DPC LogoSmallInculturating the Council

Or, How a Trip to Alaska Challenged My Pastoral Council Assumptions

By Mark F. Fischer, published in Today’s Parish (April, 1999).

As the Alaskan Airlines flight descended for landing, I could see Kodiak Island out my window, glowing at 4:00 P.M. in the light of the setting sun. Home to 3,000 Kodiak brown bears, Kodiak Island is the second largest in the United States (after Hawaii). The inland mountains were covered with snow, but the hills descending to Chiniak Bay were brown and dotted with pines. I was heading there for a weekend workshop at the parish of St. Mary’s of Kodiak and the Islands.

My seat mate, a burly sea captain bound for a conference on the Kodiak archipelago fishery (he called it “the world’s most productive commercial fishing grounds”), told me that I was lucky to arrive during good weather. “Planes can land at the island in almost any weather,” he said, “but they can’t take off when it gets nasty.” I asked what nasty meant. “Fog, rain, snow, 65-mile-per-hour winds,” he said, “the usual things.” I prayed that the sunny weather would hold.

Weather is something that we Southern Californians usually don’t worry about. On January 13, the day before I left for Kodiak, I harvested a basketful of tomatoes from the vines my wife planted beside our house last March. Even today (February 5) the vines are still bearing. The Kodiak climate was utterly different. Before the trip, I went to my local Target Store to buy long underwear, and my sister-in-law (knowing about Alaska) had bought me a rabbit fur-lined hat which made me look like a Siberian. I would need them in Kodiak.

Delores Ossowski, the parish administrator, met me at the terminal, next to the glass case with a fourteen-foot stuffed bear. We jumped into her car and drove into town, swerving occasionally to get a better view of the bald eagles perched on the highway signs. My Kodiak adventure had begun.

The purpose was to help the newly-selected pastoral council members clarify the parish mission. As I got to know the members, I began to see that they and the pastor understood the pastoral council differently than I did. They viewed it not just as a planning body, but as the coordinator of the overall ministry and policy of the parish. I have serious doubts about the capacity of councils to coordinate parish ministries, but I could see that the vision worked for the councillors. In fact, meeting the Kodiak council first hand taught me a lesson: councils express the culture of the parish. Although there are basic principles which every pastoral council should honor, there is more than one way to have a successful council.

The Fishing Economy

Delores dropped me off at the St. Mary’s rectory. The pastor, Father Fred Bugarin, had not yet returned from a trip to Anchorage. When he arrived, a few hours later, he told me about the parish and about Kodiak, and I got an insight into the problems that the pastoral council faces. Kodiak, he said, is a city that lives on fish. There are 15,000 year-round residents of the island, and commercial fishing accounts for over fifty percent of employment. The Port of Kodiak is home to more than 700 commercial fishing vessels, with fourteen shore-based fish processing plants. When the fishing industry thrives, Kodiak thrives.

The trouble, said Father Fred, is that the fishing industry is not thriving. Part of the problem is due to over-fishing. In the 1980s, Kodiak was a booming fishery. The city attracted many workers from the Lower 48 states, the Philippines, and Central America. They came to earn high wages harvesting salmon, crab, and halibut. But overfishing depleted the fisheries. At the same time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game instituted tighter regulations over the industry. These two forces&emdash;first overfishing and then tighter controls&emdash;brought the boom to an end. The fishing industry became less profitable. During the weekend of my stay, Tyson Foods announced that it would close one of its Kodiak processing plants. For Tyson, chicken has become more profitable than fish.

The dent in the fishing economy has had big consequences for St. Mary’s of Kodiak. Income is down, but the needs have not diminished. The parish has a parochial school, staffed in part by the Gray Nuns of the Sacred Heart, who also established Providence Hospital on the island. The school serves a relatively small student body, with only five students in the eighth grade. But even with a small student body, heaters must work, lights must go on, computers must be repaired, and teachers must be paid.

Growing Pastoral Demands

Other pastoral demands in Kodiak continue to grow. The fishing industry has attracted a large number of Central American workers. The number is so large that downtown Kodiak even boasts an “El Chicano Mall.” The workers have little English and, in many cases, their visa status is irregular. Many canneries will not hire workers with irregular visas. So the Central American population faces the problems of poverty, cultural alienation, and a low level of religious formation. I saw Hispanic children playing outside a rundown mobile home park where sometimes two or more families live in a single rusty unit.

