When Should a Pastor Not Consult the Parish Council?
By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “When Should a Pastor Not Consult the Council?” Today’s Parish (March 1992): 18-20.
When should a pastor not consult the parish council? Merely posing this question might raise a suspicious eyebrow. Council members rejoice when pastors share their concerns with them. If we suggest that pastors be more selective, are we saying that they should be less candid? In some parishes, council members are demoralized precisely because the pastor conceals important news and opinions. These members do not want to hear that pastors should be more selective. A more selective pastor may be even more demoralizing to the council.
But lower that eyebrow. Asking when a pastor should refrain from bringing a matter to the council is not necessarily a call for secrecy. In truth, a council that meets once a month must be selective if it is to accomplish its mission. Pastors who bring to the council everything it needs to do its job–and nothing more–are not being secretive. They are being good leaders.
There are two basic reasons why pastors should not consult their councils. One reason is that a particular subject matter does not require consultation. Even when consultation is in order, consensus need not always be sought. The other reason for not consulting is that the council is unready to consider a matter on which the pastor wants advice. In fact, the council’s readiness for particular kinds of consultation develops over time, and this development can be predicted. In this essay, we shall examine these two reasons for not consulting and explore their consequences.
The Subject Matter of Consultation
The question of what kind of subject matter deserves consultation was explored by Aristotle. One consults non-experts, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, when one seeks the good for a particular community. A decision about what is right or wrong for a community should be made by experienced community members who deliberate well. The wrong subject matter for consultation are technical matters. One does not ask non-experts to judge something in which technical proficiency is required.
A recent cartoon illustrated how ridiculous it is to consult widely when expert opinion is needed. The cartoon depicts surgeons in an operating room. There is some disagreement among them, and the operation has come to a halt. Finally, one surgeon turns to the others and says, “O.K., let’s take a vote–who thinks the heart has three ventricles?”
So the parish council does not vote on technical matters. Questions such as the number of persons in the Blessed Trinity, whether the parish school ought to follow school department regulations, and whether the hospitality committee must heed the Fire Department’s limit of 400 persons in the Church hall, are not questions for deliberation. The answers generally do not depend on what the community thinks.
Managerial research of the last twenty years enables us to refine this insight. Leadership theorists note that consultation–the kind of thing that happens in parish councils–is a type of participative management. There are many types of consultation, and some of them do not involve councils at all. For example, a pastor may invite participation in decision-making when evaluating the DRE by individually asking parents their opinion, without ever telling them that he is undertaking a formal evaluation. Or he may announce that he is shopping for a new Church heating system and individually ask trusted people their opinion. In these cases, the pastor invites participation, but he does not ask the parish council.
When to Seek Consensus
Pastors ought to consult their councils about matters affecting the general well-being of the parish. A mature council has the authority of practical wisdom, an authority that stems from the councilors’ experience and knowledge of the community and from their ability to reach the truth about a matter through discussion. The pastor seeks this wisdom by asking the council to examine a problem and propose solutions to it. He may consult the council and then make a decision on his own. Or he may attempt to reach consensus with the council.
Applying management theory to parish councils, we learn that seeking consensus is not always the best approach. A decision whether to seek consensus or not depends on two factors, according to Norman R. F. Maier, an industrial psychologist who published a number of books and articles in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. One seeks consensus depending on the “quality” or technical accuracy of the decision to be made and on the “acceptance” of the decision by members of the group.
Applying this to the parish council, one can say that a pastor should seek consensus in the council when several factors are present:
1. when the technical accuracy of a particular decision is not crucial, and
2. when the problem is so unstructured that no single individual has a comprehensive understanding of it, and
3. when acceptance of the decision by the entire council is essential.
Let us first consider the question of technical accuracy. The council does not need to master the pros and cons of every parish renewal program in order to reach a decision that parish renewal is more important, for example, than paving the parking lot or hiring a new music director. With study, council members can reach that conclusion, and they do not have to be pastoral theologians in order to do so. Given a limited parish budget, choices have to be made, and the pastor’s request that the council help him decide among spiritual, physical, and musical development does not necessarily require technical expertise.
Now let us consider what is meant by an “unstructured” problem. Simply put, an unstructured problem is one about which no one is an expert and to which everyone can make a contribution. There are no clearly-defined procedures for solving it. A parish which is experiencing a dramatic rise in the number of immigrant parishioners will inevitably feel some tension about liturgy, allocation of resources, and ministerial services. But there is no formula for resolving these tensions. The problem is unstructured. A search for consensus may be in order.
Finally, let us consider acceptance of the decision. If the parish must accept a pastoral decision in order for it to be a successful decision, then the parish council should seek consensus. Parishioners will not undertake a door-to-door census unless they all feel that this best for the parish. Without consensus, there may not be enough census takers.
So consensus should be sought when technical accuracy is not essential, when the problem is unstructured, and when widespread acceptance of a decision is necessary. All three conditions are important. If technical accuracy is required, then only the technically qualified can rightly judge the matter, and consensus will be impossible. If widespread acceptance is unneccesary, the time-consuming search for consensus may not be worthwhile.
