In Praise of Council Secretaries
By Mark F. Fischer
Published in Today’s Parish 38:1 (Jan. 2006): 16-21.
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 successful initiatives.
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 was unseemly.
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 a whole.
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 meeting.
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 intervenes.
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.