Published in Today’s Parish 38:1 (Jan.
The parish pastoral council secretary keeps a
record of what people say in council meetings. But the secretary does far more
than that. Properly understood, the work of the secretary is to trace God’s
Word in the council’s human words. The work is intellectually acute, profoundly
spiritual, and usually underappreciated.
I was the secretary of my parish council from
July 1984 to October 1985, and I have served as secretary on councils and committees
since then. In the 1980s, I thought I was “just” a secretary. I
wrongly imagined that my work was mechanical. I kept track of what the pastor
and councillors said and the decisions that they made. I was like a tape-recorder
(or so I thought), only a bit more selective. I left out the unimportant “fluff.”
Since then I’ve grown to cherish the council secretary’s unique
and spiritual role as a truth teller. I do not mean that secretaries tell the
truth and other councillors lie. No, I mean that secretaries are in a unique
position to compare what councils suppose they are doing with what actually
takes place. They then can make that comparison a source of reflection.
My observation, that the agenda and the minutes do not always correspond, will
surprise no experienced council secretary. Anyone who has attended more than
a few months of council meetings knows that the agenda can shift dramatically
as soon as the opening prayer concludes. In the difference between the agenda
and the minutes, the astute secretary may detect truths that no one else has
glimpsed. To explain this, let me state what we commonly assume about the role
of the council secretary. Then we can see how our assumptions are naïve,
and decide what to do about them.
Everyone agrees that the secretary is to help prepare the council agenda and
to keep a record of the meeting itself. The agenda, a sheet of paper with a
list of topics that the council is meant to address, governs the meeting. Guided
by the agenda, the council proceeds from topic to topic, expressing its mind
about this and that. After the meeting is over, the secretary types the minutes.
They are a record of the council’s dispositions. Preparing the agenda
and recording the minutes – everyone agrees that these are the two main
tasks of the council secretary.
Accomplishing these two tasks, however, is far from easy. First of all, the
council may not want to follow the printed agenda. Not long ago, for example,
I attended a pastoral council at which social justice was supposed to be the
main agenda item. The council was to discuss how the parish was meeting the
social justice goals defined by the diocese. But instead of discussing social
justice, the pastor raised a different topic. His Vietnamese-born parochial
vicar was being transferred, he said, and there was no prospect of any replacement,
let alone a Vietnamese-speaking replacement. The pastor shared with the council
his frustration about losing an associate and the difficulty of serving a growing
and ethnically diverse congregation on his own. As for the discussion about
the diocese’s social justice goals, it was put off to another meeting.
Should the pastor have hijacked the meeting and steered it away from the planned
agenda? That is a complicated topic with no easy answer. I shall return to it
at the end of this article. For now, it is enough to say that the agenda does
not always correspond with the actual content of the meeting.
A second point has to do with the council minutes themselves. They are supposed
to be a record of how the council achieved what the agenda promised it would
achieve. But sometimes, as we just saw, the actual discussions of the council
have nothing to do with the printed agenda. And quite often the minutes reflect
a discussion that no one could have anticipated by reading the agenda.
Let me give an example. Once when I was serving as a council secretary, the
members were discussing how to strengthen the parish’s youth ministry
program. That was what the agenda promised. But as I listened to the councillors,
I realized that the subtext of the discussion was competition, competition with
the other parish in town. The other parish had a popular youth ministry program
that was drawing young people from our parish. In my fellow councillors’
desire for our parish to succeed, they made it look as if the other parish were
a competitor who had to be defeated.
As my fellow councillors spoke, I scribbled some of their comments. They said
that we needed to strengthen our program so as to “hold onto our youth.”
Our young people were being “lured away” by the other parish, they
said, and were even “defecting” to it. These comments disturbed
me. It seemed as if our main concern was to defend our parish from a threat
– and the threat was nothing other than the other parish’s excellent
program that was evangelizing our young people. Our ostensible goal was to strengthen
our program, but our comments were all about frustrating the other parish’s
The discussion put me, as council secretary, in a difficult place. On the one
hand, I wanted the minutes to faithfully reflect the reality of our discussion
– including the council’s defensiveness toward our “competitor”
parish. The minutes ought to show what we really said, even if our competitiveness
On the other hand, I did not want to embarrass my fellow councillors by portraying
them in the minutes as defensive and reactionary. Improving youth ministry was
the context of our discussion, and I did not want to pull my fellow members’
comments out of context. To be sure, I felt that we should have been praising
the other parish, cooperating with it, and trying to duplicate its success.
I even said something like that at the meeting. But my feelings were a minority
opinion, and the minutes are not supposed to be about the secretary’s
feelings. What was I supposed to do?
Accurate and Honest Minutes
Experienced council secretaries know how awkward minute taking can be. They
have faced the disconnect between the agenda’s sometimes vague but usually
high-minded intentions and the actual words of councillors, words that may reflect
the imperfections of the human condition. How should secretaries negotiate the
tension between what people intend to say and what they inadvertently say?
The first principles that ought to guide the council secretary are accuracy
and honesty. How accurate and honest? When I take minutes as a secretary, I
write constantly during the meeting, indicating in my notes who said what. Afterwards,
when I compose the minutes for distribution, I look in my notes for those phrases
that most forcefully express the reality of the meeting. I occasionally cite
the actual words of councillors, if they are important, putting them in quotation
marks and attributing them to the person who said them. Everyone likes to be
quoted if the quote is accurate.
