DPC LogoSmallFacilitating the Parish Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Facilitation: You Need More than Good Technique,” Today’s Parish (September 1993): 23-26.

“Facilitation” is a word familiar to everyone in parish life. It means the way a leader helps a group accomplish its ministry, usually in running meetings. For some of us, good facilitation is indispensable, especially by the parish council chairperson. But for others, the word evokes a groan. They think of arcane and manipulative exercises which, in a misguided effort to promote “sensitivity,” actually waste a group’s time.

I belonged to the second group when I began working with Holy Names Sister Marcia Frideger in 1984. It took years for me to appreciate–let alone practice–the techniques of putting people at their ease, giving them opportunities to share their experience, and bringing dialogue to a sound conclusion.

Two prejudices kept me from seeing the wisdom of the facilitator’s art. The first can be called over-intellectualism. Sister Marcia and I had been hired by the Diocese of Oakland to organize a consultation about diocesan goals, a consultation which culminated in a large convention and the election of a Diocesan Pastoral Council. It embarrasses me now to admit that I first could not understand what Marcia was doing in her design and facilitation of group processes. At the time, my thinking was this: if the bishop wants to consult people, let him simply pose a question, and people can answer it–without bothering about a lot of meetings. This kind of intellectualist prejudice is not completely unknown, even among those who sit on parish councils!

The second prejudice which hindered my appreciation of group process can be called individualist. I had just finished graduate school and was infected by the virus so common to new graduates, the virus which persuades them and their opinions–because they are newly-minted and their very own–have a certain superiority. The profound insight of group process, that in dialogue we extend our horizons by giving to and receiving from others, utterly escaped me. That it also escapes some individualists among parish council members should surprise no one.

Eventually, however, Marcia overcame my prejudices with the persuasive power of experience. The intellectualist approach, I came to see, is fine if you are consulting intellectuals–by definition, those trained to form their opinions in a disciplined way about their area of expertise. But if the topic is broader than a technical field, and concerns the well-being of a community, the expert opinion of intellectuals will not suffice. I watched how properly-facilitated group processes helped ordinary people explore a complex subject, judging it from the viewpoint of their own experience, synthesizing a new perspective.

And what about the bogey of individualism? Discussing matters in council has been prized since long before Aristotle, who used the word “practical wisdom” to describe skill in deliberation. Christianity deepened the concept with its insight into the communion of those who share, not just consensus on an issue, but one faith, one baptism, and one Lord. This is the goal of a properly Christian group process, in comparison to which individualisms seem novel and shallow.

So I gradually became a believer in group facilitation, and eventually a practitioner, in a minor way. As my experience with facilitation grew, I became more interested in the concept of it, especially as it applies to the parish council. How do parish council theorists describe facilitation? Where did the term come from? How can council members use facilitation to improve their meetings? These are the questions which this essay will answer.

Facilitation in Popular Church Literature

Let’s begin with some definitions. Several books today speak of the role of the facilitator in the parish council, and these books give us an idea of what facilitation means. The trouble is, they do not all agree.

For example, Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden speak of the pastor as facilitator in Leadership in a Successful Parish (Harper and Row, 1987). The “facilitating” approach to pastoral leadership, they say, holds more promise than any other leadership style in the American Catholic parish because it enables parishioners to share responsibility. For Sweetser and Holden, facilitation is the leadership style of pastors who consult their parishioners about pastoral problems and who establish group procedures for making decisions and implementing them (p. 17). In short, facilitation means for them a general philosophy of pastoral leadership expressed in an elaborate structure of parish standing committees. Lay people serve as committee coordinators or chairpersons, but the word facilitator is reserved for the pastor.

Another popular book which treats the role of the facilitator in Church meetings is The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils, by William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers (Twenty-Third, 1988). The New Practical Guide states that the parish council chairperson usually facilitates the process of the council (p. 154). Here facilitation means task-related functions such as initiating discussion, moderating it, informing group members, creating a supportive climate for opinion to emerge, and helping a group evaluate its decisions. In this sense of the word, facilitation comprises the skills needed to achieve a group task, skills exercised by the chairperson. So unlike Sweetser and Holden, The New Practical Guide envisions a layperson as facilitator. The pastor is not the facilitator, according to the Guide, but the presider.

A third book which treats the concept of facilitation in Church meetings is Mary B. McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987). Unlike Sweetser and Holden, McKinney does not associate the word facilitation with a style of priestly leadership. And unlike The New Practical Guide, McKinney offers more than techniques a lay chairperson can use to achieve a group task. Her concern is as much with cementing group relationships as it is with task accomplishment. From McKinney’s viewpoint, group decision-making builds community. She regards facilitation as the skilled leadership of her own “shared wisdom” approach, an approach which emphasizes the maintenance of group morale as well as task accomplishment. Sharing Wisdom starts with the assumption that God is present in a given Church group, and the task of the group is to discern God’s call, that is, the “wisdom” of which each member has a share.

