Life-Giving Parish

Reviewed by Mark F. Fischer

Build a Life-Giving Parish, a new book by council veterans Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James Gaston, promises a return to fundamentals. The pastoral council, they say, is about providing “counsel.” Its purpose is “taking counsel in council” (3), defined as “the deliberate process of listening, dialogue, deciding, and implementing pastoral responses for God’s people” (4). The book holds out the promise of making the parish pastoral council the place of “the pastoral reflection and the strategic thinking that must precede planning” (38).

Daily concerns of the laity should be the council's primary focus.

The authors’ teaching about pastoral planning is the most controversial part of the book. Msgr. Gaston, the book’s co-author, “oversaw and participated in the development of pastoral council guidelines for the Diocese of Greensburg” (102). The guidelines were published by the Paulist Press in 2001 as Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council: A Workbook. The Greensburg guidelines confidently asserted, “The primary responsibility of the parish pastoral council is pastoral planning” (Revisioning, p. 97). However the new book puts this thesis in question. “Is planning the fundamental purpose of the council?”  Hermann and Gaston answer: “Our experiences suggest that it is not” (p. 2).

Mind-Changing Experiences?

What are the experiences that changed their minds? The authors neither point to any one series of events nor argue their case systematically. But in the book’s “Appendix B,” Msgr. Gaston provides an insight. He says that there is something more important than planning, namely, giving due reflection to Church and society. He writes:

We no longer view pastoral councils as the primary planning body in a parish. Planning is not an essential council function; it can be delegated to a staff or to another parish group. In addition, the planning model focuses primarily on the parish, its programs and its activities. Too often this is done while neglecting to ponder the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people, churched and unchurched. (p. 103)

In Msgr. Gaston’s mind, planning is not something that the pastoral council needs to do. Planning or coordinating programs can be left to others. The pastoral council’s proper role is giving counsel about wider issues, such as the “massive changes” in society. Hermann and Gaston are convinced that the PPC should focus on broader matters than the parish or its activities and programs.

The council can supply this broader focus the book states, when the pastor and the lay councillors together seek God’s will for the community. “The daily life concerns of the laity are indeed the primary pastoral concerns of the Church,” the authors write. “As such, these concerns must be the subject of the work of pastoral councils” (4). When councillors are less concerned about parish activities and programs than about the “daily life concerns of the laity,” the book suggests, there we find real “counsel in council.” The laity’s concerns – the lay apostolate of being a Christian in the world – are the essential field (the authors suggest) of the pastoral council. By contrast, the pastor’s apostolate (the apostolate of leading the parish), is – considered by itself – less important.

Implicit Critique

Build a Life-Giving Parish illustrates “counsel in council” by means of the book’s Foreword, written by Jean Vanier, the Canadian pioneer of “L’Arche” communities for disabled people. When he began in 1964, writes Vanier, he discovered that he needed help:

I was astonished [he writes] to find out all that was going wrong in my community . . . . So we had to reorganize things. We created a community council which would meet every Thursday. I could not run things on my own; I needed counsel from others. (page x).

Vanier’s text illustrates what Hermann and Gaston hope to achieve in parish pastoral councils. The community leader – Vanier, or any genuine pastor – has important questions. He should call upon the members of the community to help him find answers.

Ironically, the testimony of Vanier undermines or implicitly critiques two of the claims of Hermann and Gaston. First of all, it undermines the claim that the primary responsibility of the pastoral council is not pastoral planning. Hermann and Gaston appear to reduce pastoral planning to minor concerns about parish programs and activities. Yet it is precisely the programs and activities of the L’Arche communities that Vanier was seeking counsel about. The Vatican II Decree on Bishops (no. 27) defines the role of the “pastoral” council as investigating some aspect of the Church’s reality, pondering it, and recommending to the pastor its conclusions. That is pastoral planning – and L’Arche was and is deeply engaged in something that closely resembles it.

Vanier’s Foreword also undermines indirectly a second claim that the proper field of the pastoral council is “the daily life concerns of the laity” (in contrast to the pastor’s concerns with parish life). Vanier, as the “pastor” of L’Arche, was consulting his council precisely so that he could be a better pastor or community leader. “Pastoral” does not mean “having to do with minor parish matters, as opposed to the real concerns of the laity.” No, the Church’s documents suggest that it means pertaining to the pastor’s apostolate of community leadership. The good pastor cannot help parishioners to achieve their lay apostolate if his own mission of leading the parish is unsuccessful and ill-informed.

