Good counsel

DPC LogoSmallThe Many Splendors of Consultation

Published as “‘Consultative Only’? The Parish Council and the Pastor,” Today’s Parish 29:7 (November/December 1997): 26-29.

By Mark F. Fischer

Everyone knows that parish pastoral councils have only a consultative vote. That is a direct quote from canon law and, like it or not, it is the belief of the Church. But not everyone knows how many forms consultation can take. When pastors consult councils, various opportunities arise for getting at the truth of parish life, opportunities which should not be missed.

Your council’s opportunities depend on the relation between the pastor and the council. In some parishes, the council is a virtual extension of the parish administration. Such a council consists of experienced members whom the pastor trusts. They know his mind and he knows theirs. They work so well together that parishioners say, “The council makes policy,” meaning that the council made the policy hand-in-glove with the pastor.

In other parishes, the council is a new or unproven entity. Members may be relatively unformed, with limited knowledge and experience of parish administration. Such councilors still provide a real service, but they need education and direction. The pastor consults them, but (for a variety of reasons) does not always rely on their recommendations. Such a council has opportunities for getting at the truth of parish life, but its recommendations are less weighty than those of the more trusted council.

Council members cannot dictate to the pastor how he should consult them. Indeed, the notion that councils should dictate to pastors, or vice versa, is repugnant to Christian freedom and to the communion that ought to exist in parishes. Councils and pastors can benefit, however, from knowing the many forms consultation can take. By widening its consultative repertoire, a council can deepen the relations between members, break unproductive habits, and render the parish true service.

The Obscurity of “Consultation”

Most pastors consult by means of parish pastoral councils. Three-quarters of 18,000 parishes in the U.S. have such councils, according to the 1987 Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life. Councils are succinctly defined in canons 511-14 and canon 536 of the Code of Canon Law. The Code states that councils benefit the Church by investigating under the pastor’s authority what pertains to pastoral works, considering them, and making recommendations about them. In short, the Code gives councils a broad scope.

The Code, however, does not define consultation. To be sure, it treats consultation under a variety of headings. We read about bishops consulting their priests, consulting religious superiors, and even consulting the Holy See. But nowhere, apart from a very general statement that superiors should listen to their consultors, does the Code say what consultation is. About consulting pastoral councils, it states that they possess a consultative vote only. If council members understood consultation only by what the Code says, they would know little.

There are other sources, however, for learning about consultation. The guidelines for parish pastoral councils, published by most of the dioceses in the U.S., are promising resources. They define consultation, give examples of it, outline processes for consulting, and even supply prayer programs for council discernment. Parish council guidelines give council members a much broader understanding of consultation than does canon law alone.

The trouble is that these guidelines do not all agree. Each interprets consultation in its own way. And council members from one diocese, reading their diocesan guideline, may understand consultation differently from council members in another diocese. It is not that one guideline is wrong and the other is right. No, they simply interpret consultation in different ways. If council members could share these interpretations with one another, each would be enriched.

The Forms of Consultation

In order to understand just how varied consultation can be, let us examine some of the diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils. What do they say about consultation? Do their approaches remind you of consultation in your council?

The Legal Approach

Some pastoral council guidelines start with an analysis of canon law and emphasize that councils are “consultative only.” This truly describes councils, but it says what they are not rather than what they are. The guidelines published by

Sacramento and Denver exemplify this extreme. They state that the council “advises” the pastor, and they add&emdash;in identical language&emdash;that the council “is not a policy-making, decree-issuing, statute-formulating body.” This language is taken from a pastoral letter written by Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Virginia.

Bishop Keating’s pastoral letter was published in the October 11, 1984 issue of Origins. It stated that “the single greatest weakness” of some councils was their conviction that they needed “real power” to dictate parish policy and programs. This statement suggests a context for Bishop Keating’s canonical approach. Overweening parish councils worried him. When parish councils are power hungry, the beleaguered pastor needs a defensive weapon. Canon law provides one: the “consultative only” clause.

But pastors under fire are not the norm. The siege mentality is not appropriate for understanding consultation. Guidelines emphasizing that councils “have only a consultative vote” are correct but not always illuminating. They minimize the richness of consultation by focusing on what it is not. If people repeatedly tell your parish council that it is consultative only, read on.

The Authoritative Council

Many guidelines soften the consultative-only clause by emphasizing the “authority” or “leadership” of the council. Without denying canon law, they imply that being truly consultative differs from being merely consultative. The guidelines for the Hartford diocese take this tack. They state that councils “give direction” to parishes. The Bismarck guidelines are similar. Bismarck councils, the guidelines say, have “consultative authority.” Fort Worth councils, to give a third example, are said to have a “leadership role.” These guidelines do not explain how the council becomes authoritative. But they get at a basic truth: councils may not have the final say, but they can and do exercise a powerful influence.

