DPC LogoSmallPastoral Councils and Planning

Keynote at the 2001 Workshop for Parish Pastoral Councils, Norfolk Catholic High School, Norfolk, Nebraska (September 22, 2001), and Gross Catholic High School, Omaha, Nebraska (September 23, 2001)

Mark F. Fischer, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California

This is my first trip to the real Midwest — that is, northwest of St. Louis and east of Salt Lake City, where Californians believe the real West begins. At home I looked up Omaha in my atlas. This is the closest I’ve ever been to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where my father in law was born, and to Sioux Falls, Iowa, the birthplace of my wife’s maid of honor’s grandmother. Her birthday fell on April 18, 1906, the day of the Great San Francisco earthquake. At birth she was a safe distance from the epicenter, but that did not prevent her from moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m also glad to be near the famous Council Bluffs, which I read about in Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. Ambrose wrote that, in August of 1804 at Council Bluffs, Lewis and Clark met the first Indians they had seen since leaving St. Louis. Most of the tribes were out hunting buffalo.

Meriwether Lewis gave Little Thief, the Oto chief, a breech clout, a bit of paint, a comb, and the Thomas Jefferson Peace Medal. The medal was not worth much to Little Thief, but copies are worth a lot today. I’m hoping that this workshop will be at least as valuable to you.

I first became a parish council member in November of 1983, when I was elected to the parish council of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, California. Not a lot of discernment went into my election. The council chairwoman telephoned to say that I had been nominated and asked if I would serve. When I said yes, my name and a 100-word statement about me were mounted on the bulletin board in the church vestibule. I like to think that I was elected on my merits, but my wife insists that the election was due to the intercession of an influential parishioner, my mother in law.

When I was elected, I knew almost nothing about pastoral councils. At that time I was still completing my studies, and soon went to work for the Diocese of Oakland. But from that time forward, my education in councils moved into high gear. I collected Vatican and diocesan documents about councils, joined a professional organisation that works with councils, and began to gain experience. It gradually dawned on me that the main work of councils, the main work envisioned by the bishops at Vatican II, is pastoral planning.

Novo Millennio Ineunte
For that reason I was delighted when Pope John Paul II issued on January 6 the Apostolic Letter entitled “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” meaning “At the Beginning of the New Millennium.” In this letter, the Holy Father stated that the new millennium calls for planning. “It is in the local churches,” he wrote, “that the specific features of a detailed pastoral plan can be identified” (no. 29). At this I rubbed my hands. Ah, a clear affirmation of pastoral planning! Strategic goals! Management by objectives! But then, as I read further, the Apostolic Letter took me aback. Pope John Paul does not put his faith in goals and objectives. He puts it in something deeper. He wrote, “We shall not be saved by a formula. . . . It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new program’” (29). So if it is not a “new program,” then what is it?

The Holy Father stated that his pastoral priority is Vatican II’s universal call to holiness (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Chapter Five). Holiness is a gift offered to us all, wrote the pope, and a task which must shape our lives (no. 30). To place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness, he wrote, implies a conviction. It is the conviction that, “since baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.” In other words, pastoral planning is not merely a task of shallow rationality. It cannot be confined to a formal technique of managing by objectives. It is not about doing something minimal. Rather, pastoral planning is about the very life of God. It is our very effort to enter into that life. Planning translates God’s life, the life we share, into concrete actions. Those are the words of Pope John Paul II to us “At the Beginning of the New Millennium.” He shows the unexpected depths of pastoral planning.

Pastoral Councils and Our National Crisis

Those of us who have worked in pastoral councils know that our reality often seems less lofty than the “planning for holiness” of which the pope speaks. But it is important, I think, for us to recall the dignity of our vocation as councillors. The documents of Vatican II are the charter for councils. One of the documents, the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, speaks about the establishment of councils at the parish level (no. 26). But even before it specifically recommends councils, it talks about the relation between priests and laity. Here is what it says:

The laity should develop the habit of working in the parish in close union with their priests, of bringing before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding human salvation, to examine them together and solve them by general discussion (no. 10).