What “Planning” Means

Build a Life-Giving Parish advances our understanding of pastoral councils by critically reflecting on the concept of “pastoral planning.” To my mind, that phrase is the American translation of the threefold task of pastoral councils as expressed in the Decree on Bishops. They investigate and reflect on church matters and recommend conclusions to their pastors.  This differs from what Hermann and Gaston call pastoral planning, an apparently less important work.

Councils may attempt pastoral planning, say the authors, but it “is not their unique competency or role” (38) and may be unsuccessful.  Their true role is “pastoral reflection.”  This role is far more limited than what the Greensburg guidelines prescribed.   “Planning, decision making, and implementation are necessary steps in a process,” state Hermann and Gaston, “but they are not the work of council” (38).

Experienced councillors will welcome the authors’ efforts to clearly focus pastoral councils by trying to describe their purpose with precision. These efforts would be more successful, however, if they retraced the steps of the Vatican II Decree on Bishops with its threefold definition of the council’s role, and recognized that the pastoral council serves the pastor’s apostolate, not the laity’s.

May 18, 2010

3 Responses to Life-Giving Parish

  1. Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm says:

    Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, wrote on May 23, 2010:

    I am grateful to Mark Fischer for his review of Build a Life-Giving Parish as it encourages readers to focus on the book’s highly relevant theme. When I started to read this book I could not put it down, because its message is urgently relevant to all ministries in the church. We simply need to get our priorities right. The book examines what must be the primary driving force in all decision-making within the Church. How a project is defined and then explained powerfully affects what is actually about it. Inaccurate perceptions of, and defective attitudes to, pastoral councils invariably result in much frustration and even failures.

    This book is the product of two very experienced pastoral workers, Brenda Hermann and James T. Gaston. They have seen first-hand the frustrations and the failures of pastoral councils for the simple reason that councils have too often forgotten their primary task. The authors succinctly bring us back to this task. They claim that there is “a need for a clearer and deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of pastoral councils for both the ordained and the laity” (p. 1). The purpose, they say, is about “taking counsel in council”, which means “the deliberate process of listening, dialogue, deciding, and implementing pastoral responses for God’s people”(4). The authors, summarizing their own experience, very deliberately refuse to accept the common view that the fundamental purpose of a council is planning (2).

    This conclusion is bound to be controversial. They claim that “councils, contrary to some current thinking, are not the strategic planners of the faith community.” Instead councils “are to engage in the pastoral reflection and the strategic thinking that must precede planning” (38). A council, with its pastor and lay councillors, exists to respond to “one critical question: What is the will of God for this community? . . . All processes it uses are to answer this question.” Council meetings must be “centered in seeking a Gospel response to the signs of the times” (41). The global world, with its enormous ever-increasing complexity, impacts on the life of every member of a parish. What is God asking of parishioners? Together, in an atmosphere of prayer and faith, the pastor and councillors unite in seeking to discover in this chaotic world, through dialogue, pastoral answers to this question.

    Contrary to Mark Fischer’s review, I believe the authors are right. For this reason the small book is immensely timely and filled with wisdom born of years of experience. The fundamental tension in all faith-based projects, such as hospitals, schools, is that between “the mission” and “the business.” “The mission” is the breaking in of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of love, compassion, justice, reconciliation. “The business” consists of practical issues like planning, setting targets, arranging for finance. Both poles of the tension are necessary, but it is the mission that must be the senior partner. “The mission” must always be driving “the business” side of the project.

    We live in a world where (despite the recent global financial disaster) individualism, greed, economic rationalism or unregulated market forces, still remain dominant realities. We are nations renowned for our brilliant practical planning, but our philosophical assumptions have been proved disastrously wrong. We rarely stop and think about deeper issues of life. We are just too busy. Pastoral councils can unwittingly mirror these realities. Consequently, they will give “the business” side (with its emphasis on planning) their primary attention, downplaying the principal purpose for which they exist. No wonder people find their experience of pastoral councils boring, lacking faith-filled inspiration. What is the answer? Less planning, more reflection, more dialogue and strategic thinking. Then planning can take place by the appropriate people.

