By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Parish Problems: Should You Ask Your Council? When and Why?” Today’s Parish 33:6 (October 2001): 24-27
Parish priests and other parishioners often look to pastoral councils to solve disputes. A question arises. No one can agree. Someone says, “Let’s ask the pastoral council.” On the surface, turning to the council looks like a prudent delegation of responsibility. But it may well be an exercise in buck-passing. The following story helps distinguish between the two.
A “Protestant-Looking” Church?
A newly-built church in Texas does not have a tabernacle for storing consecrated hosts. Instead, there is a Blessed Sacrament Chapel adjacent to the church where the reserved hosts are kept. This innovation is unpopular with some parishioners, a few of whom are substantial contributors. They miss the tabernacle in the main church and the presence of the hosts as a focus for prayer. “Jesus,” they complain, “has been banned from the church.”
The construction of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, however, is a done deal, and there is no prospect of reversing that decision. So the disgruntled parishioners have another issue. They also dislike the fact that the new church has no Stations of the Cross. Since the opening of the church six years ago, these parishioners have asked the pastor to purchase stations. They complain that the new church looks “Protestant.”
The pastor suspects (with good reason) that he is in a no-win situation. If he purchases the stations, he will upset the parishioners who prefer the modern church’s spare and lean lines. They are happy with the “living Stations of the Cross” which take place in the church courtyard during the Fridays of Lent. The living stations are a dramatization of the passion using costumed parishioners, and are very popular.
On the other hand, if the pastor refuses to acknowledge the complaints about the “Protestant” look of the new church, he will also lose. He may alienate some parishioners who contribute generously to the retirement of the church’s construction debt.. He does not want to offend them.
So in an effort to resolve the problem he asked for the pastoral council’s help. None of the council members were experts in liturgical art and environment. The chairman of the council was smart enough to know that he knew nothing about the matter. So he created a task force and delegated the matter to it. The task force was to study the Stations of the Cross question and report back to the council.
Two Types of Delegation
Up to this point, the pastor’s response to the Stations of the Cross makes perfect sense. Uncertain of how to respond to the disgruntled parishioners, the pastor asks the council. Then the council delegates the matter to a task force. This seems prudent. But it raises a number of questions:
1. Should the pastor even have bothered to consult? After all, he may side with those who like the living stations, and may not relish the thought of a substantial investment in liturgical artwork. Should he ask what others think?
2. Why did the pastor consult the pastoral council? He could have consulted the Liturgy Committee. He knew that no one on the council was an expert in sacred art.
3. Was the question about sacred art appropriate for the pastoral council? The Stations of the Cross are certainly not among the most important issues facing the parish.
4. What did the council chairman mean by delegating the issue to a task force? If the pastor had wanted a task force, he could have formed one himself.
In reply to question 1, yes, the pastor was wise to consult. Pastors should seek the advice of parishioners, especially in those matters that will affect many people and are not strictly technical questions that only an expert can answer. But that does not necessarily mean that the pastor should consult the pastoral council (question 2) or that the pastoral council is equipped to deal with the issue (question 3). Let us start with question 4, the one about delegation.
The verb to delegate has two meanings. The first and more common meaning is to entrust to another. If I delegate a question to you, I trust that you will find a good answer. The other more technical meaning of delegate is to appoint a second person to act on your behalf. The president’s Secretary of State is his delegate in foreign affairs. The president has empowered him to speak with presidential authority.
In the pastoral council, members are “delegates” in the first sense only. When the parish elects them, it delegates or entrusts them with the responsibility of speaking wisely. When the pastor consults them, he delegates or entrusts a question to them. He is not, however, asking the council to act on his behalf. The pastoral council is a consultative group. The pastor cannot delegate his authority to the council.
Ways of Delegating
In our case, the council chairperson delegated the question about the Stations of the Cross to a task force. He and the pastor chose task force members on the basis of their knowledge about art and environment. Strictly speaking, the council cannot establish groups and delegate matters to them on its own. As a consultative group, it advises the pastor. But in practice, almost every pastoral council practices some form of delegation.
For example, Jesuit Father Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden strongly recommend this practice in their 1987 book entitled Leadership in a Successful Parish. Sweetser and Holden coined the term “council of ministries” to describe their vision of the council. Composed of representatives from each of the parish’s ministerial commissions, the council of ministries “tries to delegate to the commissions and subcommittees as many agenda items as it can” (p. 133). According to this idea, questions and proposals come before the pastoral council. It then “delegates authority” or refers matters to existing parish groups.
