Published as “Pitfalls for Parish Councils: Are You Getting Mired in Minutiae?” Today’s Parish 30:4 (April/May 1998): 28-30.
By Mark F. Fischer
Father Harry Smith recently disbanded his old parish council and wants to start a new one. The old council of Amor Dei Church was made up of hard-working parishioners. To this day they remain heavily involved in the parish’s inner city apostolate, organizing neighborhood communities in a 100-block area of Los Angeles. In the absence of the council, the members still coordinate monthly “pride” marches through the area, marches designed to manifest a Christian presence in the neighborhood. Father Harry feels that the block communities and the marches are growing in effectiveness. So why did he disband the council?
“Our council meetings had become narrowly focused coordinating sessions,” said Father Harry. “Every minute was taken up with schedules and reports.” The pastor realized that the council meetings were not necessary to maintain the block communities and the marches. The old council members–themselves block captains and march leaders–were perfectly able to coordinate themselves. They remain well-motivated and fully committed, and a monthly meeting of the whole group is no longer necessary to coordinate their efforts.
Above all, Father Harry realized that the council was no longer advising him. Nor was there any time for him to consult them. In the rush of planning for the next march, or hearing reports, or celebrating a new block community, meetings passed in a blur. “No one was ‘taking counsel,'” said Father Harry; “we were just maintaining our momentum.”
In addition to maintaining momentum, the pastor had questions he wanted to discuss. He wanted to know how the parish could create an even stronger presence in the neighborhoods. How the block groups could become basic Christian communities. How the Church could help give parishioners a sense of dignity and political power. But the council’s full plate had no room on it for wider discussions. Father Harry disbanded it, not because he did not want to consult, but precisely because he did.
The old council at Amor Dei failed to pursue the specific mission of pastoral councils. That mission is not primarily to organize block groups or to coordinate marches. It is to investigate pastoral problems and recommend solutions. But councils such as the old council at Amor Dei frequently become the administrators of parish projects. They spend their time coordinating volunteers and lose their ability to do anything else. Let us define the proper work of councils and consider how they tend to overlook it. We can then ask who ought to take responsibility for the other tasks which councils take on, tasks such as organizing volunteers.
The Proper Work of Councils
In my parish, I sing in the choir, teach religious education to a dozen eighth graders, and sit on the liturgy committee. I do not expect the parish council to define my work or tell me how to do it. The council does not direct the choir, organize catechism classes, or coordinate ministries at the Sunday liturgy. Coordinating volunteers is not its duty. The duty belongs to the choir director, the DRE, and the liturgy committee chairman. If the parish council got involved with them, it would be meddling.
Many councils, however, do get involved in parish ministries. They do so, often enough, by happenstance. The vagueness of the Church’s documents on councils allows them a very broad scope. In particular, the Vatican II Decree on the laity, with its statement that councils “may coordinate” lay organizations, has permitted a wide latitude. For example, a choir director may want to designate one soprano, alto, tenor, and bass as “section leaders,” and feels that the parish council’s approval is necessary. Or a DRE wants to decentralize religious education and establish home catechesis centers, and brings the proposal to the council. Or a liturgy committee asks the council to consider its plan for Holy Week. When these things happen, the pastor and chairperson can lose control of the agenda. It then belongs,not to them, but to the ministry heads. The council becomes a clearinghouse, sounding board, or even a court of appeal for the parish’s ministries.
Are these the proper roles for a parish pastoral council? Not so, according to the Church’s official documents. The Code of Canon Law states that the council is to aid the pastor with the parish’s pastoral activity (canon 536). It does so by investigating pastoral problems, reflecting on them, and recommending practical solutions (canon 511). Canon law says nothing about the council organizing volunteers, deciding questions of parish policy, or being a court of appeal.
In fact, a consensus has emerged in the last ten years that pastoral planning is what the Church’s official documents mean when they speak about the task of pastoral councils. Investigating pastoral matters is a kind of planning. Investigating means study, consultation, and thorough consideration–not shooting from the hip. A pastoral planning council differs from a sounding board.
Pastoral planning also accords well with the consultative nature of councils. The council plans when it develops practical recommendations about pastoral matters. Recommendations give the pastor a certain freedom. He can accept them as he sees fit. Recommending is not deciding, approving, or making policy. Developing a pastoral plan and executing it are two different things.
All of this suggests a strict division between the proper work of the council (the work of investigating, pondering, and developing recommendations) and the other tasks to which councils are drawn. The other tasks (e.g., coordinating, organizing, administrating, policy-making) are secondary. Strictly speaking, councils plan. Parishioners carry out the plan. They undertake the parish’s official ministries under the direction of the pastor and the staff.
This distinction, however, is rarely preserved. I’ll never forget the time I tried to insist upon it at a meeting of rural parishes. Members of one council, who in their parish were the most active parishioners, hooted me down. “If we confined ourselves to advising the pastor and left the follow-through to him,” they said, “nothing would ever get done.” Their experience is not unique. Most councils, I suspect, do get drawn into administrative work, even though the Church’s official documents define councils as “consultative only.” Councilors are pragmatic. They see a need and act on it, often without distinguishing between consultation and implementation. The distinction between the council as a recommending body and as a volunteer staff is easier in theory than in practice.