    Finally, the authors helpfully include in their book a range of spiritual practices, such as guidelines for faith-sharing and theological reflection, that will help pastoral councils in their primary task of improving pastoral care. The writing style of the book is clear and illustrated with focused case studies.

    Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, Ph.D. is the author of Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993); Healthcare Ministry: Refounding the Mission in Tumultuous Times (Liturgical Press, 2000); and Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press, Sept 2010).

  2. Brenda Hermann and James T. Gaston says:

    Response from the Authors
    Sr. Brenda Hermann & Msgr. James Gaston

    The focus of Build a Life-Giving Parish: The Gift of Counsel in the Modern World is not to debate the merits or demerits of pastoral planning. Both authors have collaborated together and with others in any number of strategic planning processes in Church groups for well over two decades. We are convinced that, if anything, consistent and good strategic planning is woefully lacking in Church and community organizations. After many years in this work, however, we do not believe that this is the primary function of pastoral councils.

    • Fischer writes:

    To my mind, that phrase [i.e. “pastoral planning”] is the American translation of the threefold task of pastoral councils as expressed in the Decree on Bishops. They investigate and reflect on church matters and recommend conclusions to their pastors.

    We would challenge Fischer’s interpretation of this statement in the document. We are not aware of any official Church documents, including the Decree on Bishops, which formally or officially equate the work of councils with the art and science of planning itself. Vatican II articulated a renewed vision of Church structures, including councils, but did not give a definitive blueprint for how they should function across the diverse cultures of the Church. Canon 536 simply states: “After the diocesan bishop has listened to the presbyteral council and if he judges it opportune, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish; the pastor presides over it, and through it the Christian faithful along with those who share in the pastoral care of the parish in virtue of their office give their help in fostering pastoral activity.” New Wine, New Wineskins, the Diocese of Greensburg PA Pastoral Council Guidelines (1996), adopted pastoral planning as a primary means of moving councils beyond their earlier role as coordinating or managerial bodies for parish ministries and activities. It adopted pastoral planning in light of much research, along with the newfound knowledge and enthusiasm experienced in good planning processes happening everywhere, especially in business. However, it was not understood as the definitive interpretation of the vision expressed in Church documents.

    In the intervening years, and after massive changes in parish and societal life, many pastoral and lay council members continue to express quiet discontent and a sense of atrophy about their efforts in council. While planning has engaged their time and energy, it remains fairly clear that the needed pastoral dialogue is rarely occurring. Clearly, pastoral leaders and diverse groupings of parishioners have yet to engage in the dialogue that effectively taps into their deepest spiritual hungers. In the meantime, much of parish life continues in “automatic pilot” mode.

    • Fischer writes further:

    Experienced councillors will welcome the authors’ efforts to clearly focus pastoral councils by trying to describe their purpose with precision. These efforts would be more successful, however, if they retraced the steps of the Vatican II Decree on Bishops with its threefold definition of the council’s role, and recognized that the pastoral council serves the pastor’s apostolate, not the laity’s.

    The authors understand very well the hierarchical structure of the Church and the canonical authority of the pastor as overseer of the parish by appointment of the diocesan bishop. However, we define the distinct and complementary “mission fields” of laity and ordained; we do not put them in opposition to each other. The challenge for the laity is to better understand their lives and world, and to be able to speak forthrightly to the ordained about the challenges of living their faith in a rapidly changing 21st century world. On the other hand, the ordained bring a theological vision, experience and view of life, parish and Church, to the table that can be foreign to and unappreciated by the laity. Both must engage in an appropriately structured faith dialogue that is unique to that community. Each must listen, each must speak, and all must discern the call and grace given to that community in the Holy Spirit. As outlined in the book, this is the critical counsel that is required, and council is the privileged and unique forum in which this process occurs as in no other place in the parish.

    If this level of reflection can be learned and practiced (utilizing particular virtues), good counsel can be given to a pastor. There are many ways in which he can choose to “implement pastoral responses” as a result of the counsel received in council.

    • Fischer attempts to use the Foreward by Jean Vanier to strengthen his beliefs:

    Ironically, the testimony of Vanier undermines or implicitly critiques two of the claims of Hermann and Gaston.

