DPC LogoSmallThe Parish Staff and Pastoral Council
Published as “The Pastor, Staff, and Council: Ways to Avoid Tension,” Today’s Parish 32:1 (January 2000): 29-31.
By Mark F. Fischer

Father Diaz, a Southern California pastor, recently upset his staff with the announcement that he wanted to start a parish pastoral council. One of the staff members most upset was Rita Esquivel, the Director of Religious Education. Rita is a well-educated parishioner with an M.A. in theology. She gave me an earful over the telephone.

“It feels like a vote of no confidence,” complained Rita. “We staff members know that there are critics in the parish, but we do a good job and we’re proud of our work. If Father Diaz isn’t satisfied with us staff members, he should say so, rather than bringing in a council to second-guess us.”

In her remarks, Rita defined an important issue. What is the proper relation between the parish staff and the pastoral council? It appeared to Rita that the two are in competition. She believed that Father Diaz was dissatisfied with the staff. He wanted a pastoral council, she thought, in order to second-guess the staff. Rita feared that, if Father Diaz heeded the council, power would shift to it away from the staff. And why (she asked) should the council’s opinion, the opinion of non-experts, count for so much?

Pastoral councils and parish staffs commonly experience tension. The proper relationship between the two is by no means clear. Vatican documents do not address the question, and diocesan guidelines have not settled the matter to anyone’s satisfaction. There are, however, some general principles for a solution. The principles are implicit in the Church’s official teaching. They are well developed in Catholic philosophy. If your pastoral council and parish staff are in tension, or if your parish is thinking of starting a pastoral council, these principles may help to clarify matters.

The Fundamental Question

Why would a pastor like Father Diaz want advice from non-experts, such as a pastoral council? I spoke to him about the concerns of Rita (in this article, however, the names have been changed). Father Diaz shared with me his own point of view. He feels overwhelmed with his large urban parish and its constant influx of immigrant parishioners. He wants to create opportunities for reflection, and the parish office is so busy that reflection is difficult. He proposed a council as an opportunity for reflection. Father Diaz had not anticipated the anxiety among the staff that his proposal created.

Rita’s viewpoint, that Father Diaz does not need a council because he already has a staff, is understandable. Canon 511 states that the basic task of a council is to investigate pastoral matters, to ponder them, and to propose practical conclusions about them. Staffs are as able to investigate, ponder, and propose as councils are. So why should a pastor with a trained staff go to all the trouble of selecting a council when he’s paying a staff to do the same work?

Although the Church’s official documents do not address this question directly, they do offer some fundamental principles. The principles reside in the only Vatican document devoted entirely to pastoral councils. It is the 1973 “Circular Letter” on councils addressed to the bishops of the world by the Congregation for the Clergy. This letter speaks of the scope of councils and their representative nature. These provide clues about the proper relationship between councils and staffs.

Scope. The 1973 letter put task of the pastoral council very succinctly. Councils formulate practical conclusions about matters that bear on pastoral activity. The key words are “practical” and “activity.” Pastoral councils are to focus on what’s happening in the parish. They should not be preoccupied with universal questions of the Church’s faith, orthodoxy, moral principles, or laws. Staff members may have a concern about these technical questions, but not the council. That is the first general principle.

Representation. Representation is a second principle. Pastoral councils are to represent the People of God. To be sure, they are not political or juridical representatives. They do not legislate for the parish. They are rather, as the 1973 letter stated, a witness or sign of it. They make its wisdom present, the wisdom of diverse neighborhoods, social conditions, and walks of life. Staff members, even those who reside within the parish boundaries, are in a different category. They are experts, they have an official role, they receive a salary.

Staff members such as Rita rightly want to know why a pastor needs a pastoral council. If he already has a trained and competent staff, what more can a council add? The Church’s documents reply in an indirect way. They state that councils are to investigate practical matters (not technical questions for which one needs special training). Councils are to bear witness to the parish (by contrast, the staff members represent specialized disciplines such as liturgy, finance, or religious education). These general principles do not by themselves answer Rita’s question. But they point in the direction of the answer.

The Work of Deliberation

In order to answer Rita’s question about why a pastor might want a council, we have to probe the Church’s general principles. Then we must apply them. The first principle about the practical scope of the council has a venerable history. It was Aristotle who, in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, described practical wisdom. He called it wisdom in deliberation. More than anything else, Aristotle helps us see the difference between what councils and staffs do.

You will recall Rita’s objection: why should a pastor go to all the trouble of selecting a council when his staff can do the same work? If it were true that the parish staff can do the same as the pastoral council, Rita would have a strong case. But she has missed something important. A pastor hiring a DRE, a business manager, or a liturgist is looking for specific skills. He would not hire a DRE without education, a business manager ignorant of finance, or a liturgist without some musical ability.

