By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Why Would a Pastor Want a Council?” Today’s Parish (September 1995): 9-11, 28-29.
As I sit at my desk, a stack lies before me of guidelines for parish councils published by dioceses throughout the United States. These guidelines contain entire lists of what councils are supposed to do. They say that a pastoral council is to:
- advise the pastor in areas of pastoral concern,
- free the pastor to do specifically priestly ministry,
- set policy and monitor the implementation of it,
- coordinate the work of parish standing committees,
- train council members to be parish leaders,
- provide a witness to the parish of council unity.
All of these are worthwhile purposes. But their sheer number and unequal importance bewilder me. I would venture to say that no council can accomplish them all, and few would want to.
The multitude of things which councils are supposed to do has created problems for councils and a certain negative reaction to them. For example, the Portland canonist, Father Bertram Griffin, has criticized councils for becoming administrative coordinators of parish ministry. In a 1983 Canon Law Society text he wrote of “the growing sense of boredom on parish super councils where the only action month after month is hearing reports.” Another critical voice speaks from the 1985 Guidelines for Parish Councils of the Diocese of Sacramento. They state that “Dissatisfaction with parish councils as presently constituted is widespread” and “stems from a confusion over the basic understanding of consultation, exercise of authority, decision-making, role of the pastor, role and purpose of the parish council.” And similar dissatisfaction produced the 1988 Pastoral Council Norms in the Archdiocese of Denver, which rather pointedly state what councils are not. Boredom, blurry lines of authority, and a lack of focus: these are the public faces of dissatisfaction with councils.
How are we to curb this dissatisfaction? I propose that we should not start by saying what councils are supposed to do. Rather, let us ask: why councils? Why do pastors want councils and why do parishioners wish to serve on them? If we can answer this question, the many things councils are supposed to do will fall into an order of importance. Councils will know what to do when they understand why they exist.
In this article, we will start from the perspective of pastors. We want to know, at the outset, why they believe councils should exist. Later we can ask from the lay person’s viewpoint why they should exist. But for now, let us begin with the pastor. The main reason for councils, he would say, is that he can benefit from them. Every official Church document about councils states that they exist to help pastors.
Getting to Know the Parish
In my opinion, there are three main reasons for councils, and these three form a hierarchy. Councils exist:
- to help pastors know their people,
- to give pastors sound advice, and
- to free the particular gifts of councilors for service to the pastor and parish.
The three statements stand in a particular order. I mean that it is more important for a pastor to know his people, really know them in Christian charity, than for him to receive particular advice and act on it. In other words, building communion between pastor and parishioners is more important that solving a problem or starting a program. And both communion-building and problem-solving are more important than eliciting the gift of a particular councilor. Putting the gifts of the laity to use is undeniably important, but councils do not exist mainly to provide an outlet for lay talent. They exist mainly to serve the parish, specifically by helping the pastor to understand the parish and by giving him good advice.
There is a theological principle which underlies the assertion that councils exist mainly to help pastors know, love, and serve their people. It is the principle that communion comes before mission. Preserving the parish’s Christian communion, preserving the baptismal bonds that form us into one people, one body in Christ, is paramount. Second comes mission. Only when there is a Christian people can there be mission in the name of Christ. This principle underlies the U.S. Bishops’ 1980 document entitled The Parish: A People, A Mission, A Structure. The parish is first a people in communion and only then an agent of Christian mission with a given structure. Applying this to parish councils we can say the following: more important than any recommendation to the pastor about what the parish ought to do is the service the council renders by helping the pastor see what the parish truly is. Only when he knows the parish as a communion can he serve it and its mission.
In saying that the primary purpose of councils is to help the pastor know and serve the parish, we presuppose a certain kind of pastor. Such a pastor establishes and nurtures a council because, above all, he loves his people and hopes through the council to know and serve them better. He understands his role in Johannine terms as that of a good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for others, and as the strong vine which unites the branches, calling them to worship and service. He takes seriously the image, drawn from the Letter to the Ephesians, about the Church as the bride of Christ, and applies it to himself and his parishioners. These traditional pastoral images may seem quaint or antique when applied to the mundane world of the parish council. But they are fundamental to a Vatican II understanding of councils. The bishops who in 1965 recommended councils presupposed the dedication of a pastor to his people. He consults them because he loves them and cares for them.
