By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Who Really Leads the Council?” Today’s Parish (October 1994): 9-11, 22.
My first parish council chairwoman was a lay leader par excellence. The problem was that the pastor refused to follow her lead. In addition to her council duties, she directed the choir, served on the school board, and coordinated the parish hospitality committee. In these she was tireless, and they were just a few of her parish commitments.
Outside the parish, she wrote a regular column for the diocesan newspaper, volunteered with an international organization which imported Central American handicrafts, and, at the same time, raised with her husband a houseful of children. She described herself as a “fixture” of the parish. We parishioners viewed her as a lifelong member, a dedicated minister, and a gifted leader.
But she and the pastor did not see eye to eye. From his point of view, I suspect, she was pushy, manipulative, and constraining. She, for instance, felt she had a mission to organize the parish budget, and he refused to submit to what he called a set of arbitrary categories and controls. She wanted the Easter liturgies well-planned in advance, and he wanted the freedom to improvise on the spot. She felt that his passion for social justice (e.g., the farmworkers’ union, Central American refugees, and the peace movement) overshadowed other parish-centered concerns, such as ministry to shut-ins and the development of lay leaders. The pastor countered that his own genuine concern for social justice would inevitably antagonize parishioners like her, preoccupied with maintaining the parish status quo. Both were obstinate.
As I recall their mutual opposition from the vantage point of ten years, I must admit: the chairwoman had my sympathy. Her ideas were better than the pastor’s. The parish needed a budget, and at that time the council served as the finance committee. The liturgies were not well planned, and there was then no liturgy committee to help plan them. The pastor was (and still is) more of a prophetic than a pastoral leader. The parish, I believe, did need to change. The chairwoman was only asking for accountability and sound pastoral practices.
But was she the leader who could accomplish those changes? About this I am not so sure as I was ten years ago. I no longer believe that one can sum up so complicated a clergy-lay relationship in terms of who was right and who was wrong. And I doubt whether the pastor really understood consultation in the parish or knew how to welcome her considerable gifts. Finally I wonder whether “leadership” appropriately describes the role of the lay chairwoman of the council, when canon law states precisely that the pastor is the “presider” who consults but is not bound by the council. The “consultative only” stipulation of canon 536 may appear demeaning to pastoral councilors, but it also lowers falsely and unrealistically high expectations. Could it be that the council is lay ministry rather than lay leadership?
When a well-respected pastor and the capable and gifted chairwoman of the parish council collide, what should happen? Who should prevail? Who is the real leader of the pastoral council? These questions are hard to answer, because the word “leadership” has many meanings.
One popular way of understanding it is to speak of shared responsibility, a term rooted in the Second Vatican Council. After the council, the bishops used shared responsibility to describe the various ways by which Catholics participate in the Church’s mission. Consultative bodies, such as senates and pastoral councils, were established to share responsibility–but not necessarily to share leadership, as Richard A. Schoenherr and Eleanor P. Simpson have acidly noted. They describe such bodies, in The Political Economy of Diocesan Advisory Councils (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1978), as “mechanisms of formal cooptation through which the hierarchy attempts to share responsibility for power rather than power itself” (p. 98). Here “shared responsibility” definitely does not mean shared leadership. For Schoenherr and Simpson, the power remains in the pastor’s hands.
Others, however, view pastoral councils favorably as one among the many instruments of lay leadership. Leonard Doohan, for example, cites pastoral councils as “new forms of leadership,” decentralized and interactive, in his 1984 book The Lay Centered Church (Minneapolis: Winston Press, p.130). Five years later, with the publication of Grass Roots Pastors (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), Doohan could speak of shared responsibility–in contrast to hierarchy–as the very heart of Church leadership. Leadership cannot be the province of the clergy alone, he says (p. 142), in an age when career lay ministers lead parishes and actually preside over prayer liturgies and Communion services. The chairwoman could well be the leader of the council.
Behind this new focus on lay leadership in Church organization and prayer is leadership’s charismatic dimension. It is a commonplace to note that the ability to lead is not given automatically with ordination. James D. and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead make this point clearly in their book The Promise of Partnership (San Francisco: Harper, 1991). Speaking of parish lay ministers, they write, “Often these nonordained leaders are welcome for reasons that lie outside theology: they have proved themselves dedicated and competent” (p. 68). While we may take issue with the claim that dedication and competence are “outside” theology, few would contend that the gift of leadership in the Church is an exclusively priestly charism.
This suggests that the pastoral council is indeed a place for the exercise of lay leadership. The chairwoman of my first council may not have been a successful leader. Indeed, she ultimately failed to achieve the goals she proposed. But she was right to argue for a parish budget, a liturgy committee, and a focus on the delivery of pastoral services. These were prime objectives in achieving the parish mission. In advocating them, she was a leader as well as a minister.
Priestly Pastoral Leadership
But in a more traditional sense, pastoral leadership is the domain of pastors, whose word counts for more than does the lay chairwoman’s. From the viewpoint of official Church documents, lay leadership is a vocation in the world, not in the Church. Pope John Paul II expressed this clearly in his exhortation following the 1987 Synod of Bishops, entitled Christifideles Laici. Although the laity participate in the priestly character of Christ, and may even exercise those pastoral ministries which do not require ordination, nevertheless the pope insisted that the charisms of the laity for service in the Church must be exercised in submission to ordained pastors (par. 25). Pope John Paul did not speak of “leadership” in the Church but rather of the “office” of pastoral ministry, an office reserved for those who have received Holy Orders. And so one might conclude that leadership in the pastoral council is reserved to pastors.
