“Parish” and “Pastoral” Councils

Sent by Deacon Frank Berning, D.Min. on August 30, 2010:

I am director of pastoral planning for the Diocese of Albany.  I believe that you had an article about the difference between a parish council and a pastoral council.  I am not able to locate the article (or chapter in a book).  Do you have something written specifically to that question?  We have several pastors that are moving to pastoral councils and are seeking some information that would help them explain the difference between what they are and what the pastor want them to become.

Mark Fischer replied:

You asked about the difference between a “pastoral” and a “parish” council.  This is a complicated question.  The real difference, as I see it, is not between pastoral and parish councils, but among different types of parish councils, of which one is “pastoral.”

The pastoral council is the type of council first recommended in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops at par. 27.  It was first described in relation to dioceses, and later (in 1973) extended to parishes.  Canon 536 legislated about it in 1983.

The key thing about the pastoral council is that it exists to help pastors accomplish their mission of leadership.  Lay people participate in the pastor’s apostolate in a threefold way: by investigating and reflecting, under his direction, some aspect of the parish reality; and then by recommending to him the council’s conclusions.  This view of the pastoral council, first articulated in Bishops 27, was reaffirmed in the 2002 document by the Congregation for the Clergy entitled “The Priest, Pastor and Leader.”  But strictly speaking, the pastoral council is about the pastor’s apostolate, not the lay apostolate.  It is not meant to be, for example, an open forum for lay people to express their concerns.  Rather, pastors consult the council because they seek wise advice about how best to accomplish their mission.

The pastoral council can be distinguished from two other models of parish council.  One is the “Council of Ministries” (a term coined by Father Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden in “Leadership in a Successful Parish”).  In the council of ministries, the council consists of representatives of various ministerial groups in the parish.  The purpose of the council is to coordinate the various ministerial groups.  Father Sweetser calls the council of ministries a “pastoral” council, but I’m not persuaded that it is.

Another model of parish council is what I call the “comprehensive planning” model.  This is the model advocated by Mary Ann Gubish (and others) in their book on “Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council.”  According to this model, the council has responsibilities in each of seven areas: evangelization, worship, word, community, service, stewardship, and leadership.  But once again, I’m not sure that this always meets the “pastoral” ideal.  The pastor may want to consult the council about only one or two of those areas, because they need attention.  Since he is doing the consulting, he decides how broad or how narrow the consultation ought to be.

So the question is complicated, but you can find a short answer in the article entitled “The Top Three Council Models.”

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