Early councils

DPC LogoSmallParish Councils: Then and Now

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Parish Councils: Then and Now,” Today’s Parish (January 1994): 19-21, 29.

My first encounter with a parish council happened when I was a high school student in the late 1960s. It was a time of civic unrest in my home town of Oakland, California. The daily papers were full of the Black Panthers condemning the racism of the white establishment, Cesar Chavez rallying support for the United Farm Workers grape boycott, and Berkeley students protesting the war in Vietnam. These were the signs of the times facing the parish council of Corpus Christi Church.

I can remember one council discussion in particular. It was about a city proposal to build a low-income housing project within the parish boundaries. What impressed me was the concern of the adults who discussed the issue. They were not seeking a “parish stance” toward the project–no, that was not possible, given the conservative pastor, now dead, who would not have allowed such a public pronouncement anyway. But they were passionate about the issue, concerned about the position Catholics should take toward the housing project, convinced that this kind of discussion was a parish-wide concern. I followed the housing project story for the local Catholic newspaper. It is my earliest memory of “Catholic action.”

Reflecting on that meeting now, I see its connection to the early years of the parish council movement. Those years were boundlessly enthusiastic–and a time of naïveté. What did they have that today’s parish councils can recapture? And what have we learned since then? In this essay, we shall look first at the enthusiasm of the early years and the vision which underlay it. Then we shall see how that vision has changed.

The Early Years, 1967-1972

A glance at three books about councils from the early years reveals high, impossibly high, hopes. Even the titles were wildly enthusiastic:

  • Parish Councils: Renewing the Christian Community, by Bernard Lyons (Techny, IL: Divine Word Publications, 1967).
  • The Sharing Community: Parish Councils and Their Meaning, by David P. O’Neill (Dayton: Pflaum Press, 1968).
  • Your Parish Comes Alive, by Robert C. Broderick (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970).

Renewing the community, sharing a Christian mission, becoming alive–the parish council, according to these early authors, would do nothing less than resurrect the parish. Bernard Lyons, an Illinois layman whose book on councils was perhaps the earliest of its kind in national distribution, set a tone for later discussions. The advent of councils, he suggested, would transform parishes, heal divisions, restore hope, and announce the message of Christ to the world.

Lyons’ optimism was undiminished four years later, when he published Leaders for Parish Councils (Techny, IL: Divine Word Publications, 1971). Without trace of irony he urged councils to follow “Christ’s master plan for world conquest”–namely, starting a parish council with twelve individuals, forming them, and sending them out into the world. Most interesting about Lyons, however, is not so much what he said about councils as what he noticed about parishes. Leaders has a brief section entitled “Sign of Peace Tells Volumes about Your Parish Community.” There Lyons said that the enthusiasm with which parishioners exchange the liturgical sign of peace indicates the parish’s spiritual health. Today the sign of peace is not the controversial symbol it was twenty-five years ago. But Lyons’ idea that councils should be assessing the parochial “signs of the times” is no less important.

As we review the early literature, many of the era’s controversial issues no longer seem controversial. David P. O’Neill (1968) and Bernard Lyons (1971) were often the opponents of Robert C. Broderick. Broderick’s The Parish Council Handbook (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1968), for example, recommended that councils employ a parliamentary procedure. O’Neill and Lyons opposed it as unnecessarily complicated–and their viewpoint has apparently won the day. O’Neill and Lyons were cool to the idea of “model” constitutions for parish councils, arguing that no one size fits all. Broderick, however, offered two models; and later authors have multiplied that number many times. A final example is the pastor’s veto. Broderick felt that his model constitution for parish councils should state that the pastor can veto the council’s decisions. O’Neill and Lyons felt that such a statement is insulting to councilors. Today, at any rate, there no longer seems a need to define the pastor’s “veto.” Within the “consultative” councils of today, no one even speaks of a veto.

The Underlying Vision

Apart from the early controversies about parish councils, and linked to the optimism of the council movement, lay a common vision. The vision may have been naive, but its enthusiasm was powerfully persuasive. First of all, councils were seen as an agency of renewal among the members. O’Neill (1968) viewed the council as a way of promoting true “brotherhood” among priests and laity. Broderick (1970) regarded the council as a dedicated apostolate of Christian service to the parish’s standing committees. Lyons (1971) envisioned a Church polarized by liberals and conservatives, a Church to which the council would bring dialogue and eventual reconciliation. In each of these cases, no limited and specific council function was emphasized. Rather, these authors believed that the council would bring its members a genuine experience of Christian community. Today we would say that the early literature promised a group experience more than a concrete product or result.

