Council membership

DPC LogoSmallRight and Wrong Reasons for Joining the Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “The Right and Wrong Reasons for Joining a Council,” Today’s Parish (October 1995): 12-14, 24.

There are plenty of good reasons for joining a pastoral council. There are also some very bad reasons which may look like good ones. People considering council membership, as well as pastors hoping to motivate potential councilors, would do well to reflect on the difference between the good reasons and the bad.

Consider passive aggression. No one recommends it as a reason for joining a council. But I daresay that it has motivated quite a few councilors. And it can look good even when it is bad.

The “Organ Affair”

Father Fred O’Donnell invited Mary Hornby to join the new pastoral council last year, an invitation which many thought rather perverse. Mary had sat on the parish’s last council, disbanded by Father Fred seven years ago. She was still angry. Father Fred had inherited the council from the previous pastor and had fought with it in a series of skirmishes over an eighteen-month period, the period of the “organ affair.” In brief, the council had been working on modest plans for renovating the sanctuary, such as installing new carpets and furnishings. Father Fred wanted a more elaborate renovation, including a $100,000 electronic organ, which the council thought too extravagant. He finally achieved the Pyrrhic victory of dissolving the council, thereby regaining the first Monday evening of every month, installing the organ, and winning the ire of a large number of parishioners, Mary included.

He invited Mary to rejoin in the hope that, by participating in a new council, old wounds would heal and the momentum of former days would be recaptured. This time around, he wants a council to examine the parish religious education program. The Director of Religious Education is retiring. Father Fred believes that, before embarking on a search for a new D.R.E., the program should be studied and compared with other programs throughout the diocese. He hopes that this will set the parish’s program on a new and firmer footing.

So much for the virtue of hope. Mary accepted his invitation with the grim satisfaction of a bride watching the groom prodded into the church at the barrel of her father’s shotgun. “He thinks that resurrecting the council will make believers out of us,” Mary confided, “but I’m a doubting Thomas until I see a change of heart.” For her, the burden of proof (and the responsibility for progress) lay with the pastor, whose liturgical innovations still cause her to grit her teeth, even when the $100,000 organ is not piping “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

One needs no psychological credentials to call this passive aggression. Mary has been at her most polite this past year, watching Father Fred for missteps, biding her time while the council studies religious education. Nothing has happened yet, but at his first mistake she will doubtless offer him some choice tidbits of advice, advice supercharged by seven years of pent-up fury. For her, the invitation to join the council was a second chance to prove the pastor wrong.

The Right to Be Angry

Mary has, of course, a right to be angry. She had devoted two years to the first parish council, expecting the harmonious working relationship with Father Fred that had been created under the former pastor. But Fred O’Donnell did not establish with the council the relationship of trust which the former pastor had developed. He was not prepared to accept its plans for the sanctuary renovation, plans which the council members felt were self-evidently persuasive. Moreover, he was not successful in expressing his liturgical vision and the need for the better organ. When he did not accept the council’s original plans for the sanctuary renovation, Mary and the other councilors felt insulted. Dissolving the council was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

But anger is no motive for council membership. Mary has a right to be angry, true, but if she cannot defuse her own anger, she should not have accepted the invitation to join the new council. Does this mean simply swallowing her anger? Not at all! Suppressed anger never stays down, but comes up like bile. To defuse anger, one must express anger. When invited by Father Fred to join the new council, Mary should have made an appointment with him. She needed to tell him how little faith she has, given the history of the first council, in a new council whose advice may not be accepted and whose pastor may well dissolve the council again. Saying this is honest. It also would have allowed Father Fred an opportunity to rethink how badly he wants Mary’s membership on the new council.

We may well question Father Fred’s psychological acuity, but I for one have never doubted his good intentions. So let us presume that he sees in Mary the common sense and the ability to deliberate well which mark a good councilor. Let us assume, as a hypothesis, that after hearing her expression of anger and frustration, he still encouraged her to join the council. He promised to start fresh. He wanted a representative and active council to help him study the R.E. program.

The Right to Decide

If this had happened, then I would have advised Mary to exercise her right to make a mature decision. I would have advised her, first, to ask Father Fred what he wants from the new council. How did he foresee the council examining religious education programs? What process did he intend the council to use? How did he envision his own role? This would give Mary an insight into what she could expect. She did not want a repetition of the “organ affair.” She needed to satisfy herself that the ground rules would be different this time.

And then, after this discussion of Father Fred’s plans for the council, I would have advised Mary to make a decision based on whether she could accept those plans. Fred O’Donnell said that he wanted to look at the parish’s religious education program. I would have asked Mary, “Are you willing to do this–and to put the ‘organ affair’ in the past?” I would also have asked her, “Have you the ability and enthusiasm to study religious education programs?” Mary may well say that religious education has no interest for her. She may well say that it is too narrow a scope for a pastoral council. She may well reject the idea that the pastor can determine the matter for council deliberations. If she did, then I would advise her not to accept the invitation to join the council. There are, I would tell her, plenty of other parish ministries.

My advice to Mary springs from the conviction that the primary reason for joining a pastoral council is a mature love of the Church. Membership should stem from love because the main goal of every council is to help the pastor make good decisions for the parish Church. I say the love must be “mature” because the work of the council is dialogue, and the quality of dialogue depends on the maturity and wisdom of the participants. This excludes, or ought to exclude, passive aggression. But more to the point, it entails acceptance of the Church as it is. The Church whose pastors are occasionally preoccupied with $100,000 organs. Who do not always trust their parishioners. Who at times dissolve their own pastoral councils.

