Standing committees

DPC LogoSmallWhat Kind of Council?  What Kind of Committees?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Should Your Council Have Committees?” Today’s Parish (January 1992): 15-17.

Should parish councils have committees? At first glance, this question sounds purely rhetorical. Councils do have committees — committees to coordinate ministries, committees to accomplish council tasks, committees to organize parish socials and service projects. Since committees are a fact of parish council life, the question whether they “ought” to exist seems utterly hypothetical.

But it is interesting to note that, in the current literature on parish councils, two books envision councils without committees. Their arguments call into question not only the role which committees play, but the purpose of councils as well. That purpose, far from being a universally-accepted given in U.S. parishes, is a matter still debated. And the debate deserves a hearing.

Councils without Committees

One book which envisions councils without committees is Loughlan Sofield and Brenda Hermann’s Developing the Parish as a Community of Service. It proposes that the council restructure itself as a “pastoral reflection and planning group.” The council’s task is parish renewal. It surrenders to the parish staff the work of coordinating parish committees. These committees cease to be council committees and instead become committees of the parish.

Another kind of council without committees is described by William J. Bausch. He proposes, in The Hands-On Parish, a two-tiered council structure. One tier, the parish assembly, is composed of the heads of ministries and organizations. Members meet every other month to share information and to lobby for particular projects, but not to vote. The second tier, the parish council proper, is a smaller reflective group. Its monthly meetings have two functions: thorough discernment of issues and eventual decision-making by vote. In Bausch’s view, the parish’s ministries and organization are not committees of the council.

In these two books, the parish council has no committees because its job is not to coordinate ministries. The books suggest that our question–whether councils ought to have committees–is less hypothetical than we thought. What are we to make of these pared-down councils? In order to understand them, let us consider how parish council theorists explain the role of committees. What do those who advocate a council-and-committee structure say the structure ought to be?

The Coordination of Ministries

The best-known handbook for councils is by William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers. Their 1988 New Practical Guide for Parish Councils is a revision of Rademacher’s 1979 Practical Guide. One of the book’s distinctive prescriptions for councils is a full-blown structure of standing committees. “If the council is going to carry out the mission of the church,” states the New Practical Guide, “it will need at least five” such committees (p. 100). The five recommended by the authors are spiritual life, Christian education, social ministry, administration, and community development. Why does the council “need” them? Because the council is a body, according to Rademacher and Rogers, “that plans and coordinates the overall policy of the parish” (p. 23). The committees carry out these policies. The council needs enough committees to ensure that all ministerial bases, so to speak, are covered.

A similar council-committee structure is recommended in Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden’s Leadership in a Successful Parish. The book calls for five “commissions”–Sweetser and Holden’s term for standing committees–in ministerial areas parallel to those recommended by the New Practical Guide. Parish council members are drawn from the five areas of ministry, and so the council is called a “council of ministries.” Coordinating those ministries is chief among the 13 goals of the council (p. 124). The council discerns the parish’s future direction, makes sure that the ministries reflect that overall direction, and helps to solve problems in the ministries. In short, the council manages the parish’s committees.

To be sure, the visions of the parish council in the New Practical Guide and Leadership in a Successful Parish are not identical. The Guide views the council as a directive body, setting policy which the committees follow. Leadership views the council more as a communicating and problem-solving agency. It enables priests and staff to keep in touch with ministries which are generally self-governing. Although from Sweetser and Holden’s point of view the council occasionally sets policy, nevertheless most council meetings are spent delegating matters to the appropriate ministerial commission or committee.

In both books, the key word is coordination. The Guide wants the council to coordinate the execution of the parish policies it sets. Leadership wants the council to coordinate existing ministries. Both books understanding coordinating in this way: the council makes decisions for the good of committees.

Discernment and Renewal

What about those who do not envision the council as the coordinator of ministries? What does the council do if it does not have a structure of standing committees? Bausch’s The Hands-On Parish lacks a full-blown treatment of parish council practice, so in it the scope of the council is not clear. On the one hand, Bausch’s council votes, and Bausch says he abides by the vote–so the council makes binding decisions. On the other hand, Bausch emphasizes that the council’s main role is to discern what decisions will make the parish a more viable sign of Christ, and that this discernment takes time. So perhaps one can say that Bausch’s council makes decisions for the whole parish, but its task is narrower than the coordination of ministries.

Sofield and Hermann’s council, in Developing the Parish as a Community of Service, is a group which mainly facilitates parish renewal. Instead of spending its time hearing committee reports, the council undertakes a parish-wide renewal project. It develops a mission statement and pastoral plan, teaches parishioners how to recognize their gifts, invites them to commit those gifts to the parish mission, and promotes the existence of small “ministry support groups.” When the project is complete, the council evaluates its success and makes plans to repeat the process.

Sofield and Hermann’s unspoken assumption is that existing ministries do not need coordinating by a council. Instead, what the parish needs is a large-scale effort to clarify its purpose and draw new people into its ministries. In one sense, this is coordination on a gigantic scale. All facets of the parish are to “co-order” themselves according to a renewed sense of mission. But in another sense, Sofield and Hermann are not speaking of coordination at all, if by coordination one means that the council sets policies which committees carry out. Rather, it is pastoral planning in which the whole parish is involved. The pastoral plan is implemented by the ministerial groups themselves, not by the council.