Secondly, the vision was democratic. Almost every early writer insisted upon democratic elections to achieve a “representative” council. Although all conceded that the council is “consultative” to the pastor, this was widely interpreted as meaning that the pastor would henceforth, by a sort of miraculous change of heart, heed the council. O’Neill (1968) admitted that the parish council has no legal status “as yet” (p. 31)–hoping perhaps for a change with the 1983 Code of Canon Law–but recommended due process rather than an abrupt veto by the pastor in cases of conflict. Even Broderick (1968), whose emphasis on veto and parliamentary procedure makes him seem like a conservative, states that the parish council “shall be at least advisory, preferably decision-making, in all matters of the parish” (p. 41). These examples express the hope that the council would democratize the parish. It would articulate the will of the people, even over against the pastor, and his authoritarianism would wither away.

It may seem paradoxical that the third element in the vision of the early years was the partnership between clergy and laity. But councils were viewed not only as the voice of the laity, but the means for clergy-lay accord and harmony. Lyons (1971) made a suitable distinction between those pastors who want to be genuine leaders, working with their people, and those who want to be mere authoritarians. O’Neill (1968) dreamed of a council in which pastor and people meet as “equals,” even to the extent that the laity would feel free to criticize their pastor’s theology and preaching! An underlying vision of clergy-lay partnership united these authors. In a climate of familiarity, frankness, and Christian love, they believed, lay people could disagree with their pastors. Freedom from artificial constraint would promote mutual respect.

The last element in the common vision was that parish councils would free the pastor from administrative detail so that he could devote more time to priestly activities. The clearest articulator of this vision was Arthur X. Deegan in The Priest as Manager (New York: Bruce Publishing, 1968). He viewed the pastor as the one who would involve people by defining ministerial objectives with them and sharing responsibility for the objectives. Lyons (1971) put it this way: “With an effective parish council, the priest no longer needs to be the corporation executive, no more the bookkeeper, fund-raiser, and employer” (13). Instead, pastors could devote their time to pastoral care. Later literature would view the assignment of administrative tasks to the parish council as problematic. But in the early years, councils were promoted as a way of sharing with the laity ministries which once were the priest’s alone.

The Abiding Problems

It would be a mistake, however, to criticize the early years of the parish council movement as a time of undiluted naïveté. Many of the early writers about parish councils identified problems which persist today. For example, much ink was spilled then about whether councils were “advisory” or “decision-making.” O’Neill (1968) made a spirited critique of the phrase “merely advisory.” While he admitted that parish councils do not have legal authority to make decisions apart from the pastor, he stated that they are not “merely” advisory. They share responsibility for the decisions, as do members of a family, even when a parent ultimately makes a legal decision in the family’s name (p. 32). Eleven years later, William Rademacher’s The Practical Guide for Parish Councils (Mystic: 23rd Publications, 1979) would clarify the various stages of discernment (pp. 151 ff.). Making a final decision, said Rademacher, is only one part of discernment, which includes research, study, and evaluation. O’Neill and Rademacher did not solve all the problems about who makes decisions, but they clarified them.

Another example is the election of councilors. As I mentioned earlier, almost all of the early authors insisted on the need for parish-wide election of “representative” councilors. The one exception was Deegan (1968), who noted that, in his survey of 18 big-city pastors, most opposed the general election of councilors. They preferred nomination from among those known to be willing to work (p. 124). In this way, Deegan foreshadowed an issue which would only become clear at a later date: the need to discern whether potential councilors have the gifts needed for the council ministry. Twenty years later, Mary Benet McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom (Allen, TX: Tabor, 1987) would push this insight to its logical conclusion. Getting councilors who have a dwell-discerned gift for deliberation, she argued, is better than having a representative council. McKinney’s insight, without having been universally accepted, has proved very persuasive.

A third area of abiding concern has to do with how the council operates. In the early literature, a great deal of attention was paid to model parish council constitutions and parliamentary procedure. But both O’Neill (1968) and Lyons (1971) were hesitant about fixing too much attention on procedural detail. Their concern was rather with the quality of dialogue which was to take place. In fact, Lyons argued that the leader displays his leadership best, not by having all the answers, but by asking questions (p. 108). A genuine dialogue about parish problems is more stimulating to a council than an interminable number of reports from the standing committees which the council is supposed to coordinate. This was the insight of writers such as Bertram Griffin, Robert Newsome, Loughlan Sofield and Brenda Hermann. Newsome criticized the notion of the coordinating council in The Ministering Parish (New York: Paulist, 1982). In its place, he proposed the pastoral planning council–a proposal which has begun to transform American councils.