Of the three books we have examined, Sharing Wisdom pays closest attention to the dynamics of a meeting. Unlike Sweetser and Holden, Sharing Wisdom does not use the word facilitator to describe the pastor’s role; the book suggests that pastors may facilitate if they have a gift for it, but then again they may not (p. 49). Sharing Wisdom also differs significantly from The New Practical Guide in that it insists, for those who want to use the shared wisdom approach, that they abandon all hope of getting through a typically packed agenda in two hours (p. 35). Instead, Sharing Wisdom focuses more on group spirituality than on ready measures of achievement. It emphasizes the quality of meetings, the “who” as much as the “what.” Indeed, it even gives the facilitator a quasi-therapeutic role, stating that a major skill that facilitators need is the ability to confront dysfunctional behavior (p. 87). McKinney is quite willing to accept a lower productivity for the sake of maintaining and deepening the group’s morale.

This brief survey suggests that the word facilitation in popular books on parish councils and Church decision-making has a range of meaning: everything from pastoral style to the tasks of a chairperson to the confrontation of dysfunctional behavior. One reason for the range of meanings is the mixed parentage of the term facilitation, born of the marriage between education and of psychology.

The Facilitator in Education and Psychology

The marriage of education and psychology in defining facilitation is chronicled in Group Counseling: Theory and Practice, a textbook by James C. Hansen and others whose second edition appeared in 1980. Group Counseling describes the birth of “T-Groups” (“Training Groups”) at a 1946 Connecticut workshop designed to help leaders change racial attitudes in connection with the state’s new Fair Employment Practices Act. M.I.T. professor Kurt Lewin organized the workshop, using “facilitators” to assist educationally-focused small groups (pp. 97-98). This milestone in the conceptual development of facilitation suggests that facilitation began in order to educate adults interested in how their behavior in a group was perceived by others. Participants were motivated by a desire to hone their skills in diagnosis and leadership.

The Lewinian approach to staff development was challenged in the late 1950s, however, as many of its techniques were appropriated in the interests of sensitivity training. The authors of Group Counseling describe how the new enthusiasm for sensitivity training placed more emphasis on psychology than education, on small-group dynamics than didactic material, and on interpersonal issues presently facing the group than future action (pp. 100ff.). In sensitivity training, concern for accomplishing a task is replaced by concern for personal growth in authentic relationships. The sensitivity model for groups is also called the clinical model, for the facilitator serves as a therapist who helps group members see distortions in the way they deal with group data. The interest is more psychological than educational.

T-groups gave birth to the Organizational Development approach to management, and Sensitivity Groups gave birth to group counseling, defined as the therapeutic process in which the potential for group change lies in the members themselves. So both education and psychology, we can say, left their stamp on the word facilitation. The impetus toward education and action is connected with the accomplishment of tasks, and the facilitator assists this accomplishment by regulating the group, summarizing the discussions, and testing whether members have reached agreement. Along with the accomplishment of tasks, however, goes the maintenance of group morale and good interpersonal relationships. In this regard, the facilitator helps members express their feelings, reconcile disagreements, and make compromises. Indeed, the facilitator occasionally steps into the role of therapist, bringing the group’s attention to distorted communication. Good facilitators assist both the accomplishment of tasks and the maintenance of good morale.

The dual lineage of the word facilitator, stemming from both education and psychology, suggests why the word has so many meanings in popular Church literature. The facilitator of Church groups does at times act like a therapist–and also like an educator, manager, politician, and sociologist. The multiplicity of the facilitator’s role poses two problems when we speak of facilitating Church consultations, in particular, the parish council. First, although facilitation developed partially in an educational milieu, the parish council is not primarily a training exercise. The first task of members is not to acquire skills which they will put to work at some later date. No, membership on the council presupposes a certain readiness and maturity. Facilitators who view themselves as educators of the council may appear to condescend, and so lose effectiveness.

A second problem with facilitation stems from its psychological roots. No matter how common it is to speak of the dysfunctional Church, facilitators who regard themselves primarily as therapists make an assumption–namely, that something is unhealthy and therapy is required–which may not be correct. Parish councils are not self-help groups or group counseling sessions. They are councils, councils in which pastors seek the wisdom of selected parishioners. To be sure, there are councils in which communication is systematically distorted and group initiative suppressed. But these are the dysfunctional exceptions. If facilitators begin with the assumption that dysfunction is the norm, the council may spend all its time navel-gazing, and never focus on the parish’s mission.

