Navajo council

DPC LogoSmallNavajo-Style Pastoral Councils

Published as “Lessons from a Navajo Pastoral Council: Reinventing a Stalled Council.” Today’s Parish 33:3 (March 2001): 12-15.

By Mark F. Fischer

When we think of Native Americans today, the image of lavish, Las Vegas-style casinos may come to mind. Newspaper stories about the Pequots in Connecticut, and the Aguas Calientes tribe in Palm Springs, California, suggest that American Indians have all reaped the benefit of legalized gambling on tribal lands. We imagine that Native Americans are as much at home in the corporate board room as any other group of affluent Americans, and that they have fully assimilated the life style of the middle class.

Poverty, however, is the lot of many Indians. Driving east from the Grand Canyon, for example, one sees it in the ramshackle roadside stands selling native handicrafts and jewelry, in the small farms dotted with rusting agricultural implements, and in the number of dilapidated mobile homes. Indian life in the Soutwest seems a far cry from the glitter of casino slot machines.

Franciscan Father Martan Rademaker can testify to that. Since his ordination in 1955, he has worked with the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. From 1965 to 1972 he tried to establish a parish council at St. Isabel Mission in Lukachukai, Arizona. His Navajo parishioners had no interest, however, in voting for council members or establishing a constitution and by-laws. Disillusioned with conventional councils, Father Martan and other pastors in Navajoland began to develop what they later called the “pastoral advisory circle.” It is a style of parish planning and governance that recognizes the “spontaneous and intuitive” gifts of Native American people, especially the Navajos of Father Martan.

Navajo Pastoral Advisory Circles, I believe, can teach pastoral council members that there are many ways to accomplish their work. Indeed, Father Martan shows that one style of pastoral council, a style perfectly successful in one culture, may be ill-suited to another culture. Pastoral Advisory Circles work for Navajo Catholics. What kind of council works in your culture? Before the Pastoral Advisory Circles When Father Martan first came to the Indian lands, he had little experience of Native American culture. After his ordination in Olbenburg, Indiana, his superiors in the St. John the Baptist Province assigned him to St. Isabel Mission. It was located in the town of Lukachukai, a Navajo word meaning “where the reeds grow white by the mountain.” Lukachukai, Father Martan recalled, was “sixty miles from blacktop.” The pastor of St. Isabel, Father Blase Brickweg, wanted Father Martan to immerse himself in the Navajo language. Although he never mastered the grammar, Father Martan learned to read well enough to do parts of the Sunday liturgy in Navajo.

Seminary training had not prepared Father Martan for life among the Indians. “Four years of philosophy and four years of theology had very little bearing,” he said, “on what I was called upon to do at Lukachukai.” He spent three days a week traveling with an interpreter among the families of the area. In the afternoons he taught religious instruction in a Federal Boarding Schools. Only 10% of Navajo children attended school at all in 1950, and the school in Lukachukai went only to the fourth grade. “I would practice reading the Gospel in Navajo all week and also get the interpreter to put some sermon thoughts into Navajo,” said Father Martan. “He would record it on tape and I would transcribe it phonetically from the tape.”

After two years in Lukachukai, Father Martan moved to Christ the King Mission in Shiprock, New Mexico. There he served from 1957 to 1965, first as Associate and then as Pastor. When he returned to Lukachukai in 1965, he recalled, he began to appreciate the cultural difference in the Navajos. “I tried to start a parish council at St. Isabel from 1965 to 1972, but I found that the Navajos do not like to single out or to be singled out as council members,” remembered Father Martan. “Navajo culture puts the group before the individual,” he said, “but our own strong individualism makes it very difficult to understand their thinking.”

In 1994, Father Martan moved to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Fort Defiance, Arizona. The parish had a pastoral council “on paper,” said Father Martan, but attendance was sporadic. In an effort to revitalize the council, Father Martan invited a diocesan official to present the “Council of Ministries” style of council. This style, popularized by Jesuit Father Thomas Sweetser, sees the pastoral council as the coordinator of a number of parish standing committees, such as education, social justice, and liturgy. The council of ministries requires a strong committee organization. The parish at Fort Defiance did not have it. “I remember a comment one of the Navajo men made,” remembered Father Martan. “He said, ‘We do not have enough Anglos in the parish for this to work.'”

Planning among Southwest Indians

Father Martan wanted a council. He saw the need for planning with his Fort Defiance parishioners. Moreover, the Presbyteral Council in the Diocese of Gallup (in which Fort Defiance is located) urged every parish to have a council. Every parish was expected to conform to that requirement. But the priests recommended a style of council not suited to Native Americans. And a conventional council, Father Martan knew, would not work for his parish. He had to adopt a Native American style of council.