A pastor wanting a council, however, is not looking for those specific skills. He wants pastoral councillors who are good at deliberation. These are people with the tenacity to investigate, the patience to reflect, and the ability to synthesize differing viewpoints. Good pastoral council members know the community. They are able to listen to their fellow parishioners, share their concerns, and discover practical solutions to parish problems. Councillors need not be educators, financiers, or musicians. Conversely, good DREs, business managers, and liturgists may lack the patience to listen and compromise. Staffers and councillors have distinctively different roles. Staffers may be able to do the work of councillors, but that is not why the pastor hired them.

Rita believed that there was no reason for Father Diaz to establish a pastoral council because the parish staff could do everything the council could do and had better skills. But the skills she had in mind are not the skills one looks for in a pastoral council. When I spoke to Father Diaz about the council, he agreed. “I have an excellent staff, and they are very busy people,” he said. “In addition to them, I’d like councillors with whom I can look at parish problems–such as the influx of new immigrant parishioners–slowly and in depth.” He was looking for people good at deliberation, not for experts.

A Representative Council

Practical wisdom corresponds to the first general principle of the Church’s teaching about pastoral councils. Pastors want advice from non-experts who can deliberate well. The second general principle is representation. Pastors look to councils as a sign or witness of the whole parish. The pastoral council should represent the entire People of God living in the parish.

The parish staff, I said to Rita, cannot fulfill the criterion of representation. The Church’s official documents emphasize diversity in the pastoral council. The 1973 Circular Letter said that pastoral council members should be chosen from differing locales, social conditions, and professions. Canon 512 stated that diocesan pastoral councils should reflect the People of God who constitute the diocese, and by extension we say that parish pastoral council members should reflect those constituting the parish. But parish staffers have a certain homogeneity. They work in the same office. Most earn approximately the same salary. All share the common profession of minister. Staffers cannot reflect the People of God in the same way envisioned for pastoral councils by the official documents.

Representation is important, finally, because pastors need to know the wisdom of the whole parish. This includes the wisdom of those parishioners who disagree with the pastor and his staff. Staff members may consciously or unconsciously discriminate against such critical parishioners. The parishioners in turn may rightly sense that staffers are more loyal to the pastor than to the People of God. Some staff members have a siege mentality, feeling that they must defend the pastor and themselves from every criticism. This defensiveness harms the parish. A staff that believes itself to be more representative than other parishioners deludes itself.

I sensed in Rita some of this defensiveness. She was still smarting from a critique of her department by a parishioner who, as Rita put it, “didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.” I told Rita that the best way to silence gossips and backbiters is to acknowledge their viewpoint and give them a voice. Excluding them by insisting that the pastor needs no advice apart from the staff’s, I told her, simply gives them ammunition. Of course, gossips and backbiters do not make for effective pastoral council members. Everyone in the parish deserves a voice, but no one necessarily deserves membership on the pastoral council. Such membership is for people with specific gifts. Councillors should be selected in such a way that parishioners can discern their gifts.

A Delicate Matter

Reflecting on what Rita and Father Diaz told me, I can say this: inevitably there are tensions between a pastoral council and a parish staff. In some respects, they have competing interests. To staff members, pastors delegate specific responsibilities.

Staffers are responsible in their specific areas. In those areas, they have expert opinions, and those opinions deserve respect. Staff members rightly look askance at those, less expert than they, who try to tell them how to do their jobs.

The interests of the staff can sometimes clash with those of the pastoral council. Councils investigate and reflect on pastoral matters with an eye toward practical recommendations for pastors. The skill of the good council member is excellence in deliberation. He or she is not necessarily an expert, but is good at studying a pastoral issue and discussing it with others. In this discussion, councillors raise questions, listen, reflect, clarify, synthesize, make proposals, and affirm the emergence of consensus. Their goal is not the immediate goal of the parish staff member. Unlike staffers, they do not have to manage a parish workload, supervise volunteers, or balance a budget. Rather, their goal is to get at the truth of a matter and make practical recommendations.

Rita Esquivel did not persuade me that Father Diaz could dispense with a pastoral council. He wanted to reflect deeply on pastoral matters, such as the parish’s new immigrants. He was not primarily concerned with the expert opinion of demographers or social scientists. He wanted the practical wisdom of people who know and love the parish. He wanted to clarify his thinking about how to respond to the immigrants. Rita and the other parish staff members did not have the time or the inclination to engage in the kind of studious, protracted, and reflective dialogue that Father Diaz envisioned. In his case, the parish staff was no substitute for a pastoral council.

To Father Diaz, however, I added this word of caution. The pastor, I said, is the leader of the parish. He directs both the staff and the council. When tension arises between the two, he should inform both parties about what he is doing and why. If he establishes a pastoral council, he should explain his motive, tell staff members why he needs to consult a wider circle, and calm their fears that the new council will displace them. To the new council, he should show loyalty to the staff and let the council know if its criticisms of the staff are unwelcome.

Councils and staffs have a distinct role. When your staff and council experience tension, show care and concern for each. Help them work through their differences. That is the advice I gave Rita Esquivel and Father Diaz. I believe it holds true for every parish.