DPC LogoSmallRight and Wrong Ways to Share Responsibility

Published as “The Perils of Sharing Responsibility,” Today’s Parish 31:6 (October, 1999): 28-31.
By Mark F. Fischer

In Father Myers’ parish, Holy Angels, there is a both a Pastoral Council and a Liturgy Committee, but none of the members of either group are elected. In every case, Father Myers selects the members. The selection of the council does not trouble too many parishioners. After all, the council only meets every other month, the business on its agenda is almost never controversial, and the council rarely undertakes the work of investigation and reflection suggested in Canon Law. Few people complain. Father Myers is a popular pastor, and has just retired the debt on the parish’s new church.

Half of the councillors are parish staff members. They meet with Father Myers on a daily basis, and there transact the real parish business. The other half of the council includes a number of wealthy and influential parishioners who enjoy their once-every-two-months meeting with the pastor and his staff. Father Myers hardly ever asks the council to conduct surveys, do research, or investigate problems. The members seem to prefer a low profile.

Far more controversial than the parish council is the Liturgy Committee. At Holy Angels, many people participate in the liturgy. There are greeters, ushers, altar servers, lectors, cantors, instrumentalists, and distributors of communion. The parish prides itself on liturgical participation. In the past, Father Myers made decisions with the Liturgy Committee in a monthly meeting. The committee was a large group, some 20-25 members, composed of the heads of the various liturgical ministries. Its meetings were part talk about past liturgies, and part planning for the future. They were messy, without a clear group process and without written minutes, but every member was involved.

A Select Group of Decision-Makers

In the past year, that has changed. Father Myers became frustrated with the messiness of the meetings. He disliked the uneven qualifications of the Liturgy Committee members. Some had had no formal training in liturgy, but fully expected their recommendations to carry the same weight as those who had diocesan liturgical certification. Moreover, the committee lacked good follow-through. It bothered Father Myers that some committee members would persuade the others to adopt an idea–about the liturgical environment, let us say, or about a procession–and then fail to take responsibility for it. The environment would never materialize and the procession would fall flat. In the view of Father Myers, responsibility was too diffuse.

So he created what he called a Liturgy Core Team. Father Myers drew its seven members from those in the Liturgy Committee who possessed specialized liturgical training. Soon the Core Team was planning the liturgies. Power shifted from the Liturgy Committee to the Core Team. The committee members were no longer the main decision-makers. Instead, they were expected to carry out the Core Team’s decisions. Father Myers felt that this was an improvement. His hand-picked Core Team was better able to plan liturgies and take responsibility than the old Liturgy Committee was.

But the new system rankled the old Liturgy Committee. Its members, including several heads of liturgical ministries, felt they had lost their identity. They resented their exclusion from the planning circle. They disliked being demoted to the role of functionaries, carrying out the decisions made by others. Liturgy Committee meetings were no longer free and creative, they complained, but were instead didactic sessions. In them, the Core Team would outline its plan, supply a rationale for it, and assign responsibilities to the Liturgy Committee. Committee attendance began to fall. Morale dropped. Meetings were canceled. What had seemed like a good idea to Father Myers–the division of the old Liturgy Committee into planners and implementers–had backfired.

Sharing Responsibility in a Limited Way

Father Myers’ unsuccessful reorganization at Holy Angels (the names are fictitious) illustrates how difficult shared responsibility is. To understand it, let us revisit the Second Vatican Council. The phrase “shared responsibility,” while never used in the documents of Vatican II, was the popular expression of one of the council’s key ideas. It was the idea that all Christians share responsibility for the Church and participate in it to the degree that the Spirit calls them.

The idea of shared responsibility is enshrined in Lumen Gentium 37. It states that Christians have a duty to advise their pastors, and that pastors are to heed the legitimate concerns of their people. Apostolicam actuositatem 26 expresses a similar idea when it recommends councils to assist in the Church’s apostolate. Shared responsibility for the liturgy finds expression in Sacrosanctum Concilium 41-45, which speaks of the communal promotion of liturgical life. Shared responsibility captured the Vatican II ideal of active participation.

In Holy Angels, Father Myers wanted to share responsibility, but he wanted to do so in a limited way. He had a Pastoral Council, but it met infrequently and was largely composed of parish employees. They were the real decision-makers. He had a Liturgy Committee, but from it he selected a Core Team who had better credentials and credibility. Father Myers’ selectivity was a limited way of sharing responsibility for the parish. Many parishioners found the limits, or the way the limits were imposed, exclusive and alienating.

The Reason for the Limits

In order to understand Father Myers’ motives, we have to say a few words about the problems with shared responsibility. After Vatican II, Americans enthusiastically embraced the idea by establishing parish councils. We chose councillors by means of popular election and assigned them to coordinate parish standing committees. These were meant to involve large numbers of parishioners in the mission of the parish. By the mid-1980s, said the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, three-fourths of 18,000 U.S. parishes had councils.

Sharing responsibility by means of parish councils, however, can be problematic. One problem has been a lack of clarity about the properly consultative role of councils. Before the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, many people wrongly believed that parish councils could make decisions even over the heads of pastors. Although the 1983 Code dispelled that myth, many continue to believe that a pastor should obey the council. Others dismiss councils as powerless time-wasters without real authority. Father Myers has circumvented these problems by appointing all council members himself.