Before adopting a new style of council, however, Father Martan wanted to learn more about Indian self-governance. In 1993, he and Sister of the Blessed Sacrament Genevieve Allen received a modest grant to study Native American planning and governance styles. Their study was not scientific in an academic sense. But after meeting with representatives of four tribes, asking them questions about planning, they identified a number of features of Native American planning.

The first has to do with common sense. Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo planning has much less to do with rational analysis than with developing a common or communal sense about a topic. The Indian words for “planning” more precisely mean, “to think it over together” or to think “not mainly in the head but with the heart.” Father Martan summarized the Native American planning in this way: “Listening and sharing are more important than the actual decision.”

Developing a communal spirit is a second feature of Indian planning. When Native Americans plan, they emphasize communal ownership of a project. Planning does not mean that one person has one exclusive responsibility and another person another. It means that there is a common commitment. Sister Genevieve recalled a Pueblo Indian saying about a communal dinner: “Never count the loaves of bread.” It means that the details-for example, about who is to prepare what food and how many guests are coming-are not all-important. More important is a shared commitment in which people take responsibility to the best of their ability.

As a third feature, Native American planning wants to be in accord with nature. For Navajos, Apaches, and Pueblos, most planning revolves around predictable natural events, such as the seasons of the year and the cycles of the moon. There is a certain imprecision about this. But what may seem imprecision is, for these Native Americans, an expression of respect. To precisely state our expectations, e.g., “Thursday at 3:30,” may seem rude, imperious, or restrictive. The Navajo would prefer to say, “in four days,” allowing room for unforeseen events and spontaneity.

A fourth feature of Native American planning is a certain resistance to long-range projections. The concept of taking steps to ensure a result in the distant future is foreign to Navajos, Apaches, and Pueblos, and seems almost impious. “We don’t have the power to predict far into the future,” one Apache told Father Martan. “Child birth, sickness and disease, and a journey from home-these are not matters over which one has much control.”

Authoritative decision-making is a final feature in Native American planning. Among the Navajos, Apaches, and Pueblos, decision-making is hierarchical. Authority figures, appointed or accepted by the people, make decisions after appropriate consultation. Among the Navajo, authority is often matriarchal. Some decisions are only made by the women, again after consultation. On the other hand, when there is conflict, the Navajo and Apache may prefer not to bring the issue to a head. They may let a difficult issue “sit,” without trying to resolve it, knowing that it will surface at an appropriate time. They have a heightened sense of when the time is ripe for deciding.

Father Martan already knew some of the reasons why conventional parish pastoral councils did not suit his parishioners. They disliked elections, parliamentary procedure, and the legalism of constitutions and bylaws. Having identified some of the key features of Native American planning, he saw additional reasons for developing a new style of pastoral council. He called it the Pastoral Advisory Circle. It takes into account the Native Americans’ communitarian genius, their imprecise but gracious intuitiveness, and their tactful appreciation of timing and consultation.

Guidelines for Pastoral Advisory Circles

The priests of the Diocese of Gallup wanted pastoral councils in every parish. But they had in mind convention pastoral councils whose assumptions were foreign to the Navajo mentality. In 1993, Father Martan met with the pastors of the Navajo parishes. Together they worked out guidelines for a new kind of council, the Pastoral Advisory Circle.

When he and the Navajo pastors first proposed the Circles, some of the diocesan priests were skeptical. But Father Martan won them over. “Once we had a description on paper of the Advisory Circle,” he said, “the Presbyteral Council went along with it.” It did not hurt that the Bishop of Gallup, Donald E. Pelotte, a member of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, also lent his support.

In some ways, Pastoral Advisory Circles are no different from pastoral councils. The circles use the same language to describe their purpose as do councils. Both quote Canon 536, stating that they “give their help in fostering pastoral action.” Both use the language about consultation of Lumen Gentium 37 (not specifically about pastoral councils), which states that “The pastor should willingly use the . . . prudent advice” of the council or the circle. Both are advisory, meaning that the councils or circles render an opinion that has “no binding force” and is “not decision-making.” Both use the language of Canon 536 to describe the members. They are “Christ’s faithful, together with those who by virtue of their office are engaged in pastoral care in the parish.” In these ways, councils and circles are very close.

There are, however, significant differences. For one thing, the Advisory Circles use general terms drawn from Lumen Gentium 39 to describe their purpose. They state that the Advisory Circle helps parishioners achieve a deeper participation in parish life, share responsibility, work toward a unified spiritual vision, and meet the challenge of truly being an expression of the Church in the modern world. This is broader and less precise than the purpose of councils expressed in canon 511 (about diocesan pastoral councils). There it states that they investigate, ponder, and recommend conclusions about pastoral matters.

