Finance council

DPC LogoSmallPastoral and Finance Councils: Two Types of Knowledge

By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “When a Pastoral and a Finance Council Disagree,” Today’s Parish 30:1 (January 1998): 8-12.

Pastors often get into a bind by asking for advice. Their pastoral council advises one thing, their finance council another. Whose advice is a pastor to take? I think a pastor ought to take the kind of advice which each council is good at. To do this, he must make a distinction. Finance and pastoral councils, I propose, seek different kinds of knowledge. By distinguishing between them, the pastor has a good chance of solving his dilemma.

Conflicting Advice

Let us imagine, as a first instance, that parish income exceeds expenses. The finance council may recommend that the excess income–which the financial experts say is not “excess” at all–be added to the capital improvement budget. They remind the pastor that the church needs a new roof, the rectory needs paint, and unforeseen emergencies may arise. The so-called extra income, they say, belongs in the bank.

Not at all, the pastoral council replies. Ministry takes precedence over the parish plant. How can the pastor even think of adding to the capital improvement budget, the council asks, when religious education needs books, or the choir new music, or the youth ministry program a full-time director? Ministry budgets always lag behind fixed and operating expenses, says the pastoral council. That is where extra income belongs.

Pastors who receive two different opinions about what to do with extra income will not be happy. But conflicting advice about extra income is better than disagreement about a deficit. It is easier to spend a surplus than to make it up. Consider a second instance in which parish income is not sufficient to meet expenses.

The pastoral council, on the one hand, may recommend fund-raising events to offset the deficit. councillors may believe that parishioners care enough about the parish to dig deep and contribute a little more. Anything is preferable, the pastoral council may say, to curtailed services.

The finance council, on the other hand, may not be so sanguine. Fund-raising events may not meet the parish’s financial need, say financial councillors. Furthermore, such events may raise awkward questions in the mind of regular parish contributors about the quality of stewardship exercised by parish leaders. The finance council may well conclude that, when expenses exceed income, expenses must be strictly limited.

To whom should the pastor listen? If he pays more attention to the finance council, he will become a fiscal conservative. Under its influence, he will save for capital improvements and shrink unbudgeted expenses. But there is more to parish administration than money in the bank. Pastoral council members will quickly remind him of that. If he accepts their advice, the pastor may appear more responsive to parishioner needs. With the pastoral council’s guidance, ministries may grow and Christian service flourish. But these may happen at the expense of wise stewardship.

The pastor, receiving conflicting advice, is in a tough situation. Both of his councils deserve attention. To which should he listen?

Previous Attempts at a Solution

In the last fifteen years, two basic solutions have been proposed to the problem of relations between finance councils and pastoral councils. One solution has been to subordinate finance councils to pastoral councils. I cannot say how many parishes endorse this solution, but it is recommended, for example, in the finance council guidelines for the dioceses of Milwaukee, Harrisburg, and St. Louis.

Milwaukee’s 1991 guideline, entitled Parish Committee Ministry, makes the finance council a standing committee of the pastoral council. The finance committee, notes the guideline, “does not decide priorities for the parish–that is the responsibility of the parish council” (p. 46). Milwaukee finance committees prepare the parish budget “based on the goals and objectives determined by the parish council” (p. 48). Pastoral concerns, not financial, are to remain paramount. The Harrisburg and St. Louis guidelines insist that finance council members are appointed after consultation with the parish council, thereby ensuring the pastoral council’s primacy. In these dioceses, the pastor knows that he is to listen to the pastoral council first.

But the superiority of the pastoral council is not universally acknowledged. The finance council guidelines of the dioceses of Richmond, Cleveland, and Los Angeles state that the relation between finance and pastoral councils should be “cooperative.” One council is not subordinate to the other. Indeed, one could argue that an attempt to make the one council superior to the other contradicts the consultative nature of Church councils. How can one consultative group demand that another conform to its wishes, as if only the one council were consultative and the other had administrative authority? The ploy of making one council superior to the other not only lacks universal acceptance, but may well violate the very soul of consultation.

A second solution to the problem of pastors who receive conflicting advice is strictly to limit the scope of the two councils. This solution was proposed shortly after the publication of the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law by Bishop John Keating of Arlington in an influential pastoral letter on “Consultation in the Parish.” Published in the October 11, 1984 issue of Origins, the weekly document source of the National Catholic News Service, Bishop Keating’s letter examined the canon about finance councils. Canon 537, he noted, states that finance councils aid the pastor “in the administration of parish goods.” Bishop Keating took this to mean that only finance councils are concerned about administration. “Pastoral” matters are separate. Parish administration is therefore outside the scope of the pastoral council, he argued, and may sidetrack it. Pastoral councils treat pastoral matters, among which administration does not belong. Parish administration is the province of finance councils, said Bishop Keating. On the basis of subject matter, he proposed to keep the two councils separate.

