DPC LogoSmallWhat Makes Councils Work: Many Parts, One Body

Keynote Address at the Workshop on Councils and Planning, Co-Sponsored by the Department of Parish Life and Ministry, Diocese of Tucson, and the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, St. Pius X Church, Tucson, Arizona, March 9, 2002

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

Let me begin with a story that touches upon our theme today, the theme of “many parts, one body.” This phrase from St. Paul is very serious. Not so my opening story, the story of the organ affair. Since we are talking about parish life, you can rightly assume that this story is not about tissue transplants or immoral activity in the choir loft. But the organ affair is a true story and sheds light on the many parts that form the one body of the parish pastoral council. In order to explain this, I have to go back to one of my earliest council memories.

I was elected in 1983 to the pastoral council at St. Joseph the Worker Church. Norma, our council chairwoman, was energetic, committed, and intelligent, but not very high tech. Photocopy machines were expensive in those days and the St. Joseph rectory did not own one. Norma and the pastor had a special love for the poor and would not have wanted an expensive photocopier even if the church could afford one. So at the beginning of every meeting, she would distribute hand-written agendas. Yes, she had written by hand, with blue ink in a beautiful cursive script on college-ruled paper, an agenda for each of the eight members, plus the pastor.

Imagine my surprise when, at one of my first meetings, I looked at the hand-written agenda and saw that the second item of business (after the opening prayer and the minutes) was stated in three words: “The organ affair.” I had no clue what it meant, but it was certainly intriguing.

The organ affair turned out to be an example of how Norma, the council chairwoman, did not always see eye to eye with Father Bill, the pastor. From the view of Father Bill (who loved the magnificence of the liturgy), the organ affair was merely an information item. He had signed a contract with an organ company to refurbish the parish’s aging but still beautiful pipe organ. The company had found more deterioration than the technicians had initially expected. So the $50,000 estimate for the repair had grown to $75,000 (in a parish, please remember, that could not afford a photocopier). The pastor simply wanted to inform the council of the cost overrun.

For Norma, however, this was no mere information item. In her eyes, it was a scandal – an affair of wasteful extravagance and misplaced priorities. Do not misunderstand me. Norma also loved the liturgy. In the past, she had served as choir director, and she and her husband had always sung in the choir. In fact, it was there that I met my future wife and, after I got married, Norma’s husband became a role model for me. But Norma did not love the liturgy enough to spend $50,000 (let alone $75,000) on an organ repair. In her eyes, other needs were far greater. The parochial school teachers were underpaid. The parish’s adopted mission in Chiapas needed a new roof. The convent needed a new forced air heater. In Norma’s eyes, the organ could wait. It could wait a long time. I suspect that, by putting “the organ affair” on the council agenda, she hoped to embarrass the pastor into breaking the contract with the organ repair company.

At the time, however, I could not fathom this hidden motive. No one could. Norma had not explained it in her hand-written agenda. And so this story could be about how to write better pastoral council agendas. A better council agenda, we could say, reaches the members at least a few days before the opening prayer. It offers a clue what kind of response (e.g., critical analysis, brainstorming, reflection, decision-making, etc.) the council is expected to give. A better council agenda gives councillors some idea about how they are to prepare for the meeting. Better agendas could be the moral of the story.

But this story is not simply about how to draft a better agenda. It is really about the proper relation between the pastor and the council chairperson. In the organ affair, Norma and Father Bill utterly disagreed. He had made up his mind about the organ. It had to be repaired, even if the schoolteachers got no raise, the mission house leaked, and the nuns shivered in winter. He did not choose to explain his judgement. Norma could not accept it. The expense of the organ repair appalled her. So when she discussed the agenda with Father Bill, she tricked him to include the organ repair. In his mind, it was merely an information item. Not in her mind. When she prepared her hand-written agendas, she indicated by the somewhat lurid title what she really thought of the matter.

So how do we feel about the organ affair? It is hardly edifying as a story about pastoral councils. No one is in favor of expensive organ repairs when more important and pressing items demand the parish’s attention. No one believes that council chairs ought to mislead pastors about agenda items and prejudice councillors with lurid titles. This is not the ideal and, to tell the truth, it was not the ideal at St. Joseph the Worker either. Generally speaking, trust and good will were the norm during my tenure as a pastoral council member. But the organ affair was a memorable example of council dysfunction.