Solutions to the Problem
Recognized council authors have long acknowledged the problem of councils which stray beyond their proper role. Among the earliest was Robert Newsome. One year before the 1983 Code of Canon Law stated that councils are consultative only, Newsome advocated a strict research and development model for councils in The Ministering Parish (Paulist, 1982). Newsome’s argument was that councils which make policy have such a vested interest in seeing the policy succeed that they become incapable of assessing it honestly. The policy-making council, he said, can no longer do the impartial investigating, reflecting, and recommending which are its proper work.
In the late 1980s, Father William Bausch recognized the amount of coordination which lay ministry demands. With parishioners busy in the ministries of bereavement, education, liturgy, hospitality, and prayer, he wanted to keep the various ministerial groups informed about each other’s activities. At the same time, he did not want his parish council utterly exhausted by the constant hearing of reports. So he developed a two-tier parish council and reported it in his book The Hands-On Parish (Twenty-Third Publications, 1989). On one tier, the “council” consists of the heads of the one-hundred-plus parish ministries, who meet every second month. On the second tier, the council proper consists of a small group which meets on those months when the larger group does not meet. Its task is to investigate and draw practical conclusions about pastoral issues. The two tiers allow Bausch to accomplish the functions of planning and coordinating.
A third solution to the problem of councils which stray from the planning role was proposed by Jesuit Father Peter Kim. He argues that parishes need two kinds of councils, according to his doctoral dissertation, published as Parish Councils on Mission (Kuala Lumpur: Benih Publishers, 1991). One kind, the pastoral council, assists the pastor in clarifying the parish’s mission. The other kind, the coordinating council, assists the smooth cooperation of parish ministry groups. A pastor can plan with one council and coordinate with the other.
Each of these authors recognized that most pastoral councils do not limit themselves to the role defined in Canon Law. Instead of conforming to the threefold task of investigating, reflecting, and recommending, councils typically broaden their scope. They organize parish events, recruit volunteers, and discharge a variety of ministerial responsibilities. In so doing, they perform a valuable service–but also blur the line between a consultative body and a quasi-staff made up of parish volunteers.
Two Distinct Tasks
Let us summarize what we have said so far. The Church’s official documents ascribe to pastoral councils a particular role, a role we call pastoral planning. But councils rarely confine themselves to that role. Instead, they spread themselves out, taking on a host of other responsibilities, including the coordination of volunteers. This wider role stems from happenstance and pragmatism. When the pastor and councilors allow the council to become a general forum, then the focus on pastoral planning blurs. Others begin to shape the council agenda. Generous and well-intentioned council members respond to immediate parish needs, taking on projects that, strictly speaking, lie outside the council’s scope.
One remedy for this problem is to become more knowledgeable and realistic about the task of coordinating volunteers. This task is essential to the parish, but it is time-consuming, and unsuited to pastoral councils. In 1983, two books about the ministry of coordinating volunteers were published. They are Volunteers and Ministry, by William J. Bannon and Suzanne Donovan (Paulist Press), and How to Mobilize Church Volunteers, by Marlene Wilson (Augsburg Press). These books emphasize the job descriptions, recruitment, supervision, and pastoral care which volunteers need.
The reader of these books is struck by the difference between planners and coordinators. The planner must be a reflective individual, able to study, to listen to a variety of viewpoints, and to synthesize them in a wise and prudent way. The coordinator needs different gifts. A pleasing personality, good telephone skills, and the ability to communicate with a variety of parishioners are essential. The coordinator has to be able to put people at ease, explain things patiently, and support volunteers through the difficulties of ministry. Rarely does one person have the skills of both the planner and the coordinator. Since that is the case, the coordinator need not be a pastoral council member.
So the solution to the problem of unfocused councils is to make the important and distinctive task of volunteer coordination a ministry in its own right. Let’s get councils out of the business of coordinating volunteers. If the pastoral council can leave the implementation of pastoral plans to the staff and to properly-coordinated volunteers, then it can go about its own work, the work of planning. That means a disciplined focus. If the council takes on more than this–it it tries to implement, coordinate, organize, make policy, and monitor standing committees–then it will never have enough time to plan.
A Final Confession
Having argued that coordinating volunteers is not the task of councils, I now must make a confession: I can imagine all sorts of situations in which councils would want to coordinate volunteers. Moreover, I am vulnerable to the charge that my argument is purely theoretical. It looks plausible, but may persuade no one.
Parish pastoral councils have developed in their own helter-skelter manner, I confess, because they do not obey theoretical arguments. For that matter, they do not always obey the strict letter of the Church’s official teaching on councils. Councils embody more values than theory or official teaching have expressed. One value is that parishioners must be free to exercise their gifts as God’s Spirit leads them. Another is that active participation by parishioners is more important than administrative structures for supervising them. Still another is that pastors must be free to consult as they see fit. If pastors ask their councils to do something other than pastoral planning, then so be it. There is no “one size fits all” approach to councils.
But pastoral planning is an important and often overlooked ministry. It takes time and disciplined thought. We are tempted to allow more immediate matters to take precedence, and we should resist that temptation. If pastors desire pastoral planning–whether to remain faithful to the Church’s mission, or to develop more effective ministries, or to solve long-standing pastoral problems–then the council should be their primary resource. Father Harry Smith felt such a need at Amor Dei. He disbanded his old group so as to make room for a pastoral planning council. You may feel the same need.