The Psychology of Pastors and Councils
By Mark F. Fischer, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo
The San Gabriel Regional Pastoral Council’s Parish Council Training and Certification,Saturday, February 11, 2012, 8:30 AM-1:00 PM
Ramona Convent Secondary School, 1701 W. Ramona Road, Alhambra, CA 91803

This morning I’d like to tell you a story I call the “organ affair.” No, it’s not about naughtiness in the choir loft. The organ affair was a struggle I witnessed between a parish council chairperson and a pastor over whether or not to do an expensive repair on a church organ. The story introduces my theme for the day, about the psychology of pastors and councils.
The official documents of the Church say that the council has a threefold task. Under the pastor’s direction, the council investigates some practical matter, ponders it, and reaches conclusions. Here in the USA, we call that pastoral planning. We say that it is the main work of the parish pastoral council. But before a council can successfully undertake the work of planning, the council and the pastor must share certain assumptions. I’d like to spell them out. They are essential elements in the psychology of pastors and councils. The first has to do with leadership.
In recent popular literature about pastoral councils, we occasionally read that the pastoral council is a “leadership body.” It leads (the popular authors say) by discerning what choices the parish ought to make. If the council is supposed to lead, then it differs from what Canon Law says. Canon Law says that the pastoral council has a consultative vote only (ca. 536). That means that the pastor consults the council. He is not obliged to accept its recommendations. The Church does not want to force pastors to take poor advice.
But if the council is a leadership body, then it is more than consultative. If the council discerns what is best for the parish, and if it discerns and articulates the parish’s mission, then we’ve got two differing ideas of the council. In one case, it has a consultative vote only. In the other case, it’s a leadership body. When two different versions of the council compete with one another, there is bound to be trouble. So let me tell you about the organ affair.

Trouble in the Choir Loft
Father Fernando became the pastor of St. Michael’s one year ago. He is a middle-aged priest with a fine baritone voice and a love for the liturgy. He particularly enjoys choral singing accompanied by the organ. He and the music director are good friends. As soon as he became pastor, Father Fernando created a liturgy committee. At first, he had asked the committee to work on modest plans for renovating the sanctuary, such as installing new carpets and furnishings.
But then Father Fernando surprised the Liturgy Committee members. He said that he wanted a more elaborate renovation, including a $100,000 digital organ. The Church’s existing pipe organ was old and in disrepair. Father Fernando and the music director had visions of a large choir accompanied by a first-rate organ. The Liturgy Committee members were delighted to be entrusted with such important plans.
But the Liturgy Committee is not the only consultative group in the parish. Father Fernando also has a Pastoral Council. He had inherited the council from his predecessor, and met with the council on the first Monday of each month. The meetings were usually low-key. Father Fernando normally used the 90-minute council meeting to inform the twelve council members about current events at the parish. For example, the youth minister was organizing a visit by Confirmation candidates during Easter break to an American Indian community. The Adorers (to give a second example) were asking parishioners to sign up to visit the Blessed Sacrament at regular hours. The Knights of Columbus were planning their Beer Tasting Night with bratwurst dinner. Father Fernando would share the news with the Pastoral Council and invite its reflections. He didn’t consult the council about anything specific. He didn’t ask it to develop any particular plans. He used it as a sounding board. The council was almost always supportive – until the plans for the $100,000 digital organ were announced.
A problem arose because the chairwoman of the Pastoral Council – a lifelong parishioner whom we’ll call “Mary” – had once been the choir director. Like many choir directors in years gone by, Mary had freely dedicated her time in the choir. In her day she was a good soprano and could play the organ. There were years in which she had served as both choir director and organist, always in a volunteer capacity. Those were the days in which the choir had to hold a bake sale to purchase a choir set of sheet music for Mozart’s “Ave Verum.” Mary had retired from the choir when she joined the Pastoral Council. When she heard about the plan to purchase a $100,000 digital organ she was aghast. It seemed extravagant and out of keeping with the parish’s mission.
Mary believed that there were far more important things on which the church should spend its limited resources. How could the church purchase such an expensive instrument, she wanted to know, when the church had more basic needs? Teachers at the parochial school, Mary knew, had modest salaries. The parking lot needed resurfacing. The kitchen of the parish hall had not been renovated since the popular color for appliances was avocado. When Mary heard that the Liturgy Committee was contemplating the purchase of a digital organ, she insisted on discussing it in the Pastoral Council as well. Father Fernando, she said, had to hear its point of view.
Father Fernando had only been in the parish one year, and he scarcely knew Mary. He wasn’t even aware that she had once been the choir director and the organist (not to mention the soprano soloist). When she brought up the topic of the organ at the Pastoral Council meeting, he was surprised. By this time he and the music director were already negotiating with a digital organ company. Mary should have known, Father Fernando thought to himself, that the Pastoral Council has a consultative-only vote. He certainly had not consulted the Pastoral Council about the organ. What gave Mary the notion that he wanted her opinion about the matters that he had thoroughly discussed with the Liturgy Committee?