1. The Proper Function of Pastoral Councils

When I speak of council dysfunction, I mean something very specific. Councils are dysfunctional when they do not function as they should. They should function in accord with the Church’s official documents. These documents state that pastoral councils have a threefold task. It is the task of investigating a pastoral matter, reflecting on it, and recommending wise conclusions. This threefold description goes back to the Vatican II Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, which (at par. 27) first recommended pastoral councils. The pastor consults his council because he wants the members to study a parish issue, reflect on it, and recommend to him a sound conclusion regarding it. In the U.S., we call this threefold task pastoral planning. Council members undertake this threefold task out of a love for the parish and a desire to help the pastor make good practical decisions. That is the proper function of a council.

Dysfunction occurs when pastors and councillors do not function as they should. For instance, a pastor may not really consult the council. He may not want the council to investigate any pastoral matter, not even ones important to him, perhaps out of fear or indifference. Or he may dislike how the council is doing its work. Instead of clarifying his dissatisfaction and getting the council back on track, he may dismiss its recommendations without explaining why. In these cases, the pastor is acting dysfunctionally. He is not allowing the pastoral council to function as the Church says it should.

Council dysfunction may also lie with the council members. They may be unable or unwilling to undertake the pastoral council’s threefold task. They may lack the basic skills necessary, for example, to investigate, to reflect on, and to draw conclusions about a pastoral matter. Perhaps there are parishioners who do not understand this to be the council task. Perhaps councillors do not really know what they have been chosen to do. Or perhaps they may nurse some kind of grudge against the pastor, as in the case of the organ affair. In any event, if they cannot or will not function as councillors are meant to do, they are dysfunctional. Having said that, let us turn our attention to the proper function of councils. In order to illustrate this, let me tell you another story, once again from St. Joseph the Worker Church. After I tell the story, I will ask if your experience matches my own.

Planning for Lay Leadership
Some time after I joined the council, my diocese held its first-ever diocesan convention. The task of the convention was to highlight those areas in which the diocese should concentrate its efforts. Lay leadership was foremost among those diocesan priorities. In the parish pastoral council, Father Bill invited us members to begin thinking of ways that the parish could promote lay leadership. How could the pastoral council, he wanted to know, come up with ways to support the parish’s lay leaders?

Norma, whose anger by this time had cooled, took this invitation seriously, and formed a lay leadership committee. Its first step was to create a list of every one of our parish organizations. This included the School Board, the Social Justice Committee, the Adult Choir (now supported musically by a renovated organ), the Mission Society, the Legion of Mary, the Building and Grounds Committee, and so on. After we had listed the organizations, we identified their chairperson, president, or coordinator. This became our list of lay leaders.

What could St. Joseph Church do to support them? We felt that the organizations already were already doing a fine job with their ministries. Even with underpaid teachers, the parochial school was successfully educating kids, the choir was singing well, and the Mission Society was earning money to support the adopted mission in Chiapas. Ministerially speaking, our parish organizations were a success. But something was lacking, we felt, in the organizations’ spiritual life.

The Prayer Workshop
This conviction developed in this way. Our parish’s associate pastor had given us councillors a workshop on prayer. He had introduced us to the practice of faith sharing. He had shown us how we could begin our meetings, not with a hurried Our Father, but with a scripture reading. Then he had invited us to share with one another our reflections about what the reading meant. The associate taught us to apply the Scriptures to our own lives.

We benefited from his workshop. It had opened up to us a new dimension of prayer. We felt that the other lay leaders could benefit from it as well. Lay leadership in the Church, we had come to believe, is not just about getting a job done. It is about faith. It is about an ever-deeper participation in the mystery of God.

So our committee developed a proposal. We proposed to support lay leaders in the parish by offering them a series of workshops about prayer. The workshops would show the various heads of ministries and organizations how they could become better prayer leaders. After these workshops, they could deepen the Christian lives of their members by leading them in prayer, the kind of faith-sharing prayer that the associate pastor had taught us. So our Lay Leadership Committee typed up a report (complete with a list of parish groups and lay leaders), along with the proposal for the prayer workshops, and submitted it to the pastor.

The Pastor’s Challenge
We had assumed that Father Bill would simply accept the report and put it into action. But he surprised us. Instead of accepting the report, he posed a question. “Are you sure that parish leaders want this kind of training?” he asked. “Do they agree that this will help them be better leaders?” The questions brought us up short. We had simply assumed that ministry heads would welcome the opportunity to lead their followers in faith-sharing prayer. Now this assumption was in doubt. Father Bill was asking us to consider whether the leaders might instead see our proposal as a form of interference. We had thought we were coordinating. He implied we might be meddling.

