria of membership. Anyone can submit his or her name. Although the New York handbook states that nominees should be reviewed by the pastor before the drawing of lots and declared acceptable, nevertheless there is no other qualification. Once a nominee is declared acceptable, selection is left to chance.

To my mind, pastors should reject this system. No pastor wants to be advised by people he considers merely acceptable. On the contrary, pastors want the advice of those whose opinions are well-informed and trustworthy. Moreover, the best advisors are not simply those who are educated or experienced, but those who can thrive in a group. They are the people who prepare for meetings, who know how to listen, who can synthesize the judgments of others, and who can express themselves prudently and concisely. Such councilors are far more than merely acceptable. They are unusually gifted.

Selecting Wise Councillors

How can councils find these gifted members? The best answer to this question was given by Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney in her book Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987). McKinney’s thesis is simply this: if a pastor wants wisdom, he must find the wise. They are the people who have the time, the desire, and the ability to serve on a council. Without the time, they cannot give the council the attention it deserves. Without the desire, they will lack commitment. And without the ability, their opinions will be ill-founded and the participation unsatisfying. All three are needed.

McKinney states that a pastor who wants good councilors must first inform the parish about what he hopes to do with the council. The clearer he can state the council’s mission, the better potential councilors can judge whether the ministry is for them. McKinney then recommends, in Chapter Eight, one or more gatherings of those parishioners who are interested in serving. The gatherings provide an opportunity for people to learn about the council and to judge if they have the gifts and talents to serve on it. The gatherings should conclude, writes McKinney, with “a prayerful and personal guided discernment in which each person would . . . make a tentative decision about a possible call to [the council] ministry” (p. 80). The value of McKinney’s approach is twofold: people know in advance what serving on the council entails, and they can gauge with others their readiness for it.

By contrast, the system of selecting members by lots has no built-in education of potential members and no group discernment of gifts and vocation. The quality of councilors is determined only by the judgment of acceptability and by the luck of the draw. To be sure, no one loses an election and no one is a crony. But a genuine discernment in which some are judged better suited than others is a richer experience, even for those not chosen, and more satisfying than the drawing of lots. When lots are drawn, the choice does not tell you anything about yourself, about the group, or about God’s spirit in the community. A discernment does.

Postcard from the Big Apple

As I look back over the summer, I can honestly say: my trip to the New York archdiocesan Office for Parish Councils was a stimulating one. I not only met Father Aufieri and his dedicated staff, but I saw how one of the great archdioceses promotes councils in the Big Apple.

The visit also enabled me to think about the ambiguities which face councils in the United States. From New York to Los Angeles we are frequently confused about our mission, and we struggle for the right words — planning, coordinating, or cooperating — to describe it. A good argument can be made for planning; the other words are less persuasive. We waver about the meaning of consultation, often failing to see that it depends on the relationship between the pastor who desires advice and the council which wants to give it. And we confuse our councils with a variety of ways to select members. New York taught me the importance of expressing more exactly the mission of councils. If we were more precise about our mission, we could select members on the basis of what the mission requires, and with a careful discernment about who can and should undertake it.