Differing Expectations
The conflict between Father Fernando and Mary, the chairperson of the Pastoral Council, illustrates the psychology of pastors and councils. It helps us understand how easily they misunderstand one another. Father Fernando was perfectly correct to say that the Pastoral Council has a consultative-only vote. The Church does not permit councils to legislate for the parish. Pastors are not obliged to accept a council’s recommendations. Father Fernando had already consulted the Liturgy Committee about the digital organ. He did not feel obliged to consult the Pastoral Council as well.
What the Church expects from the Pastoral Council was first expressed in Vatican II’s 1965 Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops. There, in no. 27, it states that the pastoral council has a threefold task. Pastors consult councils by asking them to investigate some practical matter, reflect or ponder over it, and reach a conclusion. They recommend the conclusions to the pastor. This is the work of the pastoral council.
But Father Fernando had not asked the Pastoral Council to undertake this threefold task. He did not have any particular goal for the council. He simply shared news about parish events and employed the council as a sounding board. It is easy to understand why Mary and the other councillors concluded that the council was an open forum for discussion. From her point of view, that’s exactly what it was. Why should the pastor alone (Mary asked) decide the council’s agenda? Why shouldn’t the pastoral council discuss the purchase of a $100,000 digital organ?
We can see that the pastor and the chairwoman of the Pastoral Council had different expectations. In Mary’s eyes, the council was an open forum. It was a sounding board. She was perfectly correct, she believed, to bring up the topic of the digital organ. It was an important topic with relevance to the parish’s mission. From Father Fernando’s viewpoint, however, the pastoral council was his council. He would decide the topics on which he would consult. He did not choose to consult the council about the organ, and he was within his rights. He expected something different from the council than Mary had in mind.

The Psychology of Councils
The Church vision for councils is briefly expressed. The council has the threefold role of investigation, reflection, and reaching a conclusion. There’s not much more to pastoral planning than that. But the official teaching has important implications. One implication is that the pastor expects something from the council. He consults it with an end in mind. The Church’s official documents do not say what this end is. The pastor may consult the council about virtually any practical matter. But his duty is to consult it, and to do so in good faith.
Another implication is that the pastor should give the council freedom to do its threefold job in a thorough way. If he is in earnest about his question, the councillors must be in earnest about the way they seek an answer. They must have the liberty to study the matter, to discover facts, to find out the truth. They must have the opportunity to reflect on it, to pray about the matter, and to discern its importance. They must be able to propose their conclusions honestly and courageously.
But that’s not all. When the Church’s official documents say that the council has a consultative-only vote, it means that the pastor is the one doing the consulting. He consults the council because he wants to make wise decisions. He believes that it will share its wisdom with him. The council, for its part, puts its best efforts at his disposal. The members know that only when the pastor’s decisions are wise do those decisions unite the parish. They want him to make good decisions, decisions that will further the parish mission.
When we reflect on the dispute between Father Fernando and Mary, we can see that neither one really understood the psychology of the council. Father Fernando believed that he was doing well by merely convening the council on a monthly basis. It was enough, he thought, to use it as a sounding board, rather than to ask it to undertake the council’s essential threefold task. He never asked the council to do its real work of pastoral planning.
Mary, for her part, never understood how councils help pastors. She didn’t grasp pastoral planning. She assumed that the council was a sounding board, and she wanted to sound off to Father Fernando. She assumed that she was helping by objecting to the digital organ. She failed to see that pastors only take the advice that they believe will help the parish. Father Fernando was satisfied with the advice that the Liturgy Committee (and not the Pastoral Council) had given him.
A council’s greatest satisfaction is to develop recommendations so wise and good that the pastor will accept and implement them. Councils must prove themselves to pastors. They have to prove that they can investigate minutely, reflect thoroughly, and recommend prudently. They delude themselves if they think that the pastor will welcome unsolicited advice, just because a pastoral council offers it. A council gains authority – the authority of wisdom – when it proves itself by performing the threefold office that the Church gives to it.