Father Fred has responded to the needs of Spanish-speaking parishioners in two notable ways. First of all, he established a Spanish-speaking “Consejo Pastorál” or parish council. The aim, he said, “is to give the Hispanic parishioners a sense of ownership and belonging.” Secondly, Father Fred recruited a parish sister to help with ministry to the Spanish-speaking, and Sister Peggy has her hands full. At one time she worked in another remote Alaskan fishing community, where men far outnumbered women. Although one might think that Alaska would be a good place for a single woman to find a husband, she joked, many solitary Alaskan workingmen are not interested in the conventional life of being husband and father. For the single woman, said Sister Peggy, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

Father Fred’s greatest desire is to foster in Kodiak a sense of Christian community. A priest of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Father Fred is deeply committed to a vision of small communities. After serving in the Anchorage chancery office for several years, he asked Archbishop Francis T. Hurley for permission to return to his native land, the Philippine Islands, as a missionary. There he served for seven years with Maryknoll on the Island of Mindanao. The Maryknoll experience inspired him to establish small communities in Kodiak, and he inaugurated the Renew program of faith-sharing groups at St. Mary’s. In fact, on my first full day, Renew’s Sister Kathy Warren, a former pastoral council leader in the Diocese of New Ulm, flew in to confer with Kodiak’s Renew group leaders, then flew out again.

So Kodiak faces a number of pressing problems, as does the pastoral council of St. Mary’s. A depressed economy means lower income for the parish. Parish ministries compete for limited funds. Maintaining long-established commitments, such as the parochial school, is a challenge. Finding resources for new ministries, such as the outreach to the Spanish-speaking, is not easy. And the need for building community, of creating opportunities for parishioners to share their lives and their faith, has never been greater.

The Council Members

Into this situation Father Fred has drawn the pastoral council. He selected them, he told me, for their ability to be “objective” toward the parish situation. When I met them on Saturday morning, I was impressed with their commitment and wide range of expertise and experience. The members included a lawyer who is both a mother and the local magistrate (or judge); a marine fishing scientist whose expertise is natural resources management; one of the Gray Nuns who is principal of the parochial school; a city planner with a concern for housing; and a retired couple who served for some years in the Alaskan interior with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Father Fred clearly wanted members who were knowledgeable about civic and church life.

I have always believed, however, that pastoral council members should be chosen in a process that includes their peers. The Vatican has taught since 1973 that pastoral councils are “representative” (although not in a democratic political sense). They should make the wisdom of the whole People of God present. Although pastors “appoint” council members, there are many ways to choose the appointees. For that reason, most U.S. parishes elect council members. In addition, there is a growing movement to use a discerning style of member selection, a movement to educate participants about the pastoral council and to allow participants to select council members. Because Father Fred himself selected his council, there was no participation by parishioners in the selection process.

Father Fred does not view councillors as representatives so much as leaders who act as leaven in the community. Although the parish guidelines for the pastoral council state that it is an agent of communication, Father Fred does not rely on the members primarily to inform him about what is happening in the parish. After all, in a town the size of Kodiak, where a recent page-one story was the break-in at the city dump of a huge bear who dug under the electrified fence in order to paw through refuse, news travels fast. Father Fred’s council is rather a leadership group. It is composed of people whose opinion he respects and with whom he wants to share a vision. He did not say it this way, but he sees the council as a group with a common commitment to the parish. It is the group upon whom he relies to share in the pastoral work and to express the Catholic mission in the Kodiak community.

If you had asked me before my trip to Kodiak how I felt about a council hand-picked by the pastor to serve as a leadership group in the parish, I would have shaken my head. I would have said that hand-picked councils smack of favoritism. But the Kodiak experience gave me another perspective. Father Fred escaped the charge of favoritism by inviting people to nominate themselves, after which he publicized their names and invited comments. None of those who nominated themselves were excluded from the council. “If that is hand-picking,” said Father Fred, “well, I guess it is!” The council of St. Mary’s was chosen for a specific purpose. The purpose, if I can describe it rightly, is to be a leaven. Father Fred wants the council to work its way into Kodiak society like yeast in the hope that it can raise awareness about Christian community.

The Purpose of the Council

The guideline of the Kodiak council states its four purposes. The purposes of the council are to facilitate ministries, to plan for the parish’s needs, to discern which parishioners can meet the needs, and to coordinate six standing ministry committees. When I read this, I imagined that council members would report on the ministries each month. The guideline appeared to describe a regulation “council of ministries” type, broad and general. In my view, too general.

Father Fred’s vision for the council, however, is anything but bland. Not for him is the kind of council in which members give dry reports on parish activities and do nothing until the next month’s meeting. He wants the council’s help in building community.

What is Christian community in a town like Kodiak? At the most obvious level, it is participation. I saw it at the parochial school on my first morning in Kodiak, where children were playing in the school yard during their 10:00 A.M. break, just as the sun came up. I saw it during the vigil Mass and the three Sunday Masses, each well-attended and beautifully celebrated. I saw it as Sister Kathy Warren met with the Renew team leaders. I saw it during a workshop attended by the Lutheran and Episcopalian pastors. Participation attested to the sense of Christian community in the city.