That point of view is apparently reinforced in a recent collection of essays edited by Robert Wister, entitled Priests: Identity and Ministry (Wilmington: Glazier, 1990). There the Bishop of Memphis, the Benedictine Daniel M. Buechlein, writes that the very identity of the priest is to make present the true head of the Church, Jesus Christ. As a sacrament of Christ, writes Bishop Beuchlein, “the priest is authorized to draw together all those who, by their baptism, exercise another form of priesthood which is membership in the whole body” (p. 144). This expresses both the priestly ideal and the priestly peril. Ideally, the priest draws others together. Perilously, he does so by mere “authorization,” by relying on the authority of office. A pastor who insists that his word is more important, without further dialogue, imperils the community and his own pastoral role.
Exponents of the traditional ideal of priestly leadership, such as Father Robert M. Schwartz, explain the discrepancy between the priestly ideal and the priestly reality by insisting upon that part of the ideal which involves service. This is central to his book Servant Leaders of the People of God (Mahwah: Paulist, 1989). Although priestly identity is essentially different from that of the baptized in general, says Schwartz, yet “it is oriented toward the upbuilding of all and has no meaning apart from this task” (p. 132). A priest’s leadership, his participation in the headship of Christ, is meant to build community, and so Father Schwartz calls it “servant leadership.” What he does not say explicitly, but which we can rightly infer, is that the priest who does not build community makes his priestly identity meaningless.
In summary, the Church’s traditional view of priestly leadership stands in apparent contradiction to the recent emphasis on lay leadership. According to the traditional view, my lay chairwoman was not and could not be a leader of the pastoral council. Leadership in the traditional sense belongs to the pastor. It is his because to him alone did the bishop delegate the parish. Because in canon law, he presides over the council which has a consultative vote only. And because, at a most fundamental level, he stands in persona Christi, committed to a life of service in imitation of Jesus and ordained to that role by the Church. By contrast, the lay chairperson is a facilitator of council order, an enthusiast for sound pastoral practice, and a participant in the “ministry” of parish administration–not a pastoral “leader.”
Two Senses of Leadership
We come to a seeming impasse. One ecclesial voice, urgent and immediately persuasive, proclaims the possibility of lay leadership in the Church, and particularly in the pastoral council. Another voice, traditional and authoritative, reserves leadership in the Church, properly speaking, to the ordained. One says the lay person rightly exercises leadership in the council. The other says that leadership belongs to the pastor alone. At this impasse we can again ask, “Who should prevail when the chairwoman and the pastor collide?”
Leadership is meant here in two senses. The first is an ideal sense. We affirm the ideal of the ordained priestly leader because we Catholics have seen it manifested in countless good priests. They are the exceptional men who do stand in persona Christi, who have served the well-being of our parishes, whose leadership of the community has been seamlessly integrated with exemplary lives and the celebration of the sacraments.
But no one, apart from Jesus Christ, has ever fully embodied the ideal. We affirm it despite the very real shortcomings of our pastors, despite the human situation which thwarts the best efforts of our parishes, even despite our disagreements about whether priesthood should be reserved to the male and the celibate. The ideal of priestly leadership in the Church, one aspect of which is the pastor’s presidency in the council, is worth endorsing, even when it is imperfectly realized.
The second sense of leadership has to do with charism. This is the sense in which Robert K. Greenleaf speaks of “Servant Leadership” in his book of the same name (Mahwah: Paulist, 1977). Greenleaf’s thesis is that true leaders emerge from among those who are proven and trusted as servants. The real leader is one who knows what it means to bear responsibility as a servant, and who undertakes leadership in order to serve the well-being of the community.
Greenleaf is not talking primarily about institutional forms of leadership, for which one undergoes a long period of rigorous apprenticeship, after which one is “rewarded” with office and authority. No, he is talking about charismatic leadership. The servant leader is the one who starts by serving, and becomes a leader when others acknowledge that he or she can serve the group better in that capacity. Critically speaking, we must admit: servant leadership hardly belongs to the ordained priesthood alone. Positively speaking, servant leadership is a legitimate aspiration of every Christian. And in that sense a chairwoman or chairman can well be called a minister and a leader, if not the leader, of the parish council.
For Your Council
In my first parish council, the chairwoman ultimately became so fed up with the pastor that she withdrew from all parish activities. She began instead to exercise her leadership “in the world” alone, that is, in the world of volunteerism and extra-parochial Church events. The parish was thereby impoverished. What can we learn from this?
When lay leaders in the council clash with the pastor, both of the two senses of leadership are in play. Charismatic leadership, like that of the chairwoman, is exercised by lay people in every Church council. Good ideas, sound proposals, incisive reflections–all of these should be welcome in the council, from the laity as well as from the pastor. Whenever a member persuades others to do something they would not have done on their own, he or she exercises leadership.
The pastor, however, has a unique responsibility. As the presider, he should make sure that everyone thoroughly understands the matter at hand and has had an opportunity to contribute. If he disagrees with the common opinion, he should state his disagreement and reopen the discussion. At the end of the meetings, he ought to sum up the discussion, express the state of the question, and make a judgment: is an answer at hand or is more investigation and reflection needed?
If he judges wisely, he builds council unity. If he curtails discussion prematurely, he alienates members and destroys morale. That is why, in my opinion, the leadership of the pastor is so important in the council. Not because “Father has all the answers,” but because “Father is in the best position to invite good answers to emerge.”