Against coordination

DPC LogoSmallProposal from Malaysia: Councils Should Not Coordinate Ministries

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Parish Councils on Mission: A Radical Proposal,” Today’s Parish (October 1992): 19-22.

For many of us readers of Today’s Parish, Malaysia has meant jungle-covered mountains by the South China Sea, proximity to Singapore, Indonesia, and Borneo, and semiconductor devices, of which Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter. But now, with the 1991 publication of Peter Kim Se-Mang’s Parish Councils on Mission, that may change. The book’s analysis of parish councils in Kuala Lumpur indirectly challenges an all-too-common practice in U.S. parish councils: the practice of combining the “pastoral” and the “coordinating” functions in a single council.

Kim’s alternative to this practice is a radical one. He proposes that, in addition to the existing parish council and the finance council, parishes should establish a third council. Its focus would be “pastoral” matters, i.e., the continuous evaluation of the parish in light of the Christian mission.

Kim claims that his proposal corresponds more closely to what the Second Vatican Council envisioned than the present practice of most councils. This should be important for all who want to improve their councils. Since Vatican II provided the impetus for the council movement, efforts to improve councils should be made in the spirit of Vatican II.

In my opinion, Kim’s proposal for a third council is unwise and not what the bishops of Vatican II wanted. But he is absolutely right to suggest that parish councils spend too much time on coordinating present parish activities to the neglect of larger concerns about the Church’s mission. In what follows, I shall outline Kim’s proposal more thoroughly, explore its rationale, and weigh its consequences for councilors.

Critique of Existing Councils

The proposal for a third “pastoral” council is based on a critique of existing council practices. Kim, who prepared the first draft of his study as a D.Min. dissertation at the Presbyterian-led San Francisco Theological Seminary, found that the six parish councils he examined were preoccupied with maintaining the parish status quo. They engaged, he writes, in “self-servicing and self-maintaining activities.” Instead of planning for the future, these councils were merely managing the present. Kim describes them as “coordinating” councils.

The primary task of such coordinating councils, says Kim, is to assist in parish administration. The Kuala Lumpur parish councils reported that their greatest successes had to do with implementing plans which had been developed elsewhere. The councils were helpful in organizing parish censuses, coordinating parish celebrations, and providing catechetical services. Once a basic administrative direction had been set, the councils were good at carrying it out. Coordination, not planning, was their forte.

U.S. parish councils which undertake the coordination of parish ministries may not focus as one-sidedly as Malaysian councils on administration to the neglect of planning. But every U.S. councilor who has suffered through seemingly interminable reports from the parish’s liturgy, education, or administration commission can sympathize with Kim’s critique. Coordinating use of the parish hall can seem pretty remote from the mission of Christ.

Kim suggests that strategic planning makes the difference between councils which serve the status quo and councils which focus on the Church’s mission. Planning includes consultation, research, clarifying the parish mission, anticipating future needs, and developing plans to meet those needs. Doubtless, U.S. parish councils often describe planning as one of their purposes. But in the parishes Kim surveyed, councils devoted most of their time not to planning but to management. They coordinated present parish ministries and paid little attention to refining the parish’s mission and planning to achieve it.

The Three-Council Proposal

To reduce this imbalance Kim proposes his three-council scheme. The first council, the finance council mandated in canon law, advises pastors about the allocation of parish resources. The second council is the coordinating council. It assists the implementation of parish programs by coordinating the parish’s various ministerial groups.

The proposed third council is the pastoral council. It focuses on the neglected area of strategic planning. Its task, according to Kim, is to clarify the mission for which God is sending the parish. This is a reflective and time-consuming process in which prayer and the elaboration of a local parish theology play a large role. It issues not in administrative directives but in a vision of the parish’s role as a Christian community and as a force for human betterment–a group which Kim rather grandly calls “artisans of a civilization of love.”

Kim, a Jesuit priest born in Sabah (North Borneo) who served the 28 parishes of Kuala Lumpur for ten years, arrived at his multi-council scheme because of dissatisfaction with existing council practice. He found the Kuala Lumpur councils too complacent. They rarely examined their long-term goals or the role which parishes can play in the global mission of the Church. They suffered from a lack of vision.

To tell the truth, some of these problems are peculiar to Kuala Lumpur. Kim states that the former British colonial government, from which Malaysia won independence in 1957, sought to keep smaller ethnic and cultural groups (such as the Chinese, Indians, and Eurasians) separate from the Muslim majority. This policy dampened any Catholic efforts to evangelize and preserved the Church’s vision of a European-style Christianity distinct from local cultural traditions. The result for Malaysian parishes was a preoccupation with their own survival, rather than any engagement with the Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu milieu (or even with other Christian churches). This explains why the idea of a wider, extraparochial mission is unfamiliar to Kuala Lumpur councils.

