Published as “The Pastor and His Domesticated Council,” Today’s Parish 31:1 (Jan. 1999): 28-30.
By Mark F. Fischer
In the past month I have corresponded with three people whose letters all hint at a similar problem: the marginalization of the pastoral council. Some readers may bemoan it, some may applaud it, and some may not even realize it. But my correspondents point to a problem — that of a diminished regard for councils — which deserves our attention.
My first correspondent was a Canadian woman who is a veteran of her parish council. The council doubles as pastoral and finance council. A pastor recently arrived at her rural parish, she said, who has ambitious plans to renovate the rectory. The council members felt bad that the newly-arrived pastor had not consulted them about the renovation plans. The members had kept the parish debt-free, she said, and previous pastors had deferred to their financial judgments. My correspondent and some other council members approached the pastor. They suggested that he ought to discuss major parish expenditures with them. The pastor replied that councils are consultative only. The pastoral council should focus on visioning and dreaming for the future, he said, and not preoccupy itself with daily administration.
During the same week that I received the letter from Canada, a man from Adelaide, Australia, also wrote. He is a Catholic with extensive pastoral council experience who now works as an administrator for a Protestant agency. The Australian had recently attended a workshop by Kennon L. Callahan, a Methodist and popular American author of books about church administration. Callahan reportedly said that the biggest problem facing ministers today was a lack of knowledge about what constitutes a good parish. Not knowing Callahan’s “twelve keys” to a well-run parish, argued my Australian correspondent, most pastors and parishioners go from crisis to crisis. Because they lack knowledge, he said, most Catholic pastoral councils are ineffective. They are not composed of trained parishioners. My Adelaide correspondent implied that pastors should stress that their councils are “consultative only.” Why? Because lay councillors commonly offer uninformed advice, advice which pastors should be free to ignore.
A third correspondent wrote from Northern California, where his pastor is establishing a new “parish committee.” The pastor preferred this term, he said, to “pastoral council.” I asked why, but my correspondent did not know. I suspect that the pastor did not want his new “parish committee” members to confuse the kind of advisory group he was contemplating with “parish councils” they had known in the past. By using the term “parish committee,” the pastor could develop the group in any way he wanted, unaffected by what the documents of Vatican II and Canon Law have to say about pastoral councils.
As I pondered these situations, I began to detect a common thread. In each case, the Church’s teaching on pastoral councils had been discarded. In the rural Canadian parish, the council’s role was being confined to “visioning and dreaming.” That is not the teaching of Vatican II or Canon Law. In the second case, my Adelaide correspondent was stating in effect that pastors should only consult experts in pastoral ministry. That ignores the classical distinction between the technical knowledge of experts and the practical wisdom and prudence of non-experts. And in the third case, a Northern California pastor had evidently abandoned the language of “pastoral councils” altogether. By discarding the Church’s language, he took away his group’s very identity. Let us look at each of these cases in turn.
More than “Visioning and Dreaming”
A failure to consult the council about renovating the rectory is not my Canadian correspondent’s only complaint. She said, in fact, that the pastor has little desire to consult about anything. Although monthly council meetings are scheduled, the pastor has already announced that he will not be able to attend the meetings in November, February and April. But he encourages the council to meet without him. Its task, he told my correspondent, is to create a parish “vision” and to “dream” the kind of parish they want to become. Since the council is merely visioning and dreaming, said my correspondent, there is really no need for the pastor to attend. Council members have little confidence that their “dreams” and “visions” will ever become reality.
Unfortunately, the pastor’s understanding of the council — namely, an agency for dreaming and visioning — is quite common today. “Developing a sense of direction or a vision of the future” is the first component of pastoral planning, states the 1998 “Guide for Parish Pastoral Councils” of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Without a vision of the future, council members will not know how they want the parish to develop. But for Cincinnati, developing a vision is only the first component of planning. Assessment, priority-setting, concrete objectives, and the allotment of resources are supposed to follow. But some people are quite willing to stop with visioning and dreaming. They want to keep the work of the council vague and general. And therein lies a tale.
Domesticating the Council
The parish council pioneers of thirty years ago were ambitious visionaries. “Parish councils,” according to the title of a 1967 book by Bernard Lyons, had the power of “renewing the Christian community.” Robert C. Broderick’s 1968 Parish Council Handbook proclaimed that councils would “renew the world for Christ.” Early council advocates saw that sharing responsibility with the pastor for the parish’s well-being would give promote new commitment and maturity among lay Catholics.