This passage suggests the dignity of councillors. Our work is not confined to petty questions about the color of the rectory trim or the number of missalettes to buy. It is about “world problems” and “questions regarding human salvation.” Vatican II invited us to try to solve them by “general discussion,” that is, by means of consilia, of councils.

The tragic events of September 11 are very much on our minds today. In the silence of prayer we hear the voices of the dead, prematurely silenced, and of the living who suffer their loss. Our national tragedy exemplifies the world problems and the questions regarding salvation which Vatican II invited us to study and try to solve. Is it too far-fetched to draw a parallel between the challenge facing our national leaders – the challenge of seeking a way forward out of the tragedy – and the challenge facing our pastors and pastoral councils? I do not think so. Let me invite you to follow some reflections about our common search for wisdom.

Seeking Wisdom in the National Crisis
As we speak, our political leaders are seeking a response to the acts of terrorism in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. Like our pastors, they are seeking wise counsel about what to do in the face of critical situations. Wise counsel, what to do, and critical situations – let me say a word about each.

Leaders seek wise counsel. Good leaders know that, the more they consult their people, the more they will understand the reality they face. Was the terrorism we experienced a crime, for example, or an act of war? Upon this question the wisdom of our response depends. Crime requires the response of police work and the building of a legal case. War pits one nation against another, and the standard of proof for culpability is less strong. Good leaders want to know how best to understand the reality.

They seek knowledge because they need to fashion a response. They want to know what to do. They want, in a phrase, practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is not the theoretical and scientific wisdom of the professor. Leaders are not writing a textbook or constructing a theory. Their quest is prudent action. They want to know, not just what is the correct thing to do, but what will help and unify their people. We Catholics say that, ultimately, the good leader seeks wise counsel in order to help followers obey God. This is as true for President Bush as it is for your local pastor. Both of them want to lead us to good and upright action.

The action they propose is a response to a critical situation. The appropriate response in our national crisis is not yet clear. The situation is critical in that it requires judgement. Our leaders must judge the situation, and the situation judges them. A true judgement has its basis in reality. All of us must know the situation for what it is. We must act on the basis of the reality, not on fantasy or wishful thinking. And by our actions, the situation judges (or more precisely, God, judges) us. We are judged by whether we are listening to God’s Word and obeying it. No one can tell us in advance what this listening and obedience entail. That is why good leaders take counsel.

So we council members have a high vocation and a great dignity. Our vocation, our call, is to offer our pastors prudent counsel. They consult us because they seek wisdom. They want to know how to respond wisely to a critical situation. Our pastors consult us about pastoral matters, just as President Bush consults his cabinet in the national crisis.

The Council and the Cabinet
Is it right to compare the pastoral council to a presidential cabinet? I think the analogy is apt and instructive. Just as the cabinet members represent the various branches of government, so the pastoral council represents the People of God. To be sure, neither council nor cabinet is a group of political representatives. Although cabinet members are approved by congress, they are not elected officials. And although council members are often elected, they do not represent in a juridical way the interests of the parishioners who elect them. Rather, both council and cabinet are representatives in a different way. They “make present” a certain wisdom. Parish pastoral council members strive to make present the wisdom of God.

Another parallel between the pastoral council and the president’s cabinet is that the leader consults them. President Bush seeks Colin Powell’s advice about matters of state and Donald Rumsfeld’s advice about military matters. He has appointed Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania as Director of the Office of Homeland Security. But the president is not bound by their advice. He can reject it. Similarly, the pastor is not bound by the advice of the pastoral council. Bishops assign pastors to parishes because they have faith in their abilities. They give pastors freedom to reject unsound advice. Most of us affirm this freedom. We don’t want our pastors to take poor advice. But we have a right to know when a pastor has reservations about the advice we give, and the right to know why he does not want to follow it. Good leaders generally take good advice. The power to develop good recommendations is the pastoral council’s greatest power.