His contention was unpersuasive, however, because other official Church documents did not support it. The Vatican II Decree on Bishops, for instance, stated that the pastoral council has a role in governance (no. 27), and never suggested that administration lies outside its scope. Vatican II apparently did not intend to rigidly separate the administrative from the pastoral function. In 1973, a “Circular Letter” on pastoral councils from the Vatican Congregation on the Clergy–the only Vatican document devoted entirely to pastoral councils–was issued. It gave such councils broad scope and did not exclude administrative matters from their purview. “Pastoral,” we may conclude, means whatever pertains to the practical matters of the Church and its pastors. To try to define pastoral by excluding from it the realm of administration, as Bishop Keating did, does not solve the problem of pastors who receive conflicting advice from their councils.

In short, efforts to clarify the relation between finance and pastoral councils have thus far been unsuccessful. There is no consensus that pastoral councils are “superior” to finance councils. Those who try to distinguish between the two councils on the basis of their subject matter–pastoral concerns belonging to the one, fiscal administration to the other–have not been persuasive.

An Aristotelian Solution

If past attempts to reconcile finance and pastoral councils by subordinating the one to the other or by limiting the scope of each do not suffice, perhaps a new attempt may succeed. This new attempt is based on very old principles, the principles laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics–written in the fourth century B.C. and supposedly edited by Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus–distinguished among various kinds of knowledge. Some kinds of knowledge can be strictly demonstrated, said Aristotle, and others hold good as a general rule, but not always. This distinction can help us understand finance and pastoral councils. The finance council treats the exacting matters of income and expense. The pastoral council studies the contingent questions of what is right for a particular community.

When we apply Aristotle’s distinction to councils, we see them in a new light, the refreshing light of clear Greek thought. And in that light, our ordinary and usually unexamined assumptions about councils again become worthy of question. The subject matter, procedure, and membership of councils–these three raise questions which Aristotle answers.

1. The Subject Matter

Aristotle makes a fundamental distinction between science and practical wisdom. Science, for Aristotle, is not merely the laboratory discoveries with which we are familiar today. To science, according to Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, belongs every kind of knowledge which is always and everywhere true. It is the knowledge of those things which cannot be other than what they are.

Practical wisdom, on the other hand, concerns action; in particular, those deeds which we may or may not want to do. People with practical wisdom, says Aristotle, have a capacity for seeing what is good. On that basis, they choose to act or not to act. So action, the subject matter of practical wisdom, can never be always and everywhere true, as science is. Action is contingent. It depends on the choices we make, choices which may or may not be wise.

Aristotle’s distinction between types of knowledge helps us distinguish between pastoral and finance councils. Finance councils are concerned with what Aristotle called science, that is, the realm of what is always and everywhere true. No matter how the finance council categorizes the budget, income can never be more than what the parish has collected. Expenses can be no less than what the parish has spent. This is not mere opinion. The finance council can actually demonstrate its knowledge with collection receipts and check stubs.

Pastoral council members, by contrast, focus on something other than what is presently the case. Their concern is the future: what can and should be. It includes religious education, good liturgy, social justice, parish renovation, and care for the elderly. Everyone will admit that no parish can do everything. That is where practical wisdom come in. The council with practical wisdom helps a pastor decide what the parish ought to do.

So finance councils are scientific, in Aristotle’s sense of the word, and pastoral councils are practically wise. His distinction gives us a new way to distinguish between councils. But what are the consequences for the way the two councils run?

2. How the Two Run

Aristotle states that scientific knowledge can be demonstrated and taught. If we apply his insight to the finance council, we see the council’s fundamentally scientific nature. Finance councils have two main tasks: they make periodic reports and they help a pastor prepare the parish budget. In making reports, they show what has been collected and spent. And in budgeting, the project next year’s income from a history of the last years’ income, and they plan for the following year the parish payroll, operating expenses, and capital improvements. The goal of the finance council is straightforward. It is to demonstrate the parish’s finances and to teach what will happen if income and expenses are as projected. The basic principles of accounting are fixed, unchangeable, and (as Aristotle would say) scientific.

In the pastoral council, however, there is no scientific way to proceed. Without a doubt, pastoral councils amass facts, study issues, and calculate with regard to worthwhile ends. They proceed scientifically in the sense that their goal is knowledge. But the knowledge pastoral councils seek is not the demonstrably scientific knowledge of finance councils. It is rather a kind of wisdom: the knowledge of what is good for a community and the ability to discriminate about what the community desires. “Reasoning must affirm what desire pursues,” wrote Aristotle. The pastoral council must hold up to the light of reason the desires of the parish community, affirming what is good and recommending it to the pastor.

Aristotle’s distinction between science and practical wisdom helps us to distinguish between what councils do. Finance councils proceed by demonstration, that is, by showing and making clear. They manifest the financial reality of the parish, projecting it into the future. Their task is to make clear this financial reality, a reality based on the scientific principles of accounting.

