Council of ministries

DPC LogoSmallBy Mark F. Fischer

Published as “What’s Wrong with the ‘Council of Ministries’?” Today’s Parish (January 1995): 11-13, 22-23.

During the summer I met a young pastor from Northern California who praised his parish council for helping him solve a budget problem. The council was organized as a “council of ministries.” In other words, it was composed of representatives of the parish’s various ministerial commissions–the Worship Commission, the Education Commission, and so forth–and served to coordinate them. Although the “council of ministries” is a parish council structure about which I have serious misgivings, the pastor was enthusiastic, and so I listened with interest.

The pastor said that, after meeting with the parish finance council, he realized that the parish’s income would be many thousands of dollars less than he had estimated. So he faced a problem: namely, where to reduce budgeted expenses. He did not want to bluntly decree an across-the-board cut of a certain percentage of every expense account. He felt that that would be unfair to those on the parish payroll. Moreover, there were many fixed expenses, such as taxes, insurance, and repayment of a diocesan loan to the parish, which he could not reduce. He needed help.

He discussed the problem with the finance council chairman, an M.B.A. who had also been elected to chair the pastoral council. Then the two of them presented the matter at the next pastoral council meeting. They told the members about the shortfall in projected income. Then they invited the council to discuss the problem for the next 45 minutes and brainstorm solutions. The pastor and the chairman listened to the discussion, answering questions of fact, but not trying to suggest an answer.

At the end of 45 minutes, the chairman proposed the idea of an across-the-board cut in the percentages of each of the five commission budgets. After some further discussion, the council members agreed that such a cut would be fair. The meeting ended with the members promising to consult the ministerial commissions. At the next month’s council meeting, the commission representatives reported that the proposed cut had been accepted by their constituencies. The reduction compensated exactly for the shortage in projected income. The pastor was overjoyed.

When he told me the story, I could see why he was so happy. His budget problem was solved in the way he had hoped. And it was solved, not by some Draconian decision made by him alone, but by him at the council’s recommendation. Since each council member had been chosen by a given ministerial commission, and represented the commission, each felt confident about consulting it. After the consultation, each council member could speak for his or her commission, saying that it would accept the proposed cuts. A financial crisis was averted and peace was maintained.

Critique of the Council of Ministries

The council of ministries structure is a popular one. Its proponents claim that it decentralizes parish decision-making, spreading it out over the five commissions. It is also popular because it empowers the lay leaders of the commissions, allowing them to make decisions about their ministries. And the central coordinating council of ministries prevents disorganization by bringing all the commissions under a single umbrella. This is a third reason for its popularity.

But as I said at the outset, I have misgivings about the council of ministries. Let me present them before pursuing its merits further. The term “council of ministries” belongs to Thomas P. Sweetser and Carol W. Holden, who recommend it in their 1987 book Leadership in a Successful Parish (Harper and Row, p. 124). This kind of council, they say, includes representatives of five parish ministerial commissions: worship, education, community building, outreach, and administration. Each commission coordinates its own activities. The purpose of the monthly meeting of the council, say Sweetser and Holden, is to “coordinate and give direction to all the pastoral activities and ministries of the parish” (p. 126). It is made up of representatives, and it serves to coordinate the groups represented.

But there are good reasons, I believe, for not embracing the council of ministries. I would argue that the 1983 Code of Canon Law says nothing about pastoral councils “coordinating” or “giving direction,” the two main tasks assigned to it by the council of ministries. These tasks, I believe, do not harmonize well with the consultative nature of councils. Their main purpose, according to canon law, is to investigate pastoral matters, consider them, and propose practical conclusions (canon 512). The council of ministries model, by contrast, gives to councils an inappropriate executive function.

One may also object to the council of ministries on the grounds that it is unrealistic, overly ambitious, and bureaucratic. Unrealistic, because it presumes a level of expertise–the expertise of giving direction and coordinating ministries–which not every council has. Overly ambitious, because only a superbly-trained and highly skilled council could even hope to coordinate all pastoral activities. And bureaucratic (I mean: tedious), because so much of the monthly meetings is taken up by considering reports from the five ministerial commissions.

As an alternative to the “council of ministries” several authors such as Robert Newsome, Bertram Griffin, Loughlan Sofield, James Provost, and Robert Howes, advocate the pastoral planning council. This council focuses its efforts on clarifying the parish’s mission and making plans to accomplish it. The pastoral planning council leaves the coordination of ministerial commissions to the parish staff. Such a council is limited in scope, harmonious with canon law, and oriented toward the parish’s future. These are the reasons for not adopting a council of ministries.