A second obstacle to shared responsibility, bluntly speaking, has been the cynicism of pastors. Not all pastors, by any means, but a few. These pastors realize that they can establish a pastoral council–and so appear to consult the parish–without having to invest much energy in it or take the council’s advice. That is certainly the case at Holy Angels. The council meets infrequently, has no long-term goals, and receives little staff support between meetings. Indeed, half the councillors are parish staff members who have regular access to the pastor apart from council meetings. Organizing a council this way does not violate the letter of Canon Law, but shows scant respect for the idea of shared responsibility.

Lack of experience with participative management is a third obstacle to shared responsibility. Sharing takes humility, imagination, and hard work. The consultative pastor has to humbly acknowledge that he needs help. He has to imagine what to consult about and how. And he has to labor to make it work, planning meetings, communicating, responding to parishioners. This comes easily to no one, least of all Father Myers, who has concentrated on reducing the parish debt. He finds it simpler to delegate to the parish staff and the Liturgy Core Team than to build consensus with a council and committees.

Father Myers’ reluctance to share responsibility in a broader way is understandable. A number of authors have analyzed the problems of shared responsibility, and have proposed solutions very much like his. One thinks, for instance, of the excellent Liturgy Committee Handbook by Thomas Baker and Frank Ferrone (Twenty-Third Publications, 1998). The authors state that liturgy planning “should be left to the people you choose as your experts, preferably as small and as talented a group as possible” (p. 7). In this view, the Liturgy Committee does not plan, but assesses liturgical needs, evaluates, and sets goals. Liturgy planning, they say, belongs to the experts. This sounds very much like Father Myers’ Liturgy Core Team.

There is much to recommend a division of labor. Experts should plan liturgies. Trained staff should administer parish programs. Pastoral councils with a talent for careful investigation and patient reflection should assist parish planning. This simply recognizes the gifts God has given. No one wants incompetents running a parish. A division of labor is also compatible with the idea of shared responsibility; compatible, that is, with one proviso. Experts, staff members, and councillors ought to share responsibility in turn. They must be eager for evaluation, enthusiastic about promoting study and discussion, and courteous enough to respond to the comments they receive.

Right and Wrong Ways to Share Responsibility

There is a right and wrong way to share responsibility. We have seen some of the right ways at Holy Angels Church. It is right, for example, to distinguish between the specialized functions of liturgical planning and the general tasks of assessing needs, evaluating, and setting goals. It is wise to identify talented people and recruit them for the Liturgy Core Team. It is right to entrust liturgical planning to those with training in liturgy. All of these ways constitute an important aspect of shared responsibility. It is the aspect of discernment, of discovering who is called to a particular task.

Holy Angels also illustrates some of the wrong ways to share responsibility. It is wrong to establish a council and deny it its proper work, the work of investigating, reflecting, and fostering pastoral activity suggested in canons 511 and 536. It is wrong to split a Liturgy Core Team off from a Liturgy Committee without providing the remaining committee members with their own proper task and support. It is wrong to pretend a consultation without leadership, a sound agenda, careful minutes, and good follow-through. Such a “consultation” alienates participants. It divides a parish and destroys morale.

Now Father Myers has serious problems. The Liturgy Committee is grumbling about its diminished role. Liturgical ministers dislike the feeling that they are mere functionaries, carrying out the imperatives of the Core Team. The Core Team and parish staff members have to face resentful parishioners who feel excluded from the consultative process. Once a pastor has shared responsibility, and then tries to limit it in ways that seem exclusive, the parish is bound for trouble.

Practical Solutions

If I were Father Myers, I would do everything in my power to both explain the need for reorganization and to share responsibility in a broad way. Doubtless he has good reason to narrow the circle of liturgical planners, and he ought to say so. People can understand the need for competence in liturgy. Not everyone can be a planner.

But at the same time, I would also tell him to include parishioners in the work of assessing needs, evaluating, and goal setting. That would do a lot to dissipate the resentment and alienation of parishioners. In sharing responsibility, many pastors stumble. Because this work does not have immediate tangible results, they think it unimportant. But it yields valuable information and builds community.

Do you desire shared responsibility in your parish? Want to reap the harvest of parishioner advice and build commitment? If so, I would offer the following guidelines:

  • Be serious about consulting. Say what the consultation is about, create opportunities for parishioners to be involved, and state what its goals are. Then do it.
  • Explain the rationale. If a new group has been formed to plan, and has been given special responsibilities, explain why. Recognize that not all parishioners could be involved, acknowledge hurt feelings, and provide other avenues for shared responsibility.
  • Respond to parishioners. Answer messages, queries, and comments. There is no excuse for discourtesy.
  • Widen the circle of participants. Even those not picked for the liturgy planning team can assess needs, evaluate the work of the team, and create goals for the liturgy.
  • Share the results. If a council or committee has finished a task and drawn conclusions, publicize them. They are a source of pride and a yardstick for measuring future results.