This is the kind of truth that management experts treat under the heading of “power.” There are many kinds of power, say the experts, and not all of them belong exclusively to the chief executive. Having knowledge, administrative skills, a pleasing personality, and access to influential people, are all forms of power. These are not the dictatorial kinds of power that Bishop Keating worried about. No, they are forms of the “power of Christ” which St. Paul prayed his communities might receive. When well used in the parish, power contributes much to the Church’s mission. It takes power to sound out parishioners, build consensus, assess religious education programs, develop an evangelical outreach, and develop a pastoral plan. To exercise this power, you do not have to be a pastor.

In short, the concept of power sheds light on the meaning of consultation. A consultative body may well be a powerful body. Whenever parish councils effectively do what canon law says they should do&emdash;namely, investigate pastoral matters, give them due consideration, and make solid recommendations&emdash;they are already exercising power. Does the power your council exercises have a powerful effect on your pastor? This is a question worth considering.

The Consensus Approach

In the 1980s many councils began to emphasize the development of consensus as the goal of consultation. If pastor and council members could reach one mind about an issue, many believed, then the tension would dissolve between the consultor and those consulted. A pastor who seeks consensus would never merely consult his council, according to this point of view, only to turn and make a decision on his own. To the contrary, he would studiously avoid making decisions until he and the council had reached accord.

In order to promote the search for consensus, many diocesan guidelines recommend deliberate group processes. The guidelines published by the Diocese of Ogdensburg are a good example. They call for prayer as an explicit part of making every council decison. For Ogdensburg councils, making a decision is subordinate to praying, that is, to maintaining the communion that exists among members. The Nashville guidelines include ten pages of council liturgies, the Bismarck guidelines include twelve pages. Other guidelines endorse specific techniques for reaching group consensus. The Baltimore and Seattle guidelines, for example, reject the parliamentary process of Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead, they affirm a model of spiritual discernment, such as that taught by Mary Benet McKinney in her 1987 book Sharing Wisdom (Tabor Publishing). In these consensus-seeking councils, consultation does not mean that pastors consult and councilors are consulted. It means that all are engaged in a search for a decision that will express and confirm their unity.

Not everyone, however, is disenchanted with Robert’s Rules of Order. Some, like Father Robert Howes in his book Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council (Liturgical Press, 1991), continue to insist upon parliamentary procedure. Father Howes sees what many in the council movement and in the field of management have seen for a long time. There are some issues that do not require consensus. If a decision does not need widespread popular support for acceptance, or if it requires technical knowledge that few people have, then the search for consensus is unnecessary.

Why then are many councils emphatic about consensus decision-making? Because however slow, inefficient, or even at times inappropriate, the search for consensus maintains the Christian communion of members. If your council is plagued by division, it could well be that it puts task before relationship. The majority faction may get its way by riding roughshod over the minority. Communion may be viewed as subordinate to mission. If this is the case, a search for consensus may ease the tension and heal wounds. What good is an efficient council whose members are angry and bitterly divided?

The Pastor as Ratifier

In order to cement the relation between pastor and council members, some dioceses describe the pastor as a ratifier. They mean that he does more than consult. In addition, he promotes consensus and ratifies the achievement of it. Unlike those versions of consultation which emphasize that the pastor is independent of and unbound by those whom he consults (the legal approach), this version sees the pastor as deeply committed to the council’s deliberations. And unlike those versions of consultation which regard the pastor as one member of the group, linked to them in a common search for the truth of a pastoral matter (the consensus approach), this version sees the pastor as a bit more objective. His job is to detect the arrival of consensus. When he senses its approach, he ratifies it. Speaking as the pastor, he ratifies the council’s recommendations as the official policy of the parish.

The ratification approach gives pastors a preeminently pastoral role. They are the ones to detect consensus or the lack of it. If a council remains divided, and if consensus is not possible, the pastor must acknowledge that he cannot accept the majority’s recommendations. The Detroit guidelines, for example, speak of the pastor in these terms. He is the one who, for the sake of consensus, grants or withholds ratification. The Salina guidelines also link ratification and consensus. Without consensus, no ratification is possible.

These guidelines give the impression that the ideal pastor is almost a bloodhound of consensus. He is the one with a highly-developed “nose” for it, sniffing it out, ready to pounce on it with words of ratification. Pastors with superb group process skills may well thrive as ratifiers. They know how to steer a group toward consensus, and how to avoid the false starts and wrong turns to which the search for consensus may lead.

Unfortunately, not every pastor is an expert facilitator. Those with less developed skills may accept the ratifier role in a passive way, simply waiting for consensus to happen, and letting the council wander. A parish council author once stated that pastors ratify the work of the council by their presence and participation. In my view, this is insufficient. There has to be more to it. If your pastor “consults” by actively promoting the development of a consensus, a consensus that he can then ratify, you are lucky indeed. But if he does not, then you must invite him to take a more active role.