When Consensus Is Not Necessary
It was Victor H. Vroom, building on the work of Maier, who saw that consensus is not always needed. Vroom, who published a number of works on managerial leadership in the 1970s, saw that consensus is not necessary when the success of a decision does not hinge on its acceptance.
Let us apply Vroom’s insight to the parish council. When a successful decision depends on quality or technical accuracy, consensus may be impossible. The parish, for example, may have to comply with requirements imposed from the outside. Take the case of a new bookkeeping system, required by the chancery, which will affect every feature of parish life. The pastor may well consult the parish council about how best to introduce the system. But he need not seek consensus. Whether the council likes it or not, the system will be implemented.
Even when widespread acceptance of parish decision is important, the pastor need not always seek consensus in the council. Such widespread acceptance may be won when the council agrees on a general principle, and is willing to leave the technical application of that principle to those with special training.
For example, a pastor may consult the council before implementing a new diocesan policy on Confirmation or marriage preparation. Such policies need to be accepted by parishioners, and the council can help the pastor see how best to manage the transition from the old policy to the new. But the pastor does not need to reach consensus about the transition if the council trusts that he will respect its ideas. The council’s belief that he will be sensitive in directing catechists or marriage preparation teams may be sufficient for the success of the new policies.
The Readiness of the Council
So far, we have looked at the kinds of subject matter on which a pastor should and should not consult the parish council. Another factor which determines whether or not to consult is the council’s readiness for deliberating a given matter.
Readiness is a quality which has been studied by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard, who have authored numerous works on management theory throughout the 70s and 80s. They define readiness as a group’s ability and willingness to undertake a certain task. A relatively inexperienced group may be willing to do something but lack the ability to do it successfully. A more experienced group may have ability, but may lack confidence and so be unwilling.
When we apply the concept of readiness to a parish council, we see that the council’s readiness changes over time. When a council is new, the members look to the pastor. He has brought them together–what does he want from them? The council’s ability to function as a group is low, and their willingness to undertake a project is hampered by their lack of confidence. At this beginning stage, the pastor must give the council clear direction. Not “Let’s create a pastoral plan” but “Let’s talk about our experience of the parish.”
As the council grows in maturity and confidence, the pastor should be less directive and more of a partner in dialogue. He must not only give clear direction, but must allow the council to shape the task it is doing. The council may say, “Father, if you really want us to evaluate the parish, then you must share more information about parish finances.” The pastor may not relish some of the council’s requests. But he can take comfort that the council is growing in confidence and knowledge.
The Case of Parish Renewal
I had an experience which illustrates this point. In 1986, I participated in a diocesan committee which was studying evangelization. The task of the committee was to recommend objectives which could achieve a general diocesan goal with measurable objectives.
The chairman of the committee was a very knowledgeable and directive priest. At the early stages of the committee, his strong direction was appreciated. But as the committee matured, he forcefully steered it toward recommending that the diocese adopt the Renew program. His strong direction was interpreted as coercion, and the committee voted not to recommend Renew.
The committee’s objection was not to the Renew program itself. Rather, it was to the priest’s directive leadership. He did not have the patience to allow the committee to reach its own conclusions, and so the committee resisted his leadership. When the committee finished its work, he was greatly disappointed.
Two years later, the diocese established a second committee, which included some members of the first committee, precisely to investigate Renew. Committee members received a list of dioceses which had adopted Renew, and telephoned several of them. The members were able to explore, under their own initiative, two questions which were not deeply investigated by the first committee, namely, the questions of how useful Renew is to immigrant and “non-Anglo” parishes, and of what the real costs are in establishing a diocesan Renew office. This second committee recommended the adoption of Renew.
The difference between the first committee and the second was twofold: leadership style and readiness. In the first committee, the chairman did not adapt his style to fit the growing readiness of the committee. He remained directive, even though a more participative style was called for. And in the second committee, the readiness level was higher. Committee members were building on a foundation of experience. They knew what renewal is, and they were ready to consider a particular renewal program. The priest who had so strongly advocated Renew in 1986 was delighted with the 1989 recommendation.
Pastors who preside over parish councils should reflect before consulting the council. Whether they should or should not consult depends first upon the subject matter. They should steer clear of technical subjects and focus on those which require practical wisdom. And if they decide to consult the council, they must determine whether the matter requires consensus or not.
Consulting depends also on the readiness of the council. As the council matures, its members will grow in ability and confidence. A council which fumbles its way over the word “evangelization” during its first meeting may in time become very knowledgeable about various parish renewal programs. What questions the pastor raises with the readier council will differ greatly from those he poses to the brand new group–and the wise pastor will adapt his style to fit the two groups as well.
Hersey, Paul, and Kenneth H. Blanchard. Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Fifth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.
Maier, Norman R. F. Psychology in Industry. Second Edition. Boston: Houghlin Mifflin, 1953.
Vroom, Victor H., and Philip Yetton. Leadership and Decision Making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.