Here and Now

As I look back over the years since my first encounter with a parish council, I have to admit: a lot of energy has left the parish council movement. No one today would claim that the establishment of a council will single-handedly renew a Christian community or bring a parish back to life. Indeed, most of us have experienced conflict in the council–or at least boredom–which has been anything but life-giving.

The major part of the failure of parish councils to live up to the early promise is due to structural weakness. The first councils structured themselves too broadly, giving themselves a task no volunteer group could ever hope to accomplish. Today we might well ask: what parish council, meeting once or even twice a month, could accomplish the following tasks, which one author from 1969 listed as the scope of a council’s activity?

  • to set priorities among the many claims upon the limited resources of the parish in meeting needs;
  • to plan and carry out appropriate programs and activities to meet those needs;
  • to coordinate all parish activities;
  • to provide leadership and motivation in facing major issues, and
  • to involve as many members of the parish as possible in all deliberations.

[See Arthur Deegan, Ph.D., “How to Start a Parish Council,” five-part leaflet series (Mystic: 23rd Publications, 1969).] That list sounds like the job description of a large professional staff, not that of an occasional volunteer group.

But parish councils, having once bitten off more than they could chew, are now reducing their appetites. They no longer claim to be the main parish administrator, coordinator, and leader. Doubtless, with this diminished profile come diminished expectations. Indeed, no one today expects the parish council to usher in the kingdom of God.

A leaner council, however, has an advantage. By abandoning the inflated hopes of the early years, councils can focus on a few things, do them well, and not scatter their energies. That is the profound insight of those who favor the development of “pastoral” councils. The pastoral council takes its lead from the Vatican II Decree on Bishops, which recommends the establishment of diocesan pastoral councils to identify problems, study them, and recommend solutions. When the “pastoral” council idea is applied to parishes, modest but good things can happen. Parish councils can scale back their efforts to coordinate parish ministries and instead become pastoral planning bodies. When this happens, they become more concerned about clarifying the parish’s mission and planning to achieve it than about monitoring the parish ministries, which can usually get along by themselves anyway.

Looking back on my first experience with the parish council as a teenager in Oakland, I see that the council viewed itself as a policy maker. By discussing how parishioners should respond to the proposal for building a low-income housing project in the parish, the council was attempting to provide leadership. This was an admirable goal in itself, but one little suited for a parish council. Why? Because the members knew that their deliberations would have no concrete or official result. The pastor had not asked for the council’s advice in the matter, and made it clear that regardless of the council’s deliberations, the parish was not going to take a public stance. The discussions of the council went nowhere.

That experience was the beginning of a lesson which I am still learning–namely, that the parish council is primarily an instrument of cooperation with the pastor. Councils lose their effectiveness when they cease to work with him. Had my old pastor been wise in the way of councils, he would have sought a way to channel the energy which the low-income housing proposal had generated. Even if he felt that the parish was unprepared to take an official stance on it, he could have studied with the council ways to promote a dialogue. Today a council would perhaps study how the parish could establish small faith-sharing groups in which the housing proposal would emerge as a topic for reflection. That is the right thing for a “pastoral” council to do. Going off on its own course, regardless of the pastor, is a recipe for council failure.

Now that I am in my forties, I find myself a seminary teacher. The preparation of future priests for ministry, including the “enabling” ministries of consultation, is for me a more effective way to promote councils than working directly with parish laity. I find it more effective because good councils require more than a gathering of enthusiastic and gifted lay people who want to share responsibility. It demands pastors who know the purpose of councils, effective ways to form a group, and how to lead parishioners from the clarification of mission to the establishment of goals.

Questions for Reflection

Have you become discouraged about your council? Do you find council meetings–once an exciting place for dialogue–now a tedious litany of progress reports from this committee and that?

If so, I propose that you consider the purpose your council serves, the vision which animates it, and the leadership which the pastor exercises. First about your purpose: is it as vague as the purpose of councils in the 60s? Or have you focused on a limited number of pastoral problems which need solutions? Second, about your vision: are you merely maintaining current ministries? Or are you trying to anticipate and prepare for the future to which the kingdom calls? And finally, about pastoral leadership: does the pastor view the council as a level of middle management between him and parish committees? Or does he view the council as his partners in an effort to define a mission ever-more-centered on the gospel? Problem-solving, planning, and the clarification of mission: these are the hallmarks of the parish council.