A final parallel between the pastoral council and the president’s cabinet has to do with the activity of planning itself. At the simplest level, planning involves three things. First, it requires an extensive study of a matter. Second, it demands thorough reflection. And third, it leads to sound conclusions. Study, reflection, and conclusions – these are what both the council and the cabinet do. They present their conclusions to the leader in the form of recommendations. After the recommendations are accepted, implementation of them begins as a second step, a step that follows the development of the plan.

This marks a difference between the council and the cabinet. Cabinet members lead branches of government. Once the president accepts their advice, he directs them to carry out the plan using the agencies under their direction. Pastoral councillors, in contrast, do not usually lead branches of the parish. Normally they are not members of the parish staff. If their pastor invites them to carry out a recommendation that he has accepted, ordinarily they do not do so as a parish staff member or even (strictly speaking) as a pastoral councillor. More commonly they act as a volunteer under the direction of the pastor or the staff. Their role as council member is distinct from their role in the implementation of pastoral plans.

In short, I believe that the parallel between the council and the cabinet illuminates the role of the pastoral council and indicates its great dignity. President Bush and all Americans face a national crisis. He consults his trusted advisors to help him understand the reality and to decide how to respond. This response is his quest for wisdom. By his decisions, he commits the nation to a particular understanding of the situation, and ultimately to a judgement by which we too shall be judged.

The Scope of Pastoral Planning

Undoubtedly the scope of pastoral planning differs from that of the cabinet. Parishes are not nations! We do not expect councils to discuss how to reassure Americans in the face of our crisis, how to rebuild the structures destroyed by terrorism, or how to punish those indicted for acts of terror. But the scope of pastoral planning is very wide. The Church gives the pastor freedom to consult about what it calls “pastoral” matters – that is, about matters that touch the pastoral work of the parish. In a minute, I’m going to ask you to reflect on the topics that your council addresses. I will invite you to consider how you can focus on important topics, and refer unimportant topics to another time. But for now let us consider what are the proper topics for a pastoral council.

In the past, some have tried to separate the work of the pastoral council from administration, or to insist that it have an exclusively spiritual dimension. But these efforts have not proven successful. Parish administration is not off-limits to pastoral councils, because pastoral planning has administrative consequences. Indeed, we would be foolish to say that “pastoral” matters must be distinguished from temporal cares. A poorly maintained parish facility can make it hard to pray. Pastoral matters include every aspect of practical parish life.

The 1973 Circular Letter to the Bishops of the World on Pastoral Councils is the only Vatican document devoted to councils in its entirety. It states that councils treat matters of pastoral care. It also says that pastoral councils cannot decide general questions bearing on faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church. The scope of the pastoral council is not theory, but action. Councillors offer practical wisdom, not expert opinion. This distinction helps us understand the relationship between the pastoral council and the finance council. The finance council is concerned about bookkeeping, budgeting, and financial reporting. In these matters we normally defer to the expert opinion of accountants. The realm of the pastoral council is not fiscal science but action. We council members do not discuss how to track parish funds or report about them. Instead, we deliberate about what to do with them. We reflect on what the parish is to do, and whether it can afford to do it.

Canon Law sheds some light on the scope of pastoral matters. It defines six separate areas of pastoral responsibility: God’s Word, sacraments, community, facilities, evangelization, and justice. Any one of these is a topic on which pastors may consult their councils. The trouble with councils is not that they lack sufficient scope to treat important matters. The trouble is rather that they become preoccupied with trivial matters. Is this true for you? I’d like to ask you to reflect on this. “What are the most important topics that your council faces or has faced in recent months?”

The Apparel Affair
Councils can tackle many subjects. But unless they focus their attention, they may expend their energy on trivial matters. To illustrate, let me tell the story of “the apparel affair.” First Communion apparel, in my view, should not be a topic of pastoral council deliberations. The question of whether seven-year-olds ought to wear all-white clothing for their First Communion is not high on my list of pastoral problems. But it utterly dominated a council meeting I attended two years ago at a Mexican-American parish. The story is worth telling.