For Sofield and Hermann, as for Bausch, the parish council does not have a committee structure because it wants to do something other than coordinate committees. Bausch’s council discerns how the parish can best embody Christ. Sofield and Hermann’s council renews the parish by rejuvenating its mission and building commitment to it.

Does the difference between their theories about the parish council and the theories of those who recommend a full-blown committee structure hinge on more than the existence or non-existence of committees? I believe it does. The difference hinges on the overall purpose of councils. What should that purpose be? Should councils exist to ensure that parishes carry out the mission of the Church by coordinating ministerial committees? Or should their purpose be narrower and less administrative–namely, to plan–leaving the task of coordination to others?

Pastoral Planning

No analysis of The Hands-On Parish and of Developing the Parish as a Community of Service will suffice to clarify the alternatives to an extensive committee structure. The two books are similar in that they envision councils without committees, but there the similarities end. Bausch does not say enough about what his council does to present a clear alternative, and Sofield and Hermann propose a radical reorganization of council as the facilitator of parish renewal. That is not the only alternative to the “council of ministries” (Sweetser and Holden) and to the “system of committees” (Rademacher and Rogers).

A clearer alternative to the council as coordinator of parish ministries is the pastoral planning council. The planning council’s main task is to articulate the parish’s mission, identify the goals that flow from it, and define objectives for reaching the goals. Most planning councils do have committees, but the committees exist to further the pastoral plan. They are not ministerial groups which the council manages. So the planning council’s purpose is not to set policies which the committees then implement or to solve problems which arise in the committees. Instead the council develops and recommends plans to the pastor. Implementation of the plans, when they are accepted, belongs primarily to the pastor and staff.

Sofield and Hermann present the council as a pastoral planning group, but their book obscures the distinction between planning and implementation. In the book, the council both develops a pastoral plan and appoints a ministry coordinator whose job it is to help volunteers carry out the plan (p. 35). In short, the council both plans and implements.

The problem with that dual responsibility is diagnosed by Robert R. Newsome, one of the strongest proponents of the pastoral planning council. In Newsome’s 1982 The Ministering Parish–now out of print–he argues that the parish council ought to evaluate the parish, assess needs, develop plans, and recommend the plans to the pastor. Councils, Newsome says, should not be the ones to implement their plans. Why not? Because the executive role hinders the council’s ability to evaluate (p. 85). People become emotionally invested in the projects they implement, says Newsome, and council members are no exception.

Does this mean that the pastoral planning council is engaged in a purely ivory-tower exercise, developing paper plans while remaining indifferent to their implementation? Not at all, writes Robert G. Howes, the latest exponent of the pastoral planning council. His 1991 Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council acknowledges that the council is consultative, but emphasizes what all good pastors know: intelligent people will participate in councils “only when there is red meat on the agenda table” (p. 61). In the absence of good food–when little is given and little is asked–people walk away. Even a planning council, which understands itself not as the final decision-maker and implementer, wants to get something done. It does so by developing with the pastor a plan, cooperating with him in setting goals, and then jointly deciding how best to achieve the goals. They share responsibility, but the pastor alone has the executive function.

Pastoral planning councils, such as those recommended by Newsome and Howes, do have committees. Newsome envisions committees to help the council evaluate liturgy and religious education, and Howes recommends committees to conduct an annual parish assembly and to monitor parish finances. But these are not ministerial committees which the council oversees. The planning council does not coordinate or administrate the parish’s ministries.


Councils without committees, and councils without standing committees for each parish ministry, are an alternative to the council as coordinator of ministries. The major difference, however, is not the existence or non-existence of committees. Rather, the difference lies in the purpose of the council and committees.

The council with the broadest scope is the kind advocated by Rademacher and Rogers and by Sweetser and Holden: the coordinating council. In their view, the council mainly coordinates all parish ministries by supervising a structure of at least five standing committees. I say “mainly” because both books envision an enormous range of council activity–Rademacher and Rogers list seven characteristics of the council, ten functions, and fourteen purposes! This type of council has breadth and power, but one may well ask how a council, meeting once a month for two hours, can possibly do all that it is supposed to do. In addition to coordinating parish ministries, this type of council is also expected to do pastoral planning through a sixth, optional committee. Where do the members get their energy?

The pastoral planning council is narrower in scope. It is not an administrative arm of the parish. It does not implement its plans. But because its role is more circumscribed, the planning council has a better chance of achieving its goal within the constraints of a monthly meeting. Moreover, by the fact that it does not implement the plans it develops, such a council may be in a better situation to evaluate the parish. Such a pastoral planning council is limited. But I feel its expectations are more realistic.


Bausch, William J. The Hands-On Parish: Reflections and Suggestions for Fostering Community. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1989.

Howes, Robert G. Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Newsome, Robert R. The Ministering Parish: Methods and Procedures for Pastoral Organization. New York and Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1982.

Rademacher, William J., with Marliss Rogers. The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988.

Sofield, Loughlan, and Brenda Hermann. Developing the Parish as a Community of Service. Le Jacq Publishing, Inc., 1984.

Sweetser, Thomas P., and Carol Wisniewski Holden. Leadership in a Successful Parish. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987.