Pastoral Councils: Proactive or Reactive?
By Mark F. Fischer
“Published as “Pastors and Councils: Who Sets the Agenda?” Today’s Parish 33:4 (April-May 2001): 20-23
Should pastoral councils be proactive, developing their own agenda? Or should they be reactive, taking their cue from the pastor who consults them? The following story about St. Margaret Mary Church shows how hard this question is. When Father O’Connor was pastor, the council reacted exclusively to his proposals. He consulted the council only about the pastoral matters in which he was most interested. But when Father Capriotti took over as pastor, he expected his council to be proactive. He wanted it to generate its own agenda items, identifying parish needs, even if those needs were not uppermost on his mind. Which pastor was right?
Proactive Pastor, Reactive Council
Under Father O’Connor, every parishioner at St. Margaret Mary’s knew who was in charge. Father O’Connor had a powerful vision for the parish. The centerpiece of his vision was a new and beautiful church, designed and constructed according to the latest liturgical principles. Everything at the parish, including the pastoral council, was focused on the new church.
Father O’Connor strove tirelessly to make the vision a reality. Before the church was constructed, when he celebrated Sunday Mass in a rented building, he promoted the widespread participation of parishioners. There were numerous altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, and an upbeat choir. During the week he dropped in on almost every parish meeting. He had a dinner invitation with a different parishioner almost every night of the week. Father O’Connor knew that if he wanted to raise the money for a new church building, he needed to build enthusiasm for the parish. He was single-minded in his dedication to that goal.
This single-mindedness extended to Father O’Connor’s relations with the parish pastoral council. Its members generally shared his vision, for he had personally selected them from his staff and from the parish at large. Their task was clear. It was not to generate ideas that might distract attention from the building project. In September, for example, two councillors recommended that the parish sponsor a “Candidates Night” in anticipation of the November election. They felt that the parish should invite the various city council candidates to present their platforms. Father O’Connor firmly said no. He believed it would cause divisiveness. The parish, he said, must unite parishioners. So the matter was dropped. But privately two councillors said that Father O’Connor opposed the “Candidates’ Night” only because political controversy might lower the collection.
In Father O’Connor’s view, the main purpose of the council was to help him maintain parish enthusiasm. Only an enthusiastic parish, he believed, could achieve its construction goal. For that reason, Father O’Connor personally created the council’s agenda. He was convinced that the council’s task was to respond to his agenda. He was consulting them, not vice versa. And Father O’Connor was very successful. Within seven years he dedicated the new church building. Within ten years the parish had retired its five million-dollar construction debt. When he announced his transfer to another parish, the pastoral council threw a party in his honor. Hundreds of people came.
Inquiring Pastor, Proactive Council
The new pastor’s name was Father Capriotti. The first time he met the pastoral council, he surprised the members. Father Capriotti told them that he wanted the council to take a new direction. Now that the parish’s construction debt was paid, he said, he wanted the council to help him a chart a new course. He wanted them “to help him see the needs of the parish.” Their goal was “to help him identify pastoral priorities.” In short, he wanted the pastoral council to not just react to his agenda. He invited them to be proactive.
Not all of the pastoral council members liked Father Capriotti’s changes. Some members missed the clarity and directness of Father O’Connor. The problem was that Father Capriotti presented them with ambiguity. The parish could go in a lot of directions, he said, and he was not sure which one it should take. Father Capriotti’s ambiguous approach disconcerted some members. He was asking them to exercise more leadership, and they discovered that they were not all of one mind. There was no one way to go. The consensus that once existed now seemed to have evaporated.
The councillors who were members of the parish staff also had a problem. In the past, Father O’Connor usually met with the staff members in advance of the council meeting, telling them about its agenda. Staff members had a privileged place on the council. The other councillors rarely surprised them with questions. But the new pastor, Father Capriotti, was now exercising less control over the agenda. Staff members could not always predict what questions the other councillors would ask. Furthermore, their privileged place was eroding. Father Capriotti did not always prefer the staff’s opinions to those of the other councillors.
“When Father O’Connor was pastor, we council members knew where we stood,” said Catherine Smith. Catherine chairs the Evangelization Committee as well as serving on the pastoral council. “He had a clear vision and we supported it. But now we don’t have a clear vision, and we seem to drift from meeting to meeting, not getting anywhere.” Catherine is nostalgic about the good old days. Not all of the council members, however, share her nostalgia. Francisco Ilano, for example, is a council member and professional newspaper editor. “Not all of our discussions are productive or conclusive,” he says, “but we are a lot freer under Father Capriotti — he at least asks probing questions.”
What the Church Teaches
Which is better for councils — to be reactive or proactive? The Church’s official teaching about pastoral councils does not address this question directly. But it says a lot about the relation between the pastor and his councillors, and this suggests an answer.
Some of the Church’s teaching seems to indicate that a reactive council is better. For instance, it is clear that councils have a consultative vote only. They do not legislate for the parish. They advise the pastor, but he is not obligated to take their advice. He seeks wise solutions to pastoral problems, and so he consults the council. This seems to suggest that the council should react to him. One possible conclusion is that councillors should react to the issues about which the pastor consults them.