Mature Love or Passive Aggression?

Can a parishioner in good conscience join a pastoral council, knowing that the advice of the council is only consultative? Is it mature love which impels a parishioner to join a pastoral council, a council whose advice may not be accepted, or is it an immature dependence on the pastor? When councilors willingly accept the pastor’s direction, examining the problems he puts before them and proposing solutions, do they act out of mature love or out of childish submission to his dominance?

I believe that participation on a council greatly benefits the Church and enables the councilor to enter more deeply into the life of Christ. But in order to explain that belief, to show that council membership is neither irresponsible, codependent, nor childish, I must define the Church’s vision of consultation and show its wisdom. The Church recommends that pastors consult their people because such consultation enables better pastoral judgments. Pastors consult, not because they are unable to make decisions themselves, but because they know they have more to learn. More about the topic of study. More about what is appropriate for their community at this time and place.

Those, in short, are the pastor’s motives. What about the councilor’s? The clearest expression of those motives does not lie in the references to pastoral councils in the Vatican II documents or in the Code of Canon Law. Those define in a skeleton fashion the nature and scope of councils, but say nothing about councilors. Their motives are expressed in brief but direct fashion in the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. There, in Chapter IV on the Laity, the document treats the benefits to be realized by good relations between pastors and people. To be sure, some of the terms of the document sound, to today’s ears, paternalistic and condescending. The laity are to accept “in Christian obedience” what the pastor decides, says Lumen Gentium, and should pray for those “who have been placed over them.” But the pastor-people relationship is a two-way street. Pastors should promote the responsibility of the laity, says the document, encouraging their initiative. Councilors are motivated by a pastor who listens.

In addition, councilors benefit from a deeper spirituality and heightened motivation. Lumen Gentium describes in this way how dialogue with the pastor benefits the laity: “The sense of their own responsibility is strengthened in the laity, their zeal is encouraged, they are more ready to unite their energies to the work of their pastors” (no. 37). Why would they want to be united with the pastor? Because they recognize his preeminently priestly role, the role of leading others in prayer and in making present the sacrificial actions of Christ. His leadership of the parish is fused to that priestly role. The laity unite their energies to the work of the pastor because they believe in his work.

The Councilor’s Motives

Participation on a pastoral council is not irresponsible, codependent, or childish for this reason: council membership is, or should be, the mature decision of a parishioner who believes in the ministry of the pastor and wants to assist him in it. Doubtless, the pastor is not obligated to take the council’s advice. Yes, he may well define the issues on which he consults, neglecting others which councilors feel are more important. And to be sure, he may dissolve the council when he no longer finds it helpful. But knowing these possibilities–and they are by no means the rule–a mature and wise parishioner may still choose to participate in the council. The prime motive for council membership is not to gain decision-making authority, but to assist the ministry of the pastor. The desire to assist stems from love of the Church. Its goal is to provide sound advice. The love does not depend on how successful the advice is. The councilor who offers such advice, even when it is not accepted, does not love the Church any less.

Indeed, the desire to gain decision-making authority is one of those reasons for joining the council which looks good but may be bad. It may seem attractive, may seem to stem from a desire to accomplish good things in the parish. But if the desire conflicts with the pastor, and if the council member persists in following a private agenda against the pastor’s judgment, then it is a false motive. It will cause dissension. Do not misunderstand: I am not saying that the pastor is always right. But he is the leader of the parish, and the council’s job is to advise him. If a pastor consistently ignores the advice of his council, I would recommend that they either become more persuasive or find another ministry. They are not convincing him, and he may not want to be convinced.

Our friend Mary, still fuming over the organ affair, accepted Fred O’Donnell’s invitation to join the new council in part because she felt wronged by him in the past. But that is not her only motive. She also believes that the council members have an important contribution to make to the question of parish religious education, not to mention a host of other matters. She has, in the words of Lumen Gentium, a great sense of responsibility and zeal for the parish. But Father Fred may well reject the council’s advice a second time. He is, after all, not much of a consensus builder. And if he does so, I fear that Mary will be strongly disappointed. She may not be able to distinguish between the work of the council and the uses which the pastor makes of it. She may not be able to detach herself. And that will be a shame.

I believe that a pastor who regularly rejects advice, exercises dictatorial powers, and dissolves councils is the exception. He quickly finds himself with a very small flock, a flock which sees things his way or acquiesces in his decisions. Other people will not care to offer him advice, finding other outlets for their ministerial talents. They will exercise their freedom as Christians, the freedom to minister as the Spirit calls them.

Love and Responsibility

Councilors are not indifferent to their own ministry. They want to make a contribution to the mission of the parish. They want to have pastors take their advice. This is an important and authentic motive for becoming a council member. But this second motive for council participation, namely, the satisfaction of giving sound advice and having it heeded, is subordinate to the first, the motive of mature love. Sound advice may not be accepted. But the council which helps a pastor know the parish reality more profoundly, even if it is not able to fully persuade him to follow a specific course of action, can still take satisfaction in a job well don. It has rendered a considered judgment, and so illuminated the parish situation. That is a significant contribution.