Pastoral Council Effectiveness

Liz Woodhouse wrote on August 4, 2012:

Could you please describe the features of an effective parish council?  We don’t have a council in the parish where I serve, Westminster Cathedral.  Of course we’re a bit unique as we’re the Mother Church of Catholics in Great Britain but there is also a residential “parish” population.

Mark F. Fischer replied:

I visited the Westminster Cathedral website and saw that Canon Christopher Tuckwell is the “Administrator.” That’s a key point, because a pastoral council advises the pastor, and I presume that the “pastor” of the cathedral is Archbishop Vincent Nichols. Canon Law distinguishes between a “diocesan” pastoral council and a “parish” pastoral council. So it is conceivable that Archbishop Nichols has an archdiocesan pastoral council and Canon Tuckwell could establish a PPC in the future. Even though he’s not technically the “pastor,” nevertheless any parish administrator needs the kind of help that a pastoral council offers.

You asked about a “parish” council. Strictly speaking, there are two types of parish councils. One is the pastoral council, the other is the finance council. Canon 536 requires every parish to have a finance council. Canon 537 does not require pastoral councils, but says that bishops may require them in ever parish. I’m going to assume that when you mention a “parish” council, you mean a parish “pastoral” council.

What makes a pastoral council effective? To answer that question, we have to see what the Church expects of them. Pastoral councils were first recommended at Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops, par. 27. It says that pastoral councils do three things: they “investigate” some matter under the pastor’s direction, the “ponder” it, and they “draw conclusions” and recommend them to the pastor. If a council does this well, I believe, then it is “effective.” But the three jobs of the council (investigate, ponder, and conclude) imply many other things that contribute to effectiveness.

First, consider the work of investigation. This implies a lot about the pastor. It implies that an administrator like Canon Tuckwell wants to know more about some aspect of parish life. He has to make decisions on behalf of the parish, and he knows that his own knowledge is limited. He wants to draw upon the knowledge of the council. Investigation also implies some qualities on the part of the councillors. They have to have the freedom, the capacity and the patience to do the work that the word “investigation” suggests.

Next, let’s consider the work of “pondering.” Basically, this means that the council has to reflect on what it has investigated. The council must consider what the investigation means for the local parish community. It has to pray, discern, analyze, discuss, prioritize, and weigh the consequences. Any expert can tell you what is good and appropriate in general and for the most part. But no one outside the community can gauge what is good and appropriate for the community itself, at this moment in its history, and in the situation it faces.

Finally, the council has to draw conclusions and recommend them to the pastor. This too implies a lot about the relation between Canon Tuckwell and the council. If he really wants the council’s help, then he must enable the members to understand the particular situation he faces. If he fails to do this, then the council may recommend something that he cannot accept. If the pastor refuses the council’s advice, he will demoralize the council. It is far better for the pastor to participate in the council’s deliberations, informing the members of his cares and concerns, allowing the council to shape his own perceptions and decisions.  All of that goes along with the pastor’s identity as one who leads the community in the name of Jesus as a good shepherd.

In short, a council succeeds when its investigation is so careful, its reflection so thorough, and its conclusions so wise that a pastor (or administrator like Canon Tuckwell) accepts them and puts them into practice. That is true effectiveness. It also solves the problem of recruiting council members. Everyone wants to be on a group that makes a positive difference. Once the council has had a few successes, then people will vie for membership on it.

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