Pastors, we read, consult about “pastoral” matters. Some people think that pastoral matters are about parish spirituality, worship, and evangelization — but not about temporal affairs. They think that temporal, practical matters belong to the Finance Council, and that eternal, spiritual matters belong to the Pastoral Council. But this is a mistake. Pastoral matters, in the Church’s teaching, are those matters that pertain to the ministry of the pastor. He is free to consult about anything that pertains to the pastoral well being of the parish, from parish administration to liturgical life. And when he consults the council about something, he shows his interest in it. Smart councillors know that if a pastor is interested, he listens more closely to their advice. Councils enjoy an advantage when they react to the pastor’s interest. They are not forcing their agenda on him. This might suggest that a reactive council has a psychological advantage over a proactive council.
It would not be right, however, to argue that the Church discourages proactive councils. One of the fundamental ideas of the Vatican II was that knowledgeable and competent lay people should share their opinions with pastors about the Church. Indeed, Vatican II said that the laity should enjoy the freedom of raising almost any question. “The laity should develop the habit,” according to the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (at no. 10), “of bringing before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding man’s salvation, to examine them together and solve them by general discussion.” Pope John Paul II referred to this very passage in his 1987 Christifideles laici in order to describe the role of parish pastoral councils. It suggests the importance of proactive councils.
The Church’s very definition of pastoral councils seems to support their proactive role. Pastoral councils, according to the Vatican II Decree on Bishops (no. 27), “investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and . . . formulate practical conclusions concerning them.” The very first verb, namely, to investigate, has nothing passive about it. The verb suggests that councillors study, research, analyze, inquire, question, and probe. There is nothing merely reactive about investigation.
Proactive Is Preferable
Pastoral councils, in short, are broad in scope and active in method. The documents of Vatican II suggest that pastors may consult virtually about anything practical. Further, they state that councils are to actively inquire about pastoral matters. Does this answer our question? Does the Church’s official teaching conclude that proactive councils are better than reactive councils? Is Father Capriotti right and Father O’Connor wrong?
The answer is not easy. Both pastors, Capriotti and O’Connor, have had their successes and failures. Both pastors can cite official Church documents to prove their point. There is no clear-cut way to judge the one right and the other wrong. Father O’Connor is undoubtedly correct about councils being consultative only, and he certainly kept his pastoral council focused. Father Capriotti is wise to elicit the opinions of his councillors and to encourage them to be thorough in their investigation. Both pastors have sound reasons for conducting their councils as they do.
But I prefer a proactive council to a reactive one. A proactive council has a wide scope and a thorough methodology. It understands its task as investigating pastoral matters, reflecting on them, and proposing practical recommendations. By contrast, a reactive council has a narrow agenda and a superficial method. Because it merely reacts to whatever the pastor brings before it, it has neither the mandate nor the opportunity to investigate anything thoroughly. The proactive council accords better with Vatican II. It is no less consultative than the reactive council and it need not intimidate pastors.
The Role of the Pastor and Council
The question about proactive and reactive councils challenges us to understand the Church’s intentions for pastoral councils. It intends them to offer pastors wise advice about practical matters. The Church presupposes a pastor who seeks the wisdom of his people. He wants to lead wisely, and consults the council because their study and reflection can help the parish. Councillors, for their part, share his commitment. They want to make prudent recommendations about what the parish should do based on genuine knowledge. In the Church’s view, the pastor consults and councillors collaborate with him. Both want truth and wisdom to permeate all parish decisions.
Father O’Connor was a charismatic leader with a clear vision. He focused the pastoral council on those things that would build enthusiasm for the parish. The council’s advice helped him build solid esprit de corps and pay off an enormous construction debt. But as his councillors grew in their understanding of the parish, his single-minded focus began to inhibit them. They began to see that there was more to parish life than reacting to his agenda and supporting a construction project. Father O’Connor’s refusal to let them investigate the bigger picture was frustrating.
Father Capriotti, by contrast, lacked the charismatic personality of his predecessor. His proactive vision for the pastoral council, in which members would take greater initiative, was new to them. Councillors did not feel capable and confident about the new direction. Because he had not correctly judged their readiness to undertake the new direction, their morale suffered. Even Father Capriotti’s staff wondered whether the pastor trusted them.
But his fundamental idea about the council was sound. Father Capriotti has an important question, namely, about what direction the parish should take. He has given his councillors a weighty matter to investigate. To be sure, they are not yet confident of their ability to do the job, but they appreciate its value. When they and Father Capriotti are able to break down the big question into small questions, the council’s morale will rebound. He is asking them to do what a council is supposed to do. By investigating a pastoral question, reflecting on it, and drawing a wise conclusion, the council is being properly proactive.
Is your council dispirited because the pastor does not give it meaningful work? Remind him that the proper task of councils is to study pastoral matters, weigh them carefully, and make sound recommendations. Is your council paralyzed because the pastor has not given it clear direction? Remind him that it is his job to consult the council, and he has to explain what he is asking and why. Councils should not merely react. But they need clear direction in order to be effectively proactive.