At a deeper level, however, Christian community remains a promise on the way to fulfillment, a promise toward which Father Fred is working. He is exploring, for example, how Kodiak can become a “Habitat for Humanity” project site. Habitat is the initiative, memorably connected with the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter, to focus attention on housing needs by constructing low cost homes. Father Fred said that he and the council had begun the process of application. The next step in the application would be to survey the actual housing needs in Kodiak.

Father Fred’s method was to draw the council’s attention to the needs of the parish (the needs for community, say, or for housing) and to invite its support. To the council members, he offered a kind of social analysis. Kodiak had a housing shortage, he said, and Habitat would alleviate it. Kodiak’s economy was at the mercy of food processing executives in the Lower 48, and the council should know about it. Kodiak fishermen need to limit their harvest in order to preserve the long-term health of the fishery. Father Fred wants the council to face these issues of vital interest. Although the parish guideline seems to condemn the council to meetings dominated by the giving of reports, the reality is quite different. Father Fred has primed the council to insert itself into the center of civic as well as parochial life.

This was a surprise. When I saw the “council of ministries” format in the guideline, I assumed that the council would concentrate on maintaining existing ministries. The pastor has something quite different in mind.

The Role of the Pastor

Father Fred has identified a number of problems facing the Kodiak Islanders, all of which demand a Christian response. Most are connected with the fish-based economy. In the face of economic doldrums, the needs of the poorest parishioners &emdash; the Spanish-speaking immigrants who seek work in the canneries &emdash; loom larger. Many lack education, are underemployed, and suffer from the housing shortage. The economy also makes the work of environmentalists difficult. It is hard to ask fisherman to limit their harvest in order to protect the fishery. Finally, economic doldrums also limit the parish’s ability to respond. Parish needs outstrip income. Existing ministries compete for funding.

Until my trip to Kodiak, I would have urged the council to take a straightforward planning approach to these problems. There are three steps to the planning model. First of all, the pastor invites the council members to study the issues. They could, for example, conduct a census. They could examine the effect of food processing corporations on Kodiak. They could document the housing shortage. These are the first planning steps. Next, the pastor would reflect on the council’s studies. Finally, he would invite the council members to draw practical conclusions. These are three steps of the planning approach.

But after a few days on Kodiak Island, I saw that this approach was inappropriate. It was too aggressive, too left-brain, too pushy. Father Fred is not ready to ask his new council to conduct a formal study. His approach is an indirect and conversational one. Before asking the council to undertake this study or that, he wants to informally share with the members his concerns. They are intelligent enough to see the realities of Kodiak life, he believes, and to decide how they want to get involved. Eventually, he will ask the council to develop priorities and strategies for the parish. But at the beginning, Father Fred is laying a foundation. The superstructure is not yet designed.

Father Fred follows the tried-and-true method of the good adult educator: he invites, rather than directs. I would have been more directive. He showed me a subtler approach.

Inculturating the Council

As I got on the Alaskan Airlines flight to Southern California, I checked a fifty-pound box of frozen delicacies. The box was a gift from the parish. It contained salmon, king crab, halibut, and venison. My wife and I are now looking forward to cooking these fruits of the North. They remind me that Alaska is not just the 49th state, but a different culture. In that fishing-port culture, the pastoral council does not look like it does in Los Angeles. Parishes (and parish councils) differ according to the culture from which they spring.

Regardless of the culture, there is a lot to be said about clarifying the task of pastoral councils. In the past, councils have generally tried to take on too many tasks. Many have become frustrated or burned out. For that reason, it is important to limit their role. The attempt to limit it by focusing on the description of councils in canon law &emdash; the role of investigating pastoral matters, reflecting on them, and drawing practical conclusions &emdash; has been beneficial. That threefold role is a clear blueprint. Pastoral planning is the best task to which councils are suited. That is why I advocate the pastoral planning model.

But the trip to Kodiak showed me that the model must be adapted to fit the cultural situation. Father Fred Bugarin wants a council less concerned about maintaining existing ministries than about being a leaven in society. For that reason, he has broken with the common practice and hand-picked his members. He wants a council that will examine the economic and civic issues that his parish faces. By consequence, he has de-emphasized the regular reports from ministerial standing committees. He wants a council that will respond freely, communally, and creatively. So instead of being directive, he is informal and conversational. Father Fred has not repudiated the “study – reflect – conclude” approach of canon law. That is a basic format of every pastoral council. But in his Alaskan fishing port parish, he has adapted the canonical approach to fit the congregation.

Does your pastoral council fit the culture of your parish? Ask yourself how your parish council has “inculturated” its threefold-task. First, how does your council “investigate” pastoral matters? Are its investigations formal or informal, oral or written, publicized or private? Second, how does it “ponder” or reflect on them? Does it do so by a parliamentary discussion, by prayerful discernment, or by some mixture of the two? And finally, how does your council draw practical conclusions? Does it do so intuitively, or is there a more explicit practice of marshaling evidence and making deductions? Councils have to proceed according to their own culture — that is what my Kodiak adventure taught me.