Such enthusiasm did not always meet a sympathetic response from pastors. A certain Father T. Whelan, in a 1967 article in the publication Clergy Review, stated that councils “must not, at any time, feel free to comment on or advise the Parish Priest on matters which are exclusively pastoral matters.” He wanted to draw a hard-and-fast line between his business and the council’s. This was sixteen years before the publication of the Code of Canon Law, which stated that the proper focus of councils was precisely pastoral matters. Even in 1967, Father Whelan was severely criticized. Councils were often given a very free hand, and would occasionally view themselves as adversaries of the pastor. Woe to the pastor with the temerity to refuse the council’s good advice. In the 1970s there are accounts of pastors so angry with their parish councils that they dissolved them.
When the Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, it devoted a single canon to parish pastoral councils. Canon 536 stated that such councils are “consultative only.” This meant, of course, that pastors have no obligation to take the council’s advice. Many council experts deplored this as the domestication of councils. The wild energy of early councils by which they would “renew the world for Christ” had been tamed. But other veterans read the writing on the wall and agreed that there was a need to lower the tension between pastors and councils. I believe that this is one of the reasons why, in the late 1980s, “pastoral planning” came to be the popular term which best described the work of councils. When councils see themselves as planning for the future, they have more time to work out the inevitable disagreement which will arise with pastors.
An Escape Clause
Defusing the tensions between council and pastor was not the only reason or the best reason for viewing the council as a pastoral planning body. Many councils regard themselves today as pastoral planning bodies because “pastoral planning” best conveys the Church’s intention regarding councils. Official Church documents state that the main task of councils is the investigation of and reflection on pastoral matters, and the formulation of practical recommendations about them. In America we have translated this as pastoral planning.
But the emphasis on “consultative only” and on “pastoral planning” have given pastors who do not want to be bothered with councils an escape clause. If they choose not to invest their time and energy in the council, and if the council’s advice thereby does not reflect the pastor’s own concerns, he can slough off the advice. “I consulted my council,” a pastor may say with sovereign indifference, “and I chose not to accept its recommendations.” Or the pastor may say that the council’s first pastoral planning task is to envision what the members want the parish to become. The council may spend several meetings drafting a mission statement so general that no practical consequences may flow from it. If the pastor does not really want to engage the council in a pastoral matter with practical consequences, wasting time with a mission statement is just fine. It gives the illusion that he is consulting his council, an illusion without any of the substance.
This is the hidden agenda, I fear, of my Canadian correspondent’s pastor. He does not want to consult, nor does he want to create the conflict which would erupt if he dissolved the council. He resists the council by means of passive aggression. He misses meetings and fails to bring substantial issues before the council. Because the council is “consultative only,” he chooses not to take it seriously.
Why Consult Non-Experts?
Another reason for not taking the council seriously is a prejudice against non-experts. This is apparent in the letter from the man in Adelaide. He drew the conclusion that councils waste time because they are not trained pastoral professionals. Establishing a pastoral council, from his viewpoint, is like asking a bricklayer, a plumber, and an electrician to do architectural drawings. They simply are not trained to do it. No pastor in his right mind, my correspondent suggested, would let amateurs run his parish.
Two assumptions underlie the argument of the man from Adelaide. He assumes, first of all, that the pastoral council does in fact run the parish. Secondly, he assumes that expert advice is the only kind of advice a pastor needs. Given these assumptions, it is hard to fault my correspondent. A pastor who needs help running a parish would be better off with a pastoral associate or two, rather than with a council. If he wants expert advice, he ought to turn to experts.
But the assumptions are false. Pastoral councils do not “run” parishes. Canon 536 states that explicitly. Councils are consultative only. The pastor consults his council for three reasons: to investigate pastoral matters, to reflect on them, and to draw practical conclusions about them. Pastors employ councils because they need prudent advice. And prudence, rather than a word for hard-boiled conservativism and an excuse for inaction, is a kind of knowledge. It is a knowledge that outside experts do not have. Because prudence asks what is appropriate for a given community at a particular moment, only those who know the community have it. Learned people without intimate knowledge of the parish may be less prudent than ordinary parishioners.
Prudence and Practical Wisdom
The man from Adelaide made a second false assumption. He assumed that expert advice is the only kind of advice a pastor needs. This is hardly true, given the nature of prudence. Please do not misunderstand me. I do not say that pastors should ignore expert advice. Experts provide indispensable general principles and scientific knowledge. But after a pastor has heard from experts, he still needs to know how to apply their advice.