Consultation as Policy-Making

Where consensus exists, the council and the pastor can be extraordinarily fruitful. That is why some council guidelines make consensus a goal and speak as if all councils share that goal. For example, the Green Bay and Nashville guidelines presume that there is a consensus among council members and the pastor. Indeed, both guidelines treat the subject of consensus at some length. Nashville defines it as “intellectual agreement.” Green Bay defines it as “group acceptance based on at least general agreement.” When such consensus exists, when pastor and councilors take the same view of a matter, one can well say that the council “makes” policy and plays an executive role.

That is, in fact, what the Nashville and Green Bay guidelines say: the council makes parish policy. The guidelines emphasize the authority of the council and the trust that ought to exist between council members and the pastor. They suggest that the council actually “executes” its own decisions.

The trouble is, perfect consensus does not always exist. When consensus falls apart, expecially when the pastor does not share in the consensus of the council members, then problems arise. Pastors with grave reservations about the recommendations of the council would be unwise to accept them. And in these cases, it is false to say that the council “makes” policy. Consultation does not mean that those consulted have the final say. If your fellow counselors are under that impression, they are mistaken.

Broadening the Repertoire

How can councils avoid the mistakes of a too-narrow approach to consultation? I propose that they learn more about the many forms consultation can take, along with the strengths and weaknesses of each form. I a council feels locked into one form of consultation, a form the pastor or members find unproductive, then at least they will know that there are alternatives. The solution to a narrow-minded approach to consultation is broad-mindedness. That means broadening the repertoire of consultative styles.

For example, council leaders may have dinned into the members’ ears that their vote is consultative only. Such a leaden and legal approach is sure to demoralize a council. The solution is to help that council feel its own power and exercise its own authority. The pastor who gives his council the task of studying an issue and making recommendations about it&emdash;and who accepts its recommendations&emdash;is acknowledging the council’s authority. The authority of your council, the real power that stems from the members’ gifts, ought to be acknowledged. Bring those gifts to the pastor’s attention.

Another approach to consulting may be to seek consensus on an issue. This form of consultation accents the communion of councilors, their oneness in mind and heart. The pastor may “consult” by participating as a member in the search for consensus, or he may also serve as a ratifier of it. In the latter case, he takes an active role of promoting consensus, and he decides when consensus is reached. Does your council ever seek deliberate consensus on a decision in which widespread understanding and acceptance is needed? Ask for it!

A council at a high level of readiness works so well with the pastor that the juridical line between pastor and council almost disappears. The council may almost seem to be making parish policy on its own. If your pastor and council enjoy that kind of relationship, thanks be to God. But if powerful members of the council are pressuring other members, or even the pastor, into making premature decisions, then take note. The parish ought to be a place of moral freedom, not coercion. The law of the Church aims at guaranteeing that freedom. Undue pressures must be noted and discussed. That also is part of consultation.

Too often we think of consultation only in terms of what goes on in our own particular parishes. But there are many aspects to consultation. The more we know about them, the more we see their splendor&emdash;and their application to us.

Why Consultation?

Many Americans find Church consultation incomprehensible because it differs so much from civic life. Our notion of the parish council is shaped by that of the city council. City councils are made up of elected representatives who advocate the opinions of their constituencies. They express their conclusions as city ordinances, ordinances executed by the mayor and enforced by the police. This image of civic governance shapes many parish councils.

Parish governance differs, however, from that of the city. For example, parish council members are not elected (or at least they should not be) to advocate on behalf of a constituency. Doubtless, they want to be “representative.” But they represent, not by becoming partisans for this or that point of view, by “making present” the wisdom and concerns of the parish.

To give another example, the recommendations of the council do not have the force of law. They are not like city ordinances. Council members cannot overrule the pastor as city council members can overrule the mayor. The pastor may defer to the council, but he is not compelled by law to do so. Moreover, there is no police power in the parish to enforce obedience to council recommendations or pastoral edicts. Parishioners who disagree with parish policy may freely go to another parish.

Despite these clear differences between city government and the parish council, council members still confuse the two. The democratic impulse is so strong that we overlook the differences, and try to apply civic models to the parish. But the Church’s emphasis on representation (not partisanship), on communion (not adversarial relations), and on free acceptance of parish policy (not enforced obedience)&emdash;all of these distinguish the parish council from city hall.

Good pastors do not consult because canon law or their bishops oblige them to do so. Nor do they consult because they need a council as a kind of legislature to balance their own “executive powers.” Rather, they consult because they desire prudent advice. They know that they do not know everything. They need the wisdom of veteran parishioners who are good at study, deliberation, and the synthesis of opinion. They want to give these wise parishioners their rightful share in the Church’s mission, their share in the ministry of good counsel.