Pastoral councils, by contrast, proceed by deliberation. They have no fixed-and-firm scientific method because what they deliberate about–namely, the changing needs of the parish–follows no unchangeable rules. Rather, what they do is apply a capacity for seeing the community’s good. This capacity, practical wisdom, enables them to consider a number of actions, all of which are good in themselves. Their wisdom is “practical” because it aims at choice and action. Pastoral councillors choose, from among all the good things the parish could do, what it should actually do.

3. The Gifts of Councillors

Not only do the tasks of pastoral and finance councils differ; the councillors themselves ought to have different gifts. Aristotle sketches the differing gifts of those who pursue science and practical wisdom in Book VI of the Ethics. His sketch has consequences for the selection of council members. Finance council members should know the science of accounting, should be able to rigorously demonstrate the parish’s finances, and should be able to convey that to the pastor. They are experts, and should be chosen for their expert ability.

Pastoral council members need not be scientific experts. Their gift is deliberation. They should know the parish well enough to judge what is good for it in general. They should be able to express their opinions well, and to listen attentively to the opinions of others. Above all, they should be able to synthesize the various opinions, clarifying them and making sound recommendations. Aristotle says that they ought to have the virtue of self-control, that is, the ability to control their passions. In this way they preserve their ability to judge what is good.

These distinctions do not specify a group process for selecting council members. That topic is beyond the scope of this article, and much has been written about the need for a thorough discernment of gifts. But it is important to realize that not everyone can serve on pastoral and finance councillors. People without knowledge of accounting should decline the invitation to be finance council members. Those who are impatient with discussion, who lack the ability to consider all sides of a question and want to impulsively “get on with the job,” need not apply for the pastoral council.

Whose Advice?

When a pastor receives conflicting opinions from his finance or pastoral council, he may well be asking questions which the councils are not able to answer. Aristotle suggests that each council pursues a different goal, proceeds in a different way, and requires different talents. Pastors should be aware of this and tailor questions to the abilities of each council.

But what should a pastor do when he receives conflicting advice? At the start of this article I presented two situations. In the first situation, a parish has surplus income and the councils cannot agree about what to do with it. In this case, I would agree with the finance council. Extra income belongs in the bank, at least until the pastor decides to spend it.

The finance council is right to advise on banking the surplus. It recognizes that its job is not to decide how to spend the money, but to keep track of it. Spending the money is a question of right action. Since there is no scientific rule about how best to act, the pastor who wants advice about how to spend parish income would do well to consult a group that is good at deliberation.

That group is, or ought to be, the pastoral council. Pastoral councillors should have no say about the accounts into which the extra income is placed. Their focus is not accounting but action. When the pastor has a question about action–that is, about how the money should be spent–he would be prudent to consult the pastoral council. Its specialty is deliberating about what is good for the parish as a whole.

So much for the income surplus. What about the deficit? At the beginning of this article, we asked whose advice the pastor facing a deficit ought to heed. The pastoral council suggested fund-raising, the finance council urged cost control.

According to strict Aristotelian principles, the finance council overstepped its bounds when it said no to the proposed fund-raising event. Fund-raising projects lie in the realm of action, where practical wisdom is required. Discussions about whether to undertake fund-raising belong in the pastoral council.

But the pastoral council has not done its work by merely recommending that the parish raise funds. It must study the fund raising efforts of other parishes, determine what kind of fund-raising meets its needs, discern who will lead the effort, and weigh its ability to carry out the plan. Until it does this, the pastor is wise to heed the projections of the finance council and curtail expenses. A bland and superficial endorsement of fund-raising to offset a deficit is not an exercise of practical wisdom.

In short, the Aristotelian distinction is this: pastors should consult the finance council in order to know the parish’s financial reality. Pastors should consult a pastoral council when they want to deliberate about what to do in a particular situation. One council seeks to know the financial reality. The other seeks to gauge the wisdom of parish action.

Pastors who distinguish between pastoral and finance councils along Aristotelian lines may still receive conflicting advice. But if they know what each council is good at, they can ask the questions which pertain to each. There are, of course, no impermeable borders between the two councils. Aristotle himself recognized that discussions of truth admit only the precision which the subject at hand allows. Scientists aim at strict demonstration, he said, and the practically wise aim at what is probably good. By distinguishing between the two, a pastor can invite his councillors’ best efforts.


Finance councils monitor parish accounts according to the scientific principles of accounting. They may not be the best forum for an open-ended question about pastoral problems. Why not? Because finance councils seek a “scientific” kind of knowledge, proceed by demonstration, and demand expert abilities. They may not be equipped to answer open-ended questions.

Pastoral councils have their limits as well. Do not ask the pastoral council whether the parish payroll reflects the true costs of benefits. Do not ask it whether insurance costs are fixed or operating expenses. Do not ask it to judge whether the budgets for parish events are adequate. Accounting is not its field. A financial statement can tell the pastoral council that resources are available to do many good things. The council should recommend what, among all those things, the parish ought to do.