The pastoral council of ministries is thus a clearing house for parish issues. It acknowledges them and invites other parishioners to respond to them. Although Leadership in a Successful Parish tends to obscure the line between the pastor’s role as executive and the council’s role as consultant, its assumptions are clear. The pastoral council delegates, that is, entrusts matters to other parish groups.
Robert G. Howes makes a similar point in his 1991 Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council. He states that the pastoral council “appoints” task forces to help it carry out the parish’s pastoral plan (p. 70). To be sure, Howes distinguishes between the executive authority of the pastor and the consultative nature of the council. The council recommends a pastoral plan. Once the pastor approves it, the council becomes what Howes calls a “democracy of means” (p. 39). Councillors develop the means to achieve the ends approved by the pastor. While not a pure democracy, the democracy of means lets the council delegate matters to task forces.
A related proviso can be seen in Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council, the workbook published this year by Mary Ann Gubish and Susan Jenny, SC, with Arlene McGannon. This book insists upon the council’s consultative nature. Revisioning flatly states that the council “has no committee structure.” At the same time, however, it allows the council to establish “ad hoc implementation groups” to accomplish the parish’s objectives. Although its main work is to develop goals and objectives with the pastor, nevertheless “existing parish groups and/or committees may also be called upon”—presumably by the pastoral council—“to perform certain tasks or functions in light of the parish’s pastoral plan” (p. 187). In short, the council can delegate. It can entrust the implementation of parish goals to others.
To sum up, then, pastoral councils are not executive bodies. Legally speaking, they lack the authority to make parish decisions on their own, apart from the pastor. But most writers on the subject give the council the power to delegate. They entrust to others the implementation of projects which the pastor has approved.
How to Delegate Wisely
Returning to our example, the pastor has posed to the council the question about the Stations of the Cross. The council in turn has delegated (entrusted) the matter to a task force. But what exactly has been delegated? When I inquired about this, it appeared that two matters were at stake. First, how important to the parish at large are the purchase and installation of the Stations of the Cross? Second, what should be the criteria for selecting them?
The pastor, as I said, likes the church as it is—without the stations. He prefers the living Stations of the Cross to sacred art.. If he were adamantly opposed to the purchase of stations, he would be wrong to consult the council. There is no point in a pastor asking parishioners their opinion if his own mind is made up. Such a consultation would be inauthentic. But this pastor was not adamantly opposed. He wanted to know the strength of parish support for the stations. If it were really strong, he indicated that he would reconsider his own view.
Pastoral councils are good at studying practical matters that lead to action. If pastors want a general assessment of parish needs, wide-ranging reflection, and the development of plans to meet pastoral needs, the council is the right body to consult. The pastor was wise to ask his council about the strength of support for the Stations of the Cross.
Broad support for the stations would lead the pastor to the second question. What are the criteria for good sacred art? In order to answer this question, the pastor would want to hear from connoisseurs for an artistic judgment. He would want to consult the parish’s liturgists about how to fit the stations within the parish’s worship space. He would want to take into account the taste and expectations of the parish. Connoisseurs, liturgists, and prudent parishioners should make up the task force.
Was the pastor passing the buck when he turned to the pastoral council for advice? No, not if he was really open-minded about the question. Was the council out of bounds for delegating the matter to a task force? No, because the members knew that they were not experts, and needed expert advice. Were the two aspects of the consultation (to ascertain support for the stations and to develop criteria for selecting them) clearly expressed? Not really. The pastor did not distinguish between the general question of parish support (appropriate for the council) and the more focused question of artistic criteria (appropriate for the task force). In this case, the council chairperson, who referred the matter to a task force, made a good call.
As it turned out, there was some support for the stations, but the support was not broad or decisive. When the task force completed its work, it had made some inquiries about the cost of the stations. Really beautiful ones were very expensive. When the figures were known, the momentum for purchasing the stations slowed. People might object that this parish’s widespread consultation is unnecessary. But if a pastor wants to make prudent decisions that unite the community, he is wise to consult. He should distinguish between the general questions appropriate for the council and the narrower questions for which he needs expert advice.
Does your council ever have to refer a matter to another parish group, either an existing committee or an ad hoc task force? If so, the example of the Stations of the Cross provides a good example. Only ask a question if the answer is important. Clearly define the issues that are being delegated to the council. Make use of expert opinion when needed.