So we had to re-think our proposal. Norma came up with a response to Father Bill’s concerns. She asked us to contact every one of the parish organization leaders. We had a chance to explain to them our original purpose (namely, promoting lay leadership) and our conclusion (that faith sharing would make them more effective leaders). My assignment was to contact Maria Ramirez, the President of the Mission Society that supported the mission in Chiapas. These contacts gave us new insights. They enabled us to deepen our understanding of lay leadership.

2. The Purpose of the Pastoral Council

St. Joseph Church provides a textbook example, I believe, of the Church’s vision for pastoral councils. Father Bill gave us a threefold task. He asked us to investigate, consider, and draw conclusions about how to strengthen lay leaders in the parish. So Norma formed a committee and we rose to the challenge. We studied lay leadership, reflected about how we might strengthen it, and formulated a proposal to help parish leaders become better prayer leaders. Was our planning successful? Did Father Bill accept our proposal? Before I answer that, let me define my terms.

Pastoral planning is a broad topic. Although it is off-limits for councils to treat matters such as Church doctrine or morals, they can tackle virtually any practical topic to which the pastor directs their attention. Pastoral planning may have to do with teaching the Word of God, leading worship, building up the community, maintaining parish facilities, evangelizing, and promoting the common good of society. In short, pastoral care includes almost any practical thing pertaining to the pastor. He has virtually unlimited freedom to consult the pastoral council as he sees fit. His goal is pastoral planning, the choosing of wise action on the basis of knowledge and reflection.

At the same time, many councils in the U.S. see themselves not mainly as planners, but as coordinators of parish ministries. And to tell the truth, there is a Vatican II basis for this belief. In 1965, the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People recommended the establishment of councils at a variety of levels, including the parish, to support the Church’s apostolate. The Laity Decree said that such apostolic councils “can take care of the mutual coordinating of the various lay associations and undertakings, the autonomy and particular nature of each remaining untouched” (no. 26). So coordination is indeed a service that councils may legitimately offer. The coordinating done by parish councils, however, may not infringe upon the autonomy of ministerial groups.

It is meant to serve them, not boss them around. And unlike the Vatican II endorsement of the threefold task of pastoral councils (i.e., studying, reflecting, and recommending), no official Vatican document claims that coordinating committees is the main work of councils.

Does “Pastoral” Refer to Task, Scope, or Method?
So the word “pastoral” does not mean more spiritual and less administrative. Nor does it refer to a style of meeting. A pastoral council, the Church teaches, is a council with a threefold planning scope. At this point, I can anticipate a few objections. Do councils really investigate pastoral matters, reflect on them, and recommend wise conclusions to the pastor? One may object to this on the grounds of experience. Some may feel that the experience of many councillors does not accord with the threefold task of councils as I have described it. Another objection has to do with the scope of the council. People may object that I have said nothing about the spiritual and future-oriented scope of pastoral planning. Still another objection is that I have not recommended a pastoral method that involves prayer and consensus. But instead of trying to answer these objections, let me ask you about your experience.

Do your councils take on the threefold task of pastoral planning, that of investigating, pondering, and weighing conclusions? Or are they involved in coordinating committees and implementing pastoral activities? Do they limit themselves to visioning the parish mission and its future, or do they explore the whole range of practical matters, including parish administration? Do they make decisions in a discerning way, seeking consensus, or do they use parliamentary procedure? What is the main thing you do, and what do you like or dislike about it? What is your experience?

Reply to the Objections
Before I continue, let me summarize the main points of my presentation so far. I have argued that the task of the parish pastoral council is the task of pastoral councils in general, including councils at the diocesan level. Diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils have the same threefold task, that of investigating a pastoral matter, reflecting on it, and drawing sound conclusions to be recommended to the pastor. This threefold task is more important than many of the other tasks that pastoral councils find themselves doing, tasks such as coordinating committees or parish activities. That was my first major point.

My second point is that the threefold task defines the pastoral council. It is pastoral not because it is spiritual and it considers administrative matters off limits, but because it undertakes the arduous work of study, reflection, and synthesis of various viewpoints. Doubtless some matters are more important than others. It would be hard to say, however, that some are more pastoral than others. Vatican documents do not offer any criteria to distinguish the more from the less pastoral. To be sure, there are a number of publications that show how a parish pastoral council can undertake a planning process (such as Mary Ann Gubish’s book Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council). But there is no one way to plan, because the word “pastoral” is so broad. It encompasses every practical parish matter, from administration to zeal.