Offering Good Advice
Love, I would argue, is the principal motive for councils. But official Church teaching about councils does not mention it. Rather, the Church presupposes it. The Bishops of Vatican II recommended councils, not as an act of charity, but to get good advice. This is the clear import of the Vatican II Decrees on the Laity and on Bishops, the two most important decrees about councils, and the thrust of canon law about councils. Pastors ought to establish councils, the documents say, so that councils may advise them on pastoral matters. They advise pastors when they consider a particular problem, study and reflect on it, and propose a solution to it. The main value of councils, in the eyes of the bishops, lies in the good advice which councils give. The pastor who consults skillfully will lead effectively. He can be confident that his leadership is well informed, is shaped by the practical wisdom of his councilors, and enjoys the prospect of success.
But the pastoral leader’s task of drawing out good advice demands special skills, skills which not every pastor or council has. Pastors ought to have a Socratic attitude, knowing that they do not know everything, and turning to the council for its practical wisdom. Pastors ought to be prudent as well. This means being selective about the subject matter on which they consult, savvy regarding the readiness of their council to tackle a problem, and flexible in their leadership style. Councils, for their part, ought to know the task which the Vatican II Decree on Bishops assigned them: the task, namely, of considering pastoral problems and formulating practical conclusions. Some pastors and councils have these skills to a high degree. Others do not.
This helps explain why advice-giving, however important, is not all-important. The primary reason for councils, I have said, is not to set policy, coordinate committees, or create a pastoral plan. All of these are valuable, but not every council is able to do them, at least not as a novice council. And even when the council does try, its efforts may be unsatisfactory. A policy established by the council may be inadequate. The coordination offered by a council may be unwanted or unneeded by parish committees. A pastoral plan may look good on paper, and even may have the solid backing of the council. But if the pastor does not believe in it, at least to the minimal degree necessary for him to freely commit parish resources to it, calling it the parish pastoral plan is a lie. Developing a plan is not as important as helping the pastor see the problems of the parish more clearly. If the council has done that, it has rendered a genuine service, even if the plan is not accepted. The value of advice does not always depend on the advice being taken.
Having said this, I must repeat: receiving good advice is the “official” answer to the question of why a pastor would want a council. It is not the most important reason –the most important is love–but it is the official answer. And when considering this official answer, it is clear that there are many matters about which a pastor may seek advice. Some of these we have already mentioned, such as coordinating ministries, developing policies, and creating a pastoral plan. But of all these matters, I believe the development of a pastoral plan comes first. The development of a pastoral plan, which includes stating the parish’s mission, establishing goals, and setting objectives for meeting the goals, is what councils are eminently suited to do. Pastoral planning fits what official documents describe as the council role: namely, to consider pastoral matters and formulate conclusion. And it avoids burdening the council with administrative jobs which imply juridical authority, jobs such as setting parish policy or coordinating parish ministries.
Eliciting Council Gifts
The third reason why pastors want councils is to free the gifts of parishioners for the council ministry. A good pastor who wants to know his people better and profit from their wisdom will establish a council because the Church needs the gifts of councilors. By calling forth these gifts, he calls the councilors into closer communion with him, and thereby serves the communion of the parish. By inviting the council to consider pastoral matters and draw practical conclusions, he clarifies the parish’s mission. And in all of this, he provides councilors an opportunity to enter more deeply into ministry. By serving on the council, they are drawn into prayer, into the parish’s ministerial life, and into a deeper understanding of Christian leadership. Pastors establish councils in order to free the gifts which, according to St. Paul, are all inspired in order to build up the one body (1 Cor. 12:12).
The trouble is that pastors and council members can misunderstand this principle of gifts. They can misinterpret it to mean that developing the gifts of councilors is paramount, even more important than communion and mission. The council then becomes a self-help group or even a sensitivity group, rather than an instrument for consultation. And the principle of gifts can also be misinterpreted to mean that all gifts are equal. From this viewpoint, whenever a council makes a recommendation, the pastor is obliged to accept it, precisely because it is the recommendation of his gifted councilors. In short, the principle of gifts can wrongly suggest that a pastor should not disagree with the council.
To be sure, whenever a pastor expresses doubts about a council’s advice,he runs a risk. He could, by means of his criticism, trigger a negative reaction which might undermine his efforts at consultation. For example, his council might draw the conclusion that he does not want its advice. Or it might decide that the pastor is insincere, only listening to what he has already decided. Or the council may conclude that the pastor has convened the council for an ulterior motive, wanting to appear consultative without really being so. All of these can spell the end of council morale.