Another significant difference concerns membership in the Circle. Instead of election or discernment, the Circle has open meetings and allows for self-selection. “All adult persons of the parish who attend the designated gatherings,” state the guidelines, “shall be members of the Pastoral Advisory Circle.” There are no explicit criteria for Circle membership. The guidelines merely express a hope that participation in the Circle will benefit the members. Participants, we read, will come to understand Christian discipleship, gain a “family perspective,” appreciate spiritual gifts, share responsibility, learn about models of the Church, and understand the parish’s role in achieving the diocesan mission. Since anyone can participate in a circle, it can be said to honor the Native American principles of spontaneity.

A final area of difference has to do with consultation. Although it is clear that the pastor presides and governs the Advisory Circle, nevertheless the Circle guidelines are not authoritarian or legalistic. The pastor presides, but an “elder” chairs the meeting. The elder’s task is “to give each person an opportunity to be part of the circle.” The term “circle” means that members “are held together by a common point of interest.” In other words, the Circle is a kind of communion. The members do not follow a parliamentary procedure. As Father Martan said, “Listening and sharing are more important than the actual decision.”

Application of the Advisory Circle Model

The real proof the Advisory Circle Model is in the practice. Do Pastoral Advisory Circles facilitate what the Church intended for pastoral councils, namely, the practical cooperation of pastor and people?

A glance at the minutes for the five meetings from December 1999 to April 2000 gives us some details. An average of eleven people attended each meeting. Twenty different people attended at least one time. Of the twenty parishioners, five came once, and five came twice. The remaining ten attended three, four, or five times. So these ten (including the pastor and two staff members) are the core of the Circle. Two lay parishioners shared the role of “elder” or “chairperson.”

What did they discuss? Much of the meeting was devoted to a review of recent events at the parish. We read that fifteen from the reservation attended the Cursillo. Christmas caroling was canceled due to snow. Thirty people witnessed a bonfire and potluck after the vigil Mass on December 31. In January, there was an announcement that Navajo ministers would meet during the next month at the neighboring parish. In February, the topic of the meeting was announced: “Navajo Ways, Catholic Ways.” At the March meeting, Circle members heard that 140 people attended the Navajo meeting, the best-attended ever. The minutes reflect the daily events of parish life.

The Circle also did some planning. In January, one of the parish sisters proposed a parish celebration of mission to mark the Jubilee Year. In February, the Circle discussed whether a parish mission (during which regular parish events would be in abeyance) was economically feasible. Two evenings of bingo would be dropped, meaning a loss of some $4000 in income. At the March meeting, commitment to a mission (jointly sponsored by the neighboring parish) appeared to be growing. By the April meeting, the Paulist National Evangelization Team had agreed to lead the mission during October. The minutes illustrate the gradual development of the mission proposal.

In short, the Pastoral Advisory Circle seems to be a relatively successful adaptation of the pastoral council idea. Father Martan recognized that certain features of conventional councils would not succeed among the Navajo people. They did not want elections, and so the Circle has open meetings. They did not want parliamentary procedure, and so meetings proceed with the sharing of anecdotes and impressions from recent parish events. The Circle avoids certain features common to pastoral councils.

At the same time, the Circle respects native sensibilities regarding consultation, consensus, and freedom. In the Circle, for example, consultation does not mean “we members decide by a vote.” Rather, it means “we reach a common viewpoint and leave the final decision to the pastor.” The members can be said to reach consensus, to give another example, but consensus has a unique meaning. It is not, as some people might expect, that all “agree” or even that “those with reservations can still go along with the majority.” Rather, consensus in the Advisory Circle means that “we freely achieve a common viewpoint and allow room for people to express that view as they see fit.” The elasticity of this definition better accords with the spontaneity of the Navajo people.

To be sure, attendance at the Advisory Circles is less consistent than pastoral councils with a well-defined membership. At least half of the Circle attendees participated only sporadically. But open meetings acknowledge a fact of parish life: not every parishioner, not even deeply-committed parishioners, have an interest in every parish event or issue. Even among the interested, the depth of the interest varies. Open meetings and self-selection of Circle members honor the freedom so important to Native Americans. They participate in response to parish issues that concern them, and drop off once their issue is resolved. There are many kinds of pastoral councils. Advisory Circles illustrate how the pastoral council idea may be adapted to a different culture. Those of us committed to a more conventional idea of pastoral councils may fault the Advisory Circles for their irregular membership or for not adhering more closely to Canon 511’s threefold definition of the council task: investigation, reflection, and recommendation. But no one can argue with the need to translate the idea of the pastoral council, namely, the search for wisdom about pastoral matters, into the people’s language. That is what the Advisory Circles have done.