Pastoral is no less a style of meeting than it is a subject matter. Pastoral does not refer to the way we conduct meetings. It does not require consensus. It does not mean that the council has to reject parliamentary procedure. Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that pastoral council meetings should be conducted so as to build up the community. And sometimes it is important to search for consensus, rather than to make decisions by a majority vote. But there is no one way to conduct a pastoral council meeting. Pastoral is not a meeting style. Nor is it confined to a certain subject matter. No, it is a type of council, the type recommended in the Bishops’ Decree of Vatican II. That is my second point. Pastoral means the planning type of council.

Ultimately, however, the pastoral council is meant to enjoy a relationship with the pastor. This is my last and most important point. I want to describe the relationship between councillors and the pastor. He consults them. He asks the members to investigate and ponder certain parish matters. He is looking for good advice from wise and reflective council members. And these members, in turn, put their talents at the service of the pastor. Good councillors do not offer their gifts because they hunger for the applause of their fellow parishioners, or because they aspire to be influential in the parish. Good councillors want to help their pastor find practical wisdom. They want prudent knowledge about what he and the parish ought to do. The relationship between pastors and councillors expresses the spirituality of councils, which is a spirituality of “many parts and one body.” Allow me to say a few words about this.

3. The Spirituality of the Council

The spirituality of the pastoral council has two aspects. One aspect has to do with the obligations that exist between pastor and council. These obligations are implicit in the Church’s teaching about councils. The second aspect of council spirituality is the genuine freedom that belongs to every Christian. It is the freedom to listen to God’s Word, obey it, and pursue its truth. Let me begin with a word about obligation

1. Obligation
After I told you the story of the organ affair, I said it was an example of council dysfunction. Norma and Father Bill did not agree about the renovation of the parish organ. The crux of the problem was that Norma believed the pastoral council should have been consulted. Father Bill was willing to inform the council, but had made up his mind to repair the instrument. In his view, no discussion or explanation was needed.

Pastors consult councils, as I have said, but are not bound by their advice. Vatican documents do not obligate pastors to consult their councils about any specific matters. This sheds some light on our question. It gives us one possible answer. We could argue that Father Bill was not acting dysfunctionally. He did not have to consult the council, and he chose not to. He was within his legal rights not to do so.

The fact that pastors are not required to consult reminds us of the ascetical aspect of being a council member. Pastors do not need to consult (unless their bishop mandates that they do so), and indeed they may reject the recommendations they receive. No pastor is obliged to accept bad advice, and most of us would affirm that principle. So being a council member entails a certain ascetical practice. It is a religious discipline in which we may have to deny ourselves. We have to deny ourselves the satisfaction of always having our advice accepted. This is an appropriate humility. After all, the pastor may not find our recommendations persuasive.

But we do have a right to be consulted. That is constitutive of being a pastoral council member. Pastors are supposed to invite their councils to study, reflect, and reach conclusions. Certainly, we need not be consulted on every matter, and not even about every important matter. No pastor has enough time to consult everybody on everything. But consultation expresses a fundamental aspect of our relationship with him. About matters brought before the council, we deserve a say.

In the story of the organ affair, Norma expected to be consulted. She was a trusted volunteer. She knew a lot about liturgy and music. She was aware of how much organ repairs cost. She also knew about the parish’s pressing material needs, such as teacher salaries, the mission in Chiapas, and the convent heater. Norma felt that Father Bill should have consulted the council about the organ. But he merely said he would inform the council. He wanted no discussion. This upset Norma. She found no better way to put this so-called information item on the agenda than by describing it, in her beautiful cursive script, as the organ affair.

In my view, Father Bill made a decision that was completely permissible but pastorally unwise. His decision upset the unity of the council. We grumbled because he did not want our advice. To be sure, he was on firm legal ground. His decision, however, was not prudent. It disturbed the function of the council. We expected to be consulted. Not only did he not consult, but he chose not to explain his decision. That was dysfunctional.