    As the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier serves as a person who, in his time, believes in the value and need of counsel. Anyone who knows Jean realizes that he constantly seeks this from others. He does not do so to make himself a better leader or person, but to deepen the charism that has been given through him for others. Planning in L’Arche is a totally separate process from engaging in council. It is here that the life of the handicapped person is most deeply heard. It is not about Jean’s apostolate (any more than the parish is the priest’s apostolate). Similar to Fr. Thomas Augustine Judge, Jean Vanier stands out as a man who thinks with the Church not in its hierarchical structure, but in relation to its place in society and in the world. We contend that many more of the laity, like Jean, need to understand their ability to change the world.

    In conclusion, we appreciate Mark Fischer’s review and the dialogue that, hopefully, will ensue among pastoral practitioners seeking to better understand the role of councils and to root them in an intrinsic ecclesial context rather than adaptations from elsewhere.

  3. Mary Ann Nicholls, M. Div. says:

    Prayer and Spiritual Reflection
    Build a Life-giving Parish by Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James T. Gaston points to a missing element in Parish Pastoral Councils—viewing the parish in relation to the world rather than as an entity in and of itself. Once acknowledged, this focus draws the council and the pastor into a level beyond the business mode of planning that parishes have tried to adopt and adapt to their needs.

    Since 2001 when New Wine, New Wineskins was published, pastoral councils have worked to build parish life and advise the pastor on activities, programs, and finances based on a sound model of planning and collaboration. A necessary and well-received document, New Wine, New Wineskins brought council members and pastors to an understanding of the need for colllegiality, utilizing laity skills and insights, and advancing the parish in terms of future planning. The three-fold task of council as expressed in the Decree on Bishops—to investigate, to reflect on the church situation, and to recommend conclusions to the pastor—is met in this venue, yet there is no emphasis on or concern about the community at large. How does the church exist and thrive within the expanded dimension of society?

    One only need go to Scripture to read how the early church responded and related to the larger community. As the leaders of these early faith communities convened, they observed and dialogued, prayed, reflected on the situations that the community embraced, and strategically thought about the faith community’s response to what was happening to the larger body. Hermann and Gaston do not suggest that we return to the time of our foundations, but rather to living the charisms today as the early church would live it in our place. History bears out that same principle in pastors such as Thomas Augustine Judge, Michael McGivney, John Carroll, Jean Vanier, and others who did likewise—reflecting with council and through counsel on the church within the bigger picture.

    Build a Life-giving Parish does not minimize the importance of the role of council as outlined by the Decree on Bishops, nor does it sideline the task of parish planning. Both authors experienced years of working with councils and understand the critical nature of these tasks. Rather than minimizing these charges, Hermann and Gaston focus on the bigger picture and surmise that through their personal experiences, prayer, reflection, and counsel within council are primary to these other tasks.

    In my ministry as retreat center director, I have the privilege of meeting and talking with parishioners who are involved in parish life and pastoral councils. Three such colleagues have read this book and have voiced a resounding “yes” to the authors’ conclusion. “Something is missing from the current situation,” said one. “After five years of working with the traditional planning model, we are going through the routine. It doesn’t ring true. I leave one business meeting at my workplace to sit down to another one with council members and our pastor.” And another: “No one ever asks about what was happening in our lives outside of church; the process no longer seems real.”

    In addition, I continually hear how important it is to listen to what is going on in people’s lives. The phrase “prayer and spiritual reflection” prior to dialogue is the key to making the difference. The spiritual practices offered in this book are wonderful ways to bring a council to the understanding that the gifts of the Spirit must be present within the group; good listening skills will help one hear those gifts in others as well as the wisdom that they bring to the table. This is not a neat and tidy undertaking, to say the least. It does not follow a highlighted agenda. But dedication, courage, commitment, and the power of the Spirit, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, can and will create a life-giving parish.

    If we hope that our parishes will respond to the realities of the day through our programming and planning, pastoral councils cannot disassociate the church from the world. And we cannot continue planning, albeit practical, without looking at the deeper issues that affect our world, giving them serious reflection and prayer, and then dialoguing about a parish response. Such a response should stem from strategic thinking, which in turn can move to planning and execution of ideas. Perhaps, as these authors note, the actual planning for a parish may move to a different body. But it is the preliminary work that becomes the primary responsibility of a parish pastoral council and pastor– prayer, reflection, listening, and dialogue.

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