The problem arose because the parents of First Communicants could not agree on what their children should wear. One group of parents, in the name of tradition and good liturgy, advocated all-white apparel: white suits, shirts, and ties for the boys; white dresses, shoes, and stockings for the girls. White, they said, should remind Christians of their Baptism.

Another group of parents, in the name of simplicity and economy, said white blouses and shirts were sufficient. These parents would accept pants and skirts of other colors provided that the children wore white shirts and blouses. They felt that families should not be obligated to purchase wholly new outfits for First Communion. The two sets of parents were at odds. The Religious Education Committee wanted the pastoral council to settle the dispute.

Some of the English-speaking council members made an unfortunate comparison between the expense of new outfits and the expense of Quinceañeras, the coming of age celebrations for Mexican-American girls common at the parish. They felt that the outfits were an extravagant expense. That opinion did not endear them to the Spanish-speaking councillors. It also indicated the underlying tension between Mexican-American and U.S.-born parishioners.

At the meeting I attended, the pastor (whom I will call Father McCarthy) listened to the arguments. They made him uncomfortable. Going into the pastoral council meeting, he had expected little more than a report from the Liturgy Committee. The agenda item was simply called “First Communion Plans.” He had anticipated no problems. But as the temperature rose, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and finally asked the Religious Education Committee to poll the parents of the First Communicants and report back to him. After that, the meeting—painful and unproductive—limped to a conclusion.

The apparel affair showed Father McCarthy that the parish’s greatest challenge is to integrate its Mexican-born and native English-speaking members. It took a long time for him and his council to see this challenge. After reflecting on it, he decided to make some changes. His first and most important change was to commit the council to a yearlong focus. As a focus, he chose the theme, “Parish Family – Familia Parroquial.” The theme indicated the most important issue that the council could address – namely, how the parish could be a family to English- and to Spanish-speaking parishioners. In light of this theme, Father McCarthy and the council could be more selective. They could exclude agenda items that did not contribute to the theme, items like the apparel affair.

The establishment of an overarching theme not only enabled the council to be more selective about agenda items, but also improved its structure. Possible agenda items were scrutinised for how they would contribute to the overall them. Father McCarthy and the council decided to ask for specific problem-solving reports. For example, they heard a report on how to increase volunteerism, which had a different meaning for U.S.-born and Mexican-American parishioners. They then discussed how to implement the report’s findings. The council was no longer a court of last resort when committees were at loggerheads. It had begun to reflect on pastoral matters and make wise recommendations. Meetings and morale improved.

This story is really about how councils can focus their agendas more intelligently. It is about how they can concentrate on the “real problems” and the “questions regarding human salvation” of which Vatican II spoke. We should not ask our councils to spend their monthly meetings responding to a random collection of topics. That disperses the council’s energy and threatens its morale. Rather, we should plan the agendas in such a way that one council meeting builds on the next, that study gives way to reflection, and reflection to wise advice. That insight moved the pastor in the “apparel affair” story to ask his council to focus for a year on an important topic, namely, on how to strengthen the parish family. A few minutes ago, I asked you to reflect on the most important topics that your council now faces or has faced in recent months. Take a few moments now to share with your neighbor how you might give your council a more precise focus.

Pastoral Planning

So far we have spoken about the holiness under which heading Pope John Paul places pastoral planning. We then spoke about the dignity of councillors. We compared their situation to that of President Bush’s cabinet. The council and the cabinet offer leaders wise council about what to do in the face of a critical situation. Their aim is practical wisdom, the wisdom that seeks the wisest course of action. Finally we discussed the scope of planning. We said that there is a wide scope to the matters that a council or cabinet can treat. The challenge is to find a focus. In our present national crisis, the cabinet’s focus is easy to see. It is in some ways harder for the peacetime parish. For example, it was hard for Father McCarthy to see that his council needed to focus on the “parish family – familia parroquial” in a multicultural situation.