But I would argue that a good pastor disagrees with a council in order to improve the advice it gives him. He wants the council to see his concerns as well as its own. He wants to share with the council the pastoral reality, so that consultation really becomes an effort to unlock the truth. Yes, when a pastor disagrees, he runs a risk. But a pastor’s disagreement with a council can also express respect for the council and a desire to engage it more deeply in consultation. Pastors who disagree in a courteous but honest way are stating the belief that the council can really understand their point of view. They believe their councilors will agree that good advice is more important than a superficial attitude of apparent unanimity. Preserving unity is important, but a veneer of unity which conceals a substantial disagreement is no unity at all. Disagreement can be a mark of respect and trust.
Helping the Council Offer Counsel
In the council, the pastor’s hardest job is to elicit the gifts of council members. He must form the council, posing the questions which will guide it toward the truth of the parish’s most urgent pastoral questions, tailoring his questions to the growing readiness of councilors to answer them. He must help the council offer good counsel. This is the hardest task and absolutely essential to the council ministry.
But as I said, it is not the most important task. Why not? Because the development of lay gifts within the council is subordinate to the overall mission of the parish. Serving that mission is the purpose for which those gifts are called forth. The gifts of the laity are needed to consider pastoral matters and formulate practical conclusions. This is the end for which councils exist; developing councilors is the means to that end. Councils are not primarily schools of ministry, prayer groups, or seminars for leadership development. They exist to serve the pastor and, through him, the parish.
Of the three purposes for councils outlined here, the development of lay gifts is third in importance. Is it unimportant? By no means! Indeed, the pastor must develop the skills and pastoral sensitivities of councilors if they are to give him the advice he needs. But unless council members realize the purposes for which the council exists–first, to foster parish communion; second, to further the parish mission; and third, to put their gifts at the service of the community–they may find themselves fighting an incoherent and frustrating battle to make a second- or third-level purpose their first purpose. Knowing why councils exist clarifies what they are to do.
Appendix One: Does the Council Serve the Pastor?
Councils exist to serve pastors. At such a claim, critics will groan. “This idea of parish councils reduces the council to a tool of the pastor,” say the critical voices. “It demeans lay leadership and turns council members into mere satellites orbiting the pastoral planet!” Behind these critical voices is the assumption that pastor and council are adversaries. And in the eyes of adversaries, councils are valuable because they moderate the power of a pastor. In the “bad old days,” say the critics, he ruled the parochial roost; but now, thanks to councils, he at least consults the laity, and in many cases shares responsibility for coordinating ministries and implementing parish policy. Any effort to view the council as “consultative to the pastor,” the critics say, puts the council at a tactical disadvantage and reduces its power.
Is this criticism fair? Although it is certainly true that dysfunctional pastors do abuse their power, do refuse to consult their councils or, consulting them, do ignore their advice, most American Catholics would agree that these are exceptions. Dysfunction is not the norm in pastor-council relations. And the bishops of Vatican II hardly called for councils as a remedy for unresponsive pastors. Councils were not recommended in order to whip a recalcitrant clergy into shape. On the contrary, the bishops presupposed a common mission to which both the laity and the priests are committed. That is the meaning of the Vatican II emphasis on the one priesthood of Christ in which all have a share, the one apostolate for which all are co-responsible, the one baptism which makes a communion of all. Councils help pastors because they have been given the pastoral care of the parish. By helping the pastor, councils help the parish.
Appendix Two: Consultation Is Difficult
A pastor consults his council because he loves his people and wants to know more about them and their needs. Does this mean that consultation is easy and enjoyable? By no means! Those parish council guidelines which blithely state that the purpose of councils is to free the pastor to do specifically priestly ministry are naive. Pastors who establish councils in the vain hope that they will be able to delegate to the council administrative, planning, or problem-solving chores quickly find that consultation is hard work and does not yield consensus easily. No official statement about councils has ever suggested that councils will free the pastor from responsibilities. According to the U.S. Bishops’ document of 1987, A Shepherd’s Care, pastors themselves feel that consultation imposes a burden. Even when the pastor consults thoroughly, the buck stops with him. He bears final responsibility for parish decisions.
Consultation may be not only laborious but unpleasant as well. A pastor who asks real questions will get real answers, answers which may make him squirm. He will have to deal with passions, long-standing parish grudges, convictions with which he disagrees. That is another reason why establishing a council must be an act of love–tough love. Without such love, no pastor will be able to hear the truths which give rise to his people’s passions, grudges, and convictions. Without it, he cannot distinguish between what people say and the underlying truth they convey. This is arduous and painful. No one said that the pastor who consults will enjoy, let alone accept, all of the council’s advice. He consults because he loves his people, however difficult that may be, and wants to serve the community.