Best Practices

Review by Mark F. Fischer

For many years, students of parish pastoral and finance councils could only generalize about them by inference.  We could infer what councils in general do by reflecting on our individual experience or by studying pastoral and finance council guidelines published by dioceses.  These guidelines admittedly did not describe actual councils.  Rather they expressed what diocesan officials hoped that councils were doing.  But by studying the guidelines, we could gain an overview of a large body of council thinking.  We hoped that this might actually correspond to what real councils do.

Best Practices of Catholic Pastoral and Finance Councils was published in 2010 by Our Sunday Visitor.

With the appearance in April 2010 of Best Practices of Catholic Pastoral and Finance Councils (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor), the study of councils stands on firmer ground.  The book is based on a survey of 661 parishes selected by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  The 661 parishes responded to at least one of three surveys sent in 2007 to a random sample of 3,076 parishes.  The responses allow us to generalize about effective group processes in Catholic pastoral and finance councils – the “best practices” identified by authors Charles E. Zech, Mary L. Gautier, Robert J. Miller, and Mary E. Bendyna, RSM.

Seven Chapters

Best Practices begins with an introductory chapter that lays out the goals of the book.  The Church is committed to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility, say the authors (19).  In order to improve these consultative structures, the book examines their reality, considering how councils function in accord with the Church’s teaching, and measuring how well they contribute to the Christian mission.

Chapter Two presents “What We Already Know about Parish Pastoral Councils and Parish Finance Councils.”  The truth, according to the authors, is that “We actually know surprisingly little” (45).  One area of obscurity concerns the basic purpose of pastoral councils.  The authors summarize the tension between those who champion Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops (no. 27) and Vatican II’s Decree on the Laity (no. 26) as the source of the pastoral council.  The Bishops Decree first described the “pastoral” council as supporting the pastor’s apostolate through consultative planning.  The Laity Decree first described councils at the parish level to coordinate the lay apostolate.  Many identify the Laity Decree as the charter for councils that coordinate parish committees.  Best Practices illuminates the tension between the two versions of the pastoral council – the “planning” v. the “coordinating” version – by studying what they actually do.  The authors return to this important issue in Chapter Six.

Chapter Three outlines the method of the study, generalizing about the 661 parishes that completed at least one survey instrument.  93 percent of responding parishes have both pastoral and finance councils (50).  These 661 parishes are larger and with a bigger staff than the typical parish.  The average responding parish had a little over 1,000 registered households and an approximate annual budget of just under $700,000 (48).  The chapter examines the characteristics of pastoral councils in terms of five dimensions: (1) purpose and function, (2) organizational structure, (3) membership, (4) meeting procedures, and (5) decision-making processes.  Finance councils are characterized in terms of membership, frequency and length of meetings, and responsibilities.

In Chapter Four of Best Practices, the authors break new ground by examining and recommending “Parish Internal Financial Controls.”  The phrase echoes the title of a 1995 publication by the U.S. Bishops, “Diocesan Internal Controls: a Framework.”  Internal financial controls are the practices of good pastors who are responsible for the Church’s temporal goods.  By putting internal financial controls in place – for example, good personnel policies, the separation of custody of assets from record-keeping, and independent verification of performance by parish business managers – the wise pastor becomes a good steward.  Unfortunately, however, the authors find that “many parishes routinely violate some of these recommendations” (89).

Chapter Five, entitled “Relationships and Communication,” describes the interaction of parish pastoral councils (PPCs) and parish finance councils (PFCs).  The two bodies tend to work independently, say the authors, with an occasional sharing of members.  “It is more common for a member of the parish finance council to sit on the parish pastoral council,” the authors found (108), than for PPC members to sit on PFCs.  Furthermore, “Communication with parishioners tends to be the exception rather than the rule” (109).  Most PPCs have an occasional open meeting, but few PFCs “hold open parish meetings to establish budget priorities” (109).  The two councils could cooperate and communicate better.

“Effective Group Processes in Advisory Councils” is the title of Chapter Six, which emphasizes the importance of councillor training.  The chapter also sheds light on the tension that exists between PPCs as planning bodies and PPCs as coordinators of parish committees (first described in Chapter Four).  The authors report that both types of council are effective.  Councils that plan are more effective than councils that do not, and councils that coordinate are more effective than those not involved in coordinating (131).  Effectiveness has to do with the ways that councils carry out their business.  Effective councils are good at “training and forming members, including faith sharing on the agenda, and generally behaving as a planning (in contrast to a coordinating) council” (141).  So planning councils have a slight edge over coordinating councils, but both are effective.

The final chapter, “Recommendations,” includes seven suggestions for PPCs and seven for PFCs.  Pastoral councils ought to share council leadership, establish bylaws, educate members, incorporate a finance council member in the pastoral council, communicate well with the parish, make decisions appropriately, and invite members to pray and express their faith.  Finance councils should share the burden of leadership, employ guidelines, involve parishioners in budget-making, utilize internal financial controls, review financial data frequently, communicate with parishioners, and cooperate with the pastoral council in goal-setting.


Cynics will occasionally ask whether pastoral and finance councils are in any way effective.  Best Practices answers that question in detail.  661 parishes out of a random sample of 3,076 (22.5 percent) responded to the CARA surveys.  They offer a powerful witness to those aspects of consultation that serve the Church’s mission.

The authors wisely did not try to resolve the question of what type of pastoral council – the “planning” or “coordinating” type – was envisioned at Vatican II.  That question ultimately depends on the history of the Vatican Council and its reception.  The authors did find, however, that of the 661 parishes, “PPCs were more likely to view themselves as planning councils than as coordinating councils” (51).  Best Practices is about how consultative groups view themselves.  That is a distinct question from how the Church, in its official documentation, views them.  But the self-perception of councils is important.  Theorists can argue about what the Church intends.  Best Practices reveals what actual councils are doing, and provides an important window into Church consultation.

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