That is where a council comes in. Councils study a given pastoral matter from the viewpoint of what is practically wise. They leave to experts the scientific knowledge of what is always and everywhere true. Their passion is the parochial, the political, the practical. They want to see wise action. They look to the consequences of decisions. They investigate possible choices, weighing their impact on parishioners. They study how other parishes who have undertaken similar projects have fared. They gauge the human cost. This happens in dialogue, in a conversation between the pastor and wise parishioners. In this dialogue, councils offer pastors what no outside expert can: a sense of what is good and proper, not in general, but for their parish.
The man from Adelaide misunderstands the needs of pastors and the role of councils. No council can take the place of an expert parish staff. Councils were never meant to. But after a pastor has seen the range of possibilities which experts recommend, his task of consultation has just begun. He still must ask what is appropriate for his parish. He needs the kind of knowledge we call prudence and practical wisdom. That is what councils can offer.
Fear of the Council
A third reason for marginalizing councils is that some pastors fear them. Fear, I believe, is what lies behind the decision of the Northern California pastor to call his new group a “parish committee” rather than a “pastoral council.” A pastor who calls a new council a “parish committee” may fear what “pastoral council” connotes. In his mind’s eye, the term pastoral council may suggest a deliberative assembly, such as a city council or a public school board. He may fear that, if he establishes a council, he will surrender his freedom. Henceforth the council will be making all the decisions and telling him what to do.
This fear is not unfounded. In the early days of councils, the period immediately after 1967, it was common for authors to state that the parish council “ought to be” a decision-making body. They reasoned that giving decisions over to the parish laity was what “shared responsibility” meant. To be sure, everyone understood that the decision to grant councils decision-making authority was the pastor’s to make. Some pastors did in fact did grant councils absolute authority, and then had a problem when councils made unwise decisions. Perhaps first-hand experience of this mistake lay in the back of the mind of the Northern California pastor. He calls his new group a “parish committee” to show that he is not delegating all decision-making power to it.
But I think this is unwise. First of all, the pastoral council is fairly well-defined in the Church’s documents and Canon Law. It is a group whom the pastor consults when he wants study and reflection. The documents of the Church define its nature, limit its scope to pastoral matters, and state the qualities of wisdom and prudence which council members ought to have. By calling his group a “parish committee,” the Northern California pastor gives it no clear identity.
Secondly, the failure to use the term “pastoral council” may invite the same abuses connected with early parish councils. These stem from a false belief that councils make all parish decisions. The term “pastoral council” is defined in Church law. Such a council is not a deliberative body which legislates for the parish. It is rather a consultative body to which the pastor turns in order to investigate a matter and reflect on it deeply, says the law, so as to receive sound practical recommendations. The Northern California pastor, by calling his group a “parish committee,” deprives it of official status and a clear legal definition.
This marginalizes the pastoral council. In the interest of avoiding a potential problem, the pastor has created an identity crisis. His councillors (or committee members) do not know what they are supposed to be or do. That is why my Northern California correspondent wrote. His home diocese has parish pastoral council guidelines, but they apply to councils, not to “parish committees.” My correspondent wanted to know what “parish committees” do, and I had to tell him that the Church’s official documents say nothing about them.
The Marginalization of Councils
In each of situations we have examined, the pastoral council is marginalized. In the first situation, a pastor who does not want to consult confines his council to “visioning and dreaming” without practical consequence. In the second situation, the idea of councils is called into question on the grounds that councils offer inexpert advice. In the third situation, the pastor refuses to call his advisors a “pastoral council” for fear that they might overstep their place. Failing to consult in good faith, disparaging councils because they are not expert, and refusing to clearly define councils, we make them irrelevant.
Understanding the role of councils more clearly can help them be more effective. Is your council not being consulted seriously, and not given real work to do? If so, then check your diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils. And if your council is not doing what the guidelines say it should be doing, ask why not. Perhaps there is a good reason. If there is none, you can help your council see its true potential.
Is your pastor is turning to others for advice, rather than to the pastoral council? It may be that your council does not recognize its strong suit: prudence and practical wisdom. Your pastor is right to consult experts when he seeks technical information. But he also needs to know whether the expert advice will succeed in the parish setting. The council can help him, by discussing the needs of the community and anticipating its responses to new initiatives, make wise choices.
Is your council struggling with its identity? Are the members unclear about what the pastor seeks from them? Then remind him of what Canon Law says. The council can help him investigate a pastoral matter, study and reflect on it thoroughly, and advise him how to act. The only question is where to focus. What pastoral matter should the council examine? It ought to be a matter about which the pastor has a real interest, a matter worthy of the council’s attention. That will guarantee an important role for the council.