When we encounter dysfunction, we are not without recourse. If our pastors do not really consult us, or do so badly, we have the right and obligation to speak up. We have the right to state our beliefs, to talk with other parishioners, and to try to persuade the pastor – all of this, of course, within the bounds of charity. And if after that we still feel that we are being treated unfairly, we have the right to bring our concerns to the attention of diocesan officials – once again, within the bounds of charity. And even if we are not satisfied with diocesan officials, faithful Catholics still have recourse. As Father Richard C. Cunningham has written, “Ultimately they still possess the power of numbers, of finances, of public opinion, of sensus fidelium, of conscience, and the radical power of shaking the dust from their feet as they exit.”

In the long run, however, Father Bill’s decision did no great harm. Why not? Because he understood the implicit obligation that always exists between pastor and council. He showed this in the way he invited us to study lay leadership. He wanted us to explore it thoroughly. He trusted us. We trusted him. Pastor and councillor shared a relationship of mutual obligation. He sought our advice because he wanted to lead us where God was calling the parish to go. As well as we could, we provided him with the truth of practical wisdom, that truth that could unite our community. That mutual obligation is the bedrock and first aspect of council spirituality. Now let us look at the second aspect, that of freedom.

2. Freedom
When Father Bill asked the pastoral council to consider the question of lay leadership, he gave us councillors clear instructions. He asked us to study what the parish could do to promote lay leaders. He gave direction. He defined our focus. Father Bill consulted us because he wanted our help.

At the same time, however, he gave us a lot of freedom. For example, he did not define lay leadership. He did not say whether lay leadership meant lay professionals working for the Church, or volunteers heading up parish ministries. Nor did he identify specific lay ministers from the parish for us. We had to make those decisions for ourselves. At Norma’s direction, the committee decided to focus on parish volunteers who had become presidents, chairpersons, or coordinators of existing parish groups. Making that decision was an exercise of freedom, and we did not feel that Norma was overbearing. She had had a lot of experience as a parish leader, not just in the council but in the choir as well. We were willing to follow her direction.

When our committee came back with the proposal to support lay leaders by offering them a series of workshops about prayer, Father Bill did not accept it. To do so expressed his freedom. He had some misgivings about the advice we gave. So Norma recommended that we committee members visit the various heads of parish organizations and ministries. I was assigned to Maria Ramirez, the President of the Mission Society. Maria was the mother of three children. She and her husband had been parishioners for many years. I visited them one evening at her house. They were very gracious, and served me coffee, and listened calmly to the council proposal. Maria asked whether the workshop would be in English, and I suddenly felt embarrassed. At that moment, it dawned on me that our English-speaking council was presuming to tell Spanish-speaking Catholics how to pray. That took a bit of arrogance! But what I remember most was Maria’s last comment. Thanking me, she said that my visit was the first time that any pastoral council member had ever asked her about the Mission Society.

Maria’s graciousness did not surprise me. After all, it would be embarrassing for a parish lay leader to say that he or she really had no interest in praying better? But Maria did open my eyes to – how shall we say? – my cultural imperialism. She helped me see some of the unexamined presuppositions of our proposal. Of course, I still believed that our proposal was a good one. But it was laden with presuppositions, presuppositions of which most of us were unaware. By undertaking the investigation, by going to parish leaders such as Maria, we freed ourselves from some illusions. We reached a deeper insight.


The conclusion of my story about St. Joseph Church is short and sweet. Eventually, Father Bill did accept our recommendation to offer the prayer workshops to lay leaders about prayer. Father Bill invited the lay leaders to attend, but did not insist on their participation. Through the workshops, many parishioners began to see themselves as members of a community of communities. This is the concept that a parish is made up of many groups, each of which has its own identity. Maria Ramirez attended the workshops. Father Bill invited her and the other leaders to take more responsibility for their own group’s Christian life, including its prayer.

Father Bill’s challenge, namely, that we inquire among the parish leaders, opened the eyes of us council members. It taught us that, however well-intentioned our efforts to “coordinate” parish organizations, we would be meddling unless we put the needs of the organizations first. Father Bill challenged us to go deeper, inquiring with the lay leaders themselves about what would strengthen their role. That was the breakthrough. Personal contact with lay leaders brought realism to our proposal. Father Bill accepted and implemented the proposal because it was realistic. It represented sound advice and good pastoral planning. It united the parish. It was also, as Norma never tired of reminding Father Bill, a lot less expensive than the organ restoration. The search for how to strengthen lay leaders at St. Joseph Church shows how pastors and councillors can be “many parts of one body.” It is what we ought to be.