Advocates of the Structure

And yet the council of ministries structure is well established. Many authors recommend it, many diocesan guidelines for parish councils embrace it, and many pastors are satisfied by it. It appears to succeed when the conditions for success are favorable. If your council has embraced that structure, or is thinking of adopting it, you may want to know the conditions under which it can flourish. Let me present three recent books, each of which advocates the council of ministries, so we can see why the authors believe in it–and what are the situations in which it can work.

The first is a new title by Thomas Sweetser, who (I believe) coined the term “council of ministries.” Sweetser, a Jesuit priest and director of the Illinois-based Parish Evaluation Project, co-authored Transforming the Parish: Models for the Future (Sheed and Ward, 1993) with Franciscan Sister Patricia M. Forster, Associate Director of the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Research and Planning. Their book affirms the council of ministries as a way of sharing responsibility among parishioners for the parish’s mission. Sweetser and Forster view the parish as an enormous system of groups, ministries, and organizations which need to be connected but which also need freedom to operate. They advocate a system of five ministerial commissions as the points of connection, the categories into which the many groups and ministries fit. From these commissions people are nominated to the parish pastoral council, which coordinates them.

The principal value I see in the Sweetser/Forster council of ministries is subsidiarity. The authors start with the presupposition of numerically large parishes, each with far more activities than any one pastor can manage. The pastoral load is thus divided by the five commissions, each of which functions as a “mini-council” of volunteers served by a parish staff member. The staff members keeps the pastor informed. A commission makes most of the decisions about the ministries it comprises. But when the pastor needs to make a judgment which affects all of the commissions, as did my Northern California pastor, he can convoke the council of ministries. The members, who represent the commissions, can advise him of their willingness to accept or refuse any proposal. That is one condition for the success of this structure: the pastor must be willing to abide by the advice of the commissions. Their ability to make decisions at the level of the ministries themselves is a kind of decentralization which Sweetser and Forster find liberating.

Empowering the Laity

A second recent book which advocates the council of ministries, at least indirectly, is Call to Leadership: Transforming the Local Church (Sheed and Ward, 1993). Written by Blessed Virgin Mary Sister Ellen Morseth of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, Call to Leadership presents itself as a series of five education sessions for parish pastoral councils. It does not explicitly advocate the council of ministries as such; indeed, it somewhat distances itself from that structure by advocating a “discernment process” for the selection of council members. Here the book implies that a discernment of council members, a discernment of who has the gifts necessary for the council ministry, is preferable to the nomination and election of candidates from the parish’s existing ministries. But Call to Leadership implicitly supports the council of ministries structure when it states that the purpose of the council is to coordinate existing ministerial committees (p. 93), making policy for them (p. 29), and monitoring their progress in achieving parish goals (p. 20). The council is a “council of ministries” not because it is drawn from ministerial groups but because it serves to coordinate them.

The strength of Call to Leadership lies in its attention to the group dynamics and spirituality of pastoral council meetings. It speaks of a “Phase II Development” of councils, a shift from the administrative and adversarial first phase of councils immediately following Vatican II. Taking its cue from a 1986 article by Natalie Cornell published in Today’s Parish , an article which contrasts early councils with “The Parish Council 20 Years After,” the book characterizes Phase II councils in seven terms coined by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office for Stewardship and Lay Formation Development. Phase II councils are prayerful, pastoral, representative, discerning, prophetic, empowering and collaborative. The first four characteristics emphasize that, whatever the council does, it should do so in a way that builds parish unity. The last three characteristics reflect the parish’s commitment to its Christian mission.

“Empowering” is central, for the council empowers by coordinating a system of standing committees (akin to Sweetser’s “commissions”). The council is empowered to make policy decisions on behalf of the committees. The task of the pastor is to ratify the council’s decisions by his presence and participation. That is precisely the service which the council performed for my Northern California pastor. He said that the council’s decision, namely, to cut the budget of the parish’s standing commissions, was empowering. Council members were empowered because they were already competent and confident. They already had the seven characteristics of Phase II councils. That is a condition, I believe, for the success of this structure. Call to Leadership suggests that only a well-formed council will succeed as a council of ministries.