Facilitator and Pastor

Up to this point, I have outlined a number of ways to describe the facilitation of Church groups. Facilitation is a style of pastoring which involves a large number of parishioners (Sweetser and Holden), a term for the way by which chairpeople help the pastoral council achieve its task (Rademacher and Rogers), and a method by which leaders help groups share wisdom, build Church, and confront dysfunctional behavior (McKinney). We then saw why the term facilitation has so many meanings. Emerging from the worlds of education and psychology, the term includes both preparing a group for action and sensitizing a group to its own interpersonal dynamic.

But we have not paid attention to the biggest challenge which faces the Church facilitator: the challenge of mediating between the pastor and the group members. I call this the greatest challenge because it distinguishes Church facilitation from other kinds. According to the common wisdom, facilitators help a group solve its own problem or achieve its own task. In truth, that is how the success of facilitation is normally measured. When members in group counseling agree that they have broken through the obstacles that hinder them, or when staff members in organizational development believe they have adequately prepared themselves for an upcoming task, they have been successfully facilitated. As a group they have achieved satisfaction.

But with Church consultation, the satisfaction of the group is not the final step. The group, even when it reaches agreement among its members, remains consultative. It word is not the law, but is advisory to the pastor. And so facilitation is not successful when the council alone (as distinct from the pastor) achieves satisfaction. Rather, facilitation must take account of the special relationship which exists between council and pastor.

This challenges facilitators, and I have witnessed occasions when facilitators were not up to the challenge. On one occasion, I watched a facilitator stumble because he had too closely identified the group’s task with what he believed the pastor wanted. This made his interventions suspect in the eyes of the group. They felt that the facilitator had decided in advance what the pastor would accept, and systematically closed off any avenue which did not fit his preconceptions. Because the facilitator was so identified with the pastor, the council felt intimidated, and did not confront the facilitator’s manipulative behavior. This taught me two lessons: first, that groups have to be willing to confront their facilitators; and second, that facilitators must preserve a certain emotional distance from their task. Their role is to raise appropriate questions about the direction the group is taking, but never to side with this or that member of the group–or, for that matter, with the pastor.

Another time I watched a facilitator fail a group because she did not clearly understand the group’s task. The members were deeply divided over an issue, and could not agree to face the issue head on. So the pastor engaged the services of a facilitator to help the group accomplish a much less volatile task. But the minority which wanted to grapple with the main issue tried in every way against the wishes of the majority (and the pastor) to bring it up. The facilitator, who did not fully understand the issue, was persuaded to let it surface indirectly. The pastor, who did not want to appear overbearing–or who perhaps did not realize how the volatile issue was creeping in–did not stop her or redirect the discussion. She “contaminated” the meeting with business which the members had at least formally agreed not to raise. The result? Bitterness in the group, disappointment with the facilitator, and an unsuccessful meeting. Later, the pastor confided to me: “I don’t think we’ll use an outside facilitator again.”

Applying these insights to the parish council, we can make distinctions about the what, the who, and the how of facilitation. First, we realize that facilitation is a particular spiritual gift as well as a well-trained technical skill. As a gift, it is the grace of putting the well-being of the council above individual preference or personal loyalty. As a skill, it is the ability to help people organize a problem, approach it in gradual steps, promote a thorough airing of issues, and make sound judgment. What the facilitator does, in McKinney’s phrase, is to share wisdom.

Second, the identity of the facilitator as priest or lay, chairperson or presider, is not the important thing. Far more important is the facilitator’s dual capacity: to both identify with the task of the council and to preserve some emotional distance. One must be close enough to truly understand the group and its issues, yet far enough away to give everyone his or her due. In the facilitator’s concern for the task there must always be concern for relationships among the councilors.

Finally, the “how” of facilitation can never be reduced to a matter of technique. No technique will work in every situation. Why not? Because facilitation of the pastoral council is, to borrow the image of Socrates, like midwifery. The facilitator helps the council give birth to truth–the truth which, as spirit, binds the councilors together. It is the truth of their moment, of the problem they face now, and the truth of their people, of their parish community.

Consequences for the Chairperson

No magic formula will instantly make a parish council chairperson a great facilitator. But councils can avoid mistakes and take advantage of resources. If the council chooses a chairperson wisely (meaning: based on real experience of the member’s contribution to the group effort), then it is off to a good start.

Then there are excellent books on facilitation. In addition to McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom, the chairperson can benefit from the chapters on problem solving and conflict management in Communication Skills for Ministry, second edition, by John W. Lawyer and Neil H. Katz (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1987). A soundly psychological approach to interpersonal problems is offered by Gerard Egan in The Skilled Helper, fourth edition (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1990).

In the final analysis, chairpeople can do no better than to focus the council on three questions: what are we trying to accomplish? What obstacles prevent us from accomplishing it? What steps do we need to take?