The whole presumption behind councils is that pastors want to consult. But this may not be the case. Some pastors, for example, are mired in work and thus not interested in assuming any more projects. If this is the case, then the council is in trouble. The cart (the council) unfortunately may be leading the horse (the pastor who is supposed to do the consulting).
But even pastors who are overworked and not interested in undertaking any more projects usually want what is best for the parish. The challenge for councils is to discover the pastor’s vision or goal. That’s the first step in helping him achieve it. How can councils discover this vision or goal? They can do so by taking a lesson from Greek philosophy. The council must play the role of Socrates, the Greek thinker of the Platonic dialogues. Like Socrates, the council must admit the limits of its knowledge about the parish. The pastor is the chief shepherd. The council must draw from the pastor what he regards as important.
Mary, the pastoral council chairwoman, believed that she already knew the best way to help Father Fernando. In her mind, the poor pastor didn’t recognize the parish’s real needs. Good-hearted Mary was determined to tell him what they were. The digital organ was not on the list.
Mary would have served the council better if she had made a concerted effort to discover Father Fernando’s thinking. No, he did not want the council’s advice about the digital organ. But he may have had some questions about the youth ministry trip to the Indian lands, or about perpetual adoration, or about the beer-tasting night. If the council had exercised its threefold responsibility regarding the items brought up by the pastor, then it might have earned some credibility. Enjoying that credibility, the council may have been consulted about other things, even about purchasing an organ.
In other words, the council must draw the pastor out. The members cannot help the pastor until they know what issues he faces. We know that we cannot tell pastors how to consult. But we can share with them the Church’s teaching about the threefold task of councils and about pastoral planning. If we attune ourselves to the issues that pastors face and put ourselves at the service of the Church, we will understand better the psychology of the council. The pastor is meant to consult. When he chooses to do so, the council can respond by studying, reflecting, and recommending.

Performing the Council’s Task
This week I got a call from a pastor who wants to start a PPC. He said that the archbishop is encouraging the establishment of pastoral councils. He wanted to know how he should establish a council. But experience has taught me that it would not be wise to tell him what to do. Instead I asked him a question: “What kind of help are you looking for from your council?”
After thinking for a few moments, the pastor said that he would like help in two areas. First, he said that he is not satisfied with the parish’s Confirmation program and would like to improve it. Secondly, he explained that he is by himself in the parish, and not a native Spanish speaker. He recognizes, however, that there are a lot of Spanish speakers in his parish. He’s wondering whether the parish should create a Spanish-language ministry, and if so, how it could do so.
I told him that these are great projects for pastoral councils. His new council could study what other parishes are doing in their Confirmation programs, I said, and what the archdiocese recommends. Then it could apply that ideal to the local situation. Or the new council could assess the needs of the parish and its current Spanish-language resources. Then it could apply what it learned to the question of Spanish-language ministry. This pastor wanted to start a council, but had not yet thought what he wanted to do with it.
The Church teaches that pastors are meant to consult. It says that councils are meant to be consulted. They succeed when they are allowed to do what the Church asks them to do. An investigative council can discover effective Confirmation programs. It can study the various types of Spanish-language ministries in neighboring parishes. A reflective council can discern how to apply the successes of neighboring churches to its own parish. The successful council makes recommendations that are so well-considered that the pastor will confidently accept them and implement them.
Working from those assumptions, we understand better the psychology of the pastoral council and the pastor. He does not consult the council well by simply using it as an open forum and by asking members to respond to current parish events (as Father Fernando did). No, the pastor consults best by asking the council to undertake its threefold purpose and to do pastoral planning.
Wise council members do not use council meetings as an opportunity for general and uninvited complaints (as Mary did). Instead, they recognize that the council’s credibility depends on well it performs its threefold task. Council members cannot tell the
pastor how to consult. But we can help him to see what the Church asks of councils. We can show him how the council can help. And we can encourage him to ask for that help.

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