A Comprehensive Solution

A final book which indirectly affirms the council of ministries is Lay Leaders: Resources for the Changing Parish, by William T. Ditewig (Ave Maria, 1991). Ditewig, a permanent deacon, does not use the term “council of ministries,” and recommends the election of councilors “at large” (rather than from commissions). Nevertheless he advocates a standing commission structure resembling Sweetser’s, a structure which is accountable to the council and coordinated by it (pp. 92-102), and so which deserves to be called a council of ministries. The main task of Ditewig’s council, however, is not to coordinate the commissions, but to plan. Drawing on a document entitled The Parish Council published by the Diocese of Portland, Maine, Ditewig envisions the council as the center of the parish’s ministerial efforts, bringing them all within a comprehensive plan and ensuring that the plans for each ministry are carried out (pp. 52, 57). By participating in this well-coordinated plan, Ditewig suggests, lay leaders can exercise their gifts to the full.

Ditewig envisions the council as the parish’s planning, implementing, and monitoring body. Between March and July, it completes an annual plan and thereafter implements it. To the council “president” (i.e., the lay chairman, not the pastor) falls the responsibility of monitoring the programs of the parish’s standing commissions and (after due consultation) appointing the head of each. “Comprehensive” is the Leitmotif of Ditewig’s council of ministries, which puts all parish ministries under the watchful oversight of an influential council president. My Northern California pastor found his parish council chairman similarly influential and persuasive. An all-encompassing council of ministries with a powerful chairman can recognize a parish-wide problem, propose a solution, win acceptance for it, and ensure compliance. This is a third condition for the success of this structure.

So when we look at recent books advocating the council of ministries, we can understand its appeal. If our parish is large and the pastor’s temptation is to micro-manage every program, the council of ministries offers a decentralized structure of commissions where decisions are made at lower and more appropriate levels. If our parish council is torn by tension with the pastor, the council of ministries’ emphasis on empowering ministerial committees promises to rebuild morale by sharing responsibility. And if our parish already has a decentralized system of commissions, each with its own budget, the well-led council of ministries can unify them, bringing all to accept a comprehensive solution to parish problems.

The Conditions for Success

Decentralizing, empowering, unifying: these are the apparent strengths of the council of ministries, and help to explain its continued popularity. But in light of the canonical and practical shortcomings of this structure, council members should be wary. No doubt the structure can work, despite its lack of harmony with canon law and the enormous responsibility it gives a volunteer council which meets only a few hours monthly. But what are the conditions under which it can work?

The first condition for the success of the council of ministries is a pastor who is relatively satisfied with the ministerial life of the parish and wants to maintain council morale. Since parish ministries are going well, he does not need to be strongly directive. My Northern California pastor did not want to shift budget monies from, say, a relatively ineffective youth ministry program to the liturgy budget. No, he was satisfied with the ministries, and quite willing to accept the across-the-board cut. However, parishes with weak ministries, parishes in which pastors need to direct institutional change or renewal, may find the decentralized council of ministries ineffective. It is the wrong structure for a hands-on pastor.

The second condition for a successful council of ministries is a high degree of knowledge and confidence among council members. No matter how one describes their job–

  • to coordinate and give direction (Sweetser and Holden),
  • to plan, develop policy, promote spirituality, and build community (Morseth), or
  • to plan, implement, and involve others (Ditewig),

–a council of ministries needs to be an extremely able group. The Northern California pastor did not have to explain at great length the work of the finance committee, the meaning of the parish budget, or his inability to cut fixed expenses. The council knew immediately what reduced expenses would mean to the budgets of the ministerial commissions. They were ready to deal with the problem. But if a parish council is relatively new and untrained, it may not be ready to start making policy decisions for the parish. The council of ministries structure may not appropriate.

A final condition for the success of this structure is a competent and well-trained chairperson. Such a chairperson must be able to discipline the council. The chair must plan and conduct the agenda in such a way that reports are made briskly, matters inappropriate to the council are referred to commission, and time is set aside for developing the parish’s future. My Northern California pastor could draw on the expertise of an M.B.A. who was willing to chair both the pastoral and the finance council. If your parish is not so richly endowed with talent, the council of ministries may not be for you.

Writers of books are thinkers with a strongly intellectual bent. They attract and enjoy working with people like themselves. I suspect that such a dynamic animates the authors of the books reviewed here. They advocate a sophisticated structure, the council of ministries, because they and the people they attract are highly motivated and capable of making it work. But if your pastor is not a delegator, if your council members lack knowledge and confidence, or if your council chair is not an experienced and well-trained administrator, I would think twice before embracing the council of ministries.