No one can prescribe for the parish what its focus ought to be. The parish situation is contingent. It depends on the needs of the parish at its current moment in history. But we can generalize about the pastoral planning task. This task was clearly laid out in Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops, the decree in which “pastoral” councils were first discussed. The decree stated that pastoral councils “investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity” and “formulate practical conclusions concerning them” (no. 27). To be sure, the Bishops Decree was describing pastoral councils at the diocesan or archdiocesan level. But I think that this passage describes pastoral councils in general, even parish councils. They too study the pastoral situation in the light of the gospel, reflect on it, and draw conclusions which they recommend to the pastor.

The pastor is key. I’d like to say a few words on that subject, especially to you pastors who are here today. The pastor is the one who consults the council, not the other way around. The council takes its cue from you. If your council is mired in trivia, it is because you have allowed it to become mired. Do not let that happen! Name the issues that are most important to your people’s identity and mission, and focus on them.

How to change the focus? I encourage pastors to cultivate a “Socratic spirituality.” This is the spirituality of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato. Socrates had a special kind of knowledge, he told the people of Athens. He knew that he did not know everything. For that reason, he engaged people in conversation in order to discover the truth. He was so single-minded in his pursuit of the truth that he was willing to submit to death rather than lie or disobey the laws. He is a model for the relation between pastors and councillors. You good pastors are like Socrates. You engage your councillors to get at the truth of the pastoral situation. You are not interested, however, in reaching a truth that is mere correctness. You seek the truth in order to build up and unify the community. You want to strengthen the parish as a spiritual communion.

To you pastoral councillors, I have a special word as well. It is a word about knowing yourself as stewards of the truth. Stewards of the truth serve the truth. They are humble. They know that the pastor consults them, but is not bound by their advice. So you councillors cultivate a certain asceticism. Your work of pastoral planning – your work of investigating a pastoral matter, reflecting on it, and recommending wise conclusions – must be an end in itself. Even if the pastor does not accept your advice, you have the satisfaction of doing your job well. And doing the job of pastoral planning well is a very complicated matter.

But if we put this matter into the context of holiness, as Pope John Paul says, then things become clearer. We are not focused on things, or techniques, or this or that goal and objective, or a style of management. Rather, we are focused on our parish community. We want to help our people participate ever more deeply in the mystery of God. We seek the kind of wisdom that will help our pastors understand the parish and respond to it with insight, prudence, and love.
The recollection that we are planning for holiness will also help us through the periods of conflict and disagreement that are inevitable in a community. To illustrate this, let me tell you the story of Father Arturo Gomez and his parish, which almost split when it had to decide between youth ministry and care for the elderly.

Youth Ministry vs. Eldercare
Father Gomez’s parish did not have a regular youth ministry. To be sure, it had a good catechetical program, and it prepared many young people for the sacrament of Confirmation. But there was no youth minister. Father Gomez felt that the parish needed one. As a younger priest, he had been a youth minister. He had established a basketball club at the parish whose teams competed with teams throughout the city. He was a believer in youth ministry. So he asked the parish council to help him look into the matter. He wanted them to study the needs of parish youth, to see how the parish can help them, and to estimate what it would cost. The council agreed to undertake Father Gomez’s request.

Shortly after broaching them matter with the council, Father Gomez received a visit from Jean Lynch, a senior citizen at the parish. Jean is the chairperson of the social justice committee. Her married daughter and grandson live in the parish as well. She told Father Gomez that the youth ministry proposal overlooked the parish’s foremost pastoral need, namely, eldercare. To back up her point, she quoted the Census. 16.5% of people in the parish are over 65. The parish ought to coordinate activities for them, said Jean, both social and religious activities for the able-bodied, as well as hot meals and visits for the homebound.