Quoting people has two advantages. First of all, it motivates people to read
the minutes carefully. Secondly, it promotes honesty. If people do not like
what they read in the minutes, they can always clarify their remarks when the
minutes are approved. They can state what they actually meant to say, and the
secretary can make an appropriate correction.
Along with the first principles of accuracy and honesty are the secondary principles
of tact and diplomacy. These are better principles in the council than confidentiality.
The name secretary implies that this office has to do with secrets – namely,
with what is spoken in trust. The secretary should never violate this trust.
In other words, he or she should never write in the minutes anything that would
embarrass the pastor or parishioners. If a doubt arises about whether it might
pain someone to read his or her exact words, or whether one person’s words
might hurt another person, I recommend that secretaries find an indirect and
less offensive way to speak the truth.
Truth-telling is the vocation of the council secretary. By truth-telling I do
not mean gossiping, tattling, exposing, rumor-mongering, or injuring in any
way. Truth-telling is the Christian vocation par excellence, the vocation of
the person who wants to speak the Word of God so that that Word can be heard
and obeyed. As council secretaries review their notes from a meeting, they are
forced to reflect on important questions. What was said? What was implied but
should have been said more explicitly? And above all, what needs further thought?
The answers to these questions have important consequences for the council as
Truths about the Council’s Task
When acting as secretary, a council member mainly listens and does not interject
his or her own opinions. But those opinions are important. And it is undoubtedly
correct for the minute-taker occasionally to doff the secretary’s cap
during the meeting and speak as his or her own proper person. After all, the
secretary was a council member before becoming a secretary, and retains the
councillor’s privilege of being able to speak.
Sometimes, however, it is more effective for secretaries to express their views
as members of the executive council. This is the group which meets a couple
of weeks before the regular meeting to plan the agenda. There, while planning
the council’s next meeting, secretaries shine as truth-tellers, that is,
as those who compare what councils suppose they are doing with what they actually
do. They shine by (1) documenting what the council has accomplished, (2) clarifying
what it still needs to do, and (3) building commitment to the agenda. Let me
say a word about each.
Every time a secretary documents what the council has done, he or she implies
a context. The context is the general task of the council. This task was stated
in Vatican II’s Decree on the Office of Bishops. There, in paragraph 27,
we read that the pastoral council investigates and considers pastoral matters
so as to reach conclusions that it can recommend to the pastor. Hence when the
secretary documents what the council has done, he or she implies the council’s
threefold task. The council may be just beginning to learn about the pastoral
reality. Or it may be in the middle stages, reflecting on what it has learned.
Or it may be in the final stages of formulating its conclusions. Secretaries
tell the truth by reminding the council how far it has progressed.
The council’s overall task brings me to the secretary’s second duty
as a truth teller. That duty is to remind the executive committee about what
needs to be done. Earlier I told the story about the pastoral council that,
while trying to strengthen its own youth ministry program, was actually mired
in jealousy over the youth ministry of the neighboring parish. The members were
not aware that envy had distorted their thinking. The best way to strengthen
their own parish’s youth ministry (they failed to see) was to imitate
that of the other parish, or even to join forces with it in offering a single
youth ministry. Secretaries who listen closely to their fellow councillors may
become aware of questions that the council has not yet raised. They can then
present these questions as topics for inclusion on the agenda of the next council
Commitment to the Agenda
Do you recall the story of the pastor who, instead of following the agenda,
used the council meeting to vent his frustration over losing his Vietnamese-born
associate? The story illustrated how the agenda does not always govern the council
meeting. I skirted the question of whether the pastor should have taken the
council in a direction other than what the agenda promised. That is because
I believe in the principle that the pastor consults the council. The council
exists to advise him. It is vital that pastors consult councils about what is
important to the pastor.
On the other hand, however, the fact that the pastor did not follow the agenda
showed that his commitment to it was not strong. He had a choice – to
follow the agenda or to ventilate about the loss of his associate – and
he chose to ventilate. I believe that this is often the case with council agendas.
Pastors and councillors neglect the agenda because something more important
This is an area in which the secretary can play an important role as truth-teller.
He or she is in a position to reflect upon what councillors are saying and to
make recommendations about the agenda. An agenda is supposed to be an agreement.
It is supposed to represent a conviction that the agenda topics are the most
important things that the council ought to be doing. But if the agenda is full
of “old business items” (carried over from previous meetings that
are of little importance at present), or if it is full of one-word topics (about
which it is unclear what the council is supposed to do), then commitment to
the agenda may understandably waver.
About these, the secretary can and should raise the questions. Why is a given
topic on the agenda? Is it clear why the council is addressing it? Remember,
the agenda should include only the most important topics for the council to
address. Further, it should state what action the council is expected to take.
Is the council to merely hear a report? Brainstorm responses to the report?
Set a goal in response to it? Plan how to achieve the goal? By raising these
questions, the secretary performs an invaluable service. The clearer the agenda,
the more pastor and councillors will be committed to it.
Secretaries document the reality of council discussions,
anticipate the council’s next steps, and clarify the agenda, thereby building
commitment to it. In recent years, the secretary’s role has been undervalued.
Some have proposed changes in an effort to make the secretary’s position
more attractive. They would change the name of the secretary to the less specific
term “recorder” and would limit the secretarial task to merely transcribing
main ideas instead of composing minutes. The proposed changes inadvertently
suggest that the secretary should be no longer concerned about secrets, and
that attending to the details of conversation is unimportant. Such proposals,
I believe, will not attract people to the ministry. It is far better to praise
secretaries for their indispensable role as truth-tellers who compare what councils
suppose they are doing with what they actually do.