Father Gomez now found himself between a rock and a hard place. He had thought that, by asking the council to study the possibility of a youth ministry, he was doing a prudent thing. But instead he had lit a firestorm amid the parish’s elderly. Father Gomez wondered whether he had overlooked their needs. He had not anticipated the reaction of elderly parishioners to the youth ministry proposal. He realised he needed to know more about the situation. So he turned to his pastoral council. He explained that he was in a quandary. He asked the council to help him decide what to do. The councillors suggested that Father Gomez consult more widely. They suggested that he draw other parishioners into the conversation. He needed to inform them and weigh their responses.

With the council’s help, Father Gomez held a parish assembly to air the question. The assembly was not a referendum. It aimed at helping parishioners to understand the parish’s needs and to widen the discussion. Not many parishioners knew about youth ministry and eldercare. The assembly was part education and part discussion. It helped parishioners understand the two ministries, to see how the parish could implement them, and to estimate their cost.

During the assembly, a number of parishioners emerged as articulate voices, deeply interested in the issues and willing to listen to others. They were committed to the parish and fair-minded. Father Gomez listened to them closely. He was looking for people with a special gift for prudence. He sought those who could deliberate well, take counsel, inquire, and judge shrewdly. He invited some of them to join a task force. Its purpose was to continue the discussion and try to reach consensus. He began to meet with the task force and to apply the assembly’s insights.

One of the task force members was Jean Lynch. At first, Jean was a firm advocate for eldercare. But then one night, her grandson’s ’57 Chevy was vandalised in the grocery store parking lot. Somebody spraypainted a gang name on it and slashed a tire. This upset her. It made her see the importance of youth ministry.

The task force met for several months. Eventually, it presented its conclusions to the pastoral council. It concluded that the establishment of an expanded youth ministry was more immediately important to the parish than hiring a new staff member to coordinate ministry to the elderly. Even Jean Lynch agreed. She turned her efforts to developing a volunteer eldercare. Father Gomez published the conclusions and announced his acceptance of them at each Sunday Mass. The parishioners were given a careful explanation of the rationale, and asked to contribute money to launch the youth ministry program. In a short time, sufficient money was raised to hire a new youth minister, and the parish is now raising money for an enhanced ministry to the elderly.

The story of Father Gomez and Jean Lynch illustrates an important point. Some conflict is inevitable when planning for the parish. But with people of good will, and a patient process that does not try to rush a decision, it is possible to reach a wise conclusion, a conclusion that serves pastoral needs and unifies the community – including the senior activists. I should know. Jean Lynch, the advocate of eldercare, is my mother in law.


On this lovely day, at the very end of summer, gathered not far from where Lewis and Clark presented an Indian chief with a peace medal 200 years ago, let us conclude by returning to the theme of holiness. The pastoral council’s contribution to the holiness of the parish lies in its particularly intellectual and spiritual vocation. Council members have the call to seek practical wisdom. Our search for wisdom is the hallmark of our participation in God. We participate in the divine life by seeking God’s wisdom. The pastoral council may not be asked how to respond to the acts of terror which have shaken our country in the last ten days. But we councillors, just like the members of President Bush’s cabinet, are committed to the search for practical wisdom. Our pastors ask us: what is the wise thing to do in the situation we face?

No one can ever say that the terrorism of September 11 is God’s will. The God and Father of Jesus Christ does not choose evil. But this crisis is an invitation from God. It is an invitation to walk humbly and to act justly. More than 6000 voices were prematurely silenced in the terror attacks. But we believe that the goodness of those who died – the goodness that they did and the goodness that they were – lives on in God. Their voices call to us. They ask us to hear God’s word and obey it.

Understanding that word, discerning it, translating it into concrete decisions – that is the quest for wisdom and holiness and peace. That is our nation’s quest, and it is our quest too. We cannot say in advance where it will lead us. God alone is the Lord of providence. But by joining in the quest, by joining with tens of thousands of council members throughout the U.S., we honor the virtuous dead and we honor the God who brings good out of evil.