But this distinctively Malaysian problem plays only a small part in Parish Councils on Mission, and does not make the book irrelevant to U.S. councils. Indeed, one could argue that the situation of the Catholic Church in Malaysia is analogous to that of the Catholic Church in the U.S., which is surrounded by and separate from Protestant churches. At any rate, there is little evidence to suggest that parish councils in the U.S. are any more concerned about mission than their counterparts in Asia. One can hardly complain about this part of Kim’s argument.

Support from Vatican II?

Establishing a third “pastoral” council in every parish will ensure that the mission of the Church receives proper attention, suggests Kim, who is Prefect of Studies at the Manila-based Arrupe International Residence. He argues that separate councils were the intention of the world’s bishops in 1965: “Vatican II recommends two types of councils applicable to the parish,” states Kim (p. 26), “pastoral and coordinating.”

Kim’s argument is controversial, given that canon law speaks only of a single parish council (apart from the finance council). And his argument is complicated, dealing with the interpretation of Vatican documents more than 25 years old. But the train of Kim’s thought is worth following. He wants to recover the intention of the Vatican II bishops as a guide to councils. The clearer we are about that intention, the more faithful we can be to the spirit of Vatican II.

Vatican II, it is clear, did envision two types of councils. One kind was outlined in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops (par. 27), which refers to a diocesan “pastoral” council. The other kind was sketched in the Decree on Lay People (par. 26), which refers to councils for assisting the Church “apostolic” work. Such apostolic councils “can take care of the mutual coordinating of the various lay associations and undertakings, the autonomy and particular nature of each remaining untouched.” Pastoral councils are for dioceses, said Vatican II. Apostolic councils are for dioceses, parishes, and other ecclesiastical levels.

So Kim is correct in that Vatican II envisioned two kinds of councils. But in light of Kim’s multi-council proposal, we must ask: first, did Vatican II envision two kinds of councils for parishes; and second, is the “apostolic” council (about which the Decree on Lay People speaks) the typical parish council, i.e., the coordinating council?

Assessment of Kim’s Analysis

Let’s begin with the first question. Vatican II did not speak of two kinds of parish councils. It spoke of two kinds of councils, one for dioceses, another for dioceses, parishes, and other levels. Who then applied the word “pastoral” to parish councils? The Code of Canon Law did so in 1983. Canon Law does not speak of two parish councils, coordinating and pastoral; it speaks of a single parish pastoral council which helps “in fostering pastoral activity” (ca. 536). The code assumed under one heading two functions which Vatican II had kept separate.

So Kim is right to state that Vatican II recommends two types of councils, and right in saying that the two types are “applicable” to the parish. They are both applicable because “pastoral” and “apostolic” matters belong to the parish, and because the word “pastoral” was applied to parish councils by the 1983 code. But Vatican II did not propose separate pastoral and coordinating councils for each parish.

Let us now turn to the second question, whether the “apostolic” council mentioned in the Decree on Lay People is the same as Kim’s “coordinating” council. I do not think it is. The meaning of the word “coordinating” in the Vatican II decrees has been thoughtfully explored by a French priest, Roch Pagé, in The Diocesan Pastoral Council (Newman Press, 1970)–a book notably absent from Kim’s excellent bibliography. We can summarize it in this way. The word “coordination” was present in early drafts of the Decree on Bishops, but was ultimately excluded. Why? Because it implied that pastoral councils should coordinate the participation of diocesan and religious clergy in apostolic work, a role which the Vatican II bishops believed is outside the scope of the DPC. Relations among the clergy are not the DPC’s business.

In brief: Vatican II regarded “coordinating” as an activity which apostolic councils can but need not undertake. Pagé lends no support to Kim’s belief that Vatican II envisioned coordination as the main activity of councils at the parish level. Instead, he suggests that “coordinating” is not a central focus of council, but an activity which councils may take up in the course of assisting apostolic activity. Kim’s “coordinating” council is not the same thing as the apostolic council envisioned at Vatican II.

Consequences for the Parish

So if Kim misses the mark by suggesting that Vatican II recommended coordinating and pastoral councils for every parish, is Parish Councils on Mission of no value to U.S. councilors? By no means! The value of the book lies not in its recommendation to establish a third council in parishes, but in its clear isolation of a problem. Parish councils, by and large, do not sufficiently attend to the mission of the Church. Peter Kim identifies the problem and shows why it is one.

The three-council proposal has not caught on in Malaysia. Pastoral Councils on Mission notes that the success was limited to experiments in two Kuala Lumpur parishes. The other parish councils may have felt that they were already doing both planning and coordinating. When Kim shared with them the results of his investigation, including the three-council proposal, he reports that they questioned him. People wanted to know where the additional councilors would come from and how the councils would interrelate. The answers to these questions have not yet been conclusively answered.

Yet Kim’s basic premise–that parish councils do not yet focus sufficiently on the mission of the Church–found support in his surveys of the six councils. Pastors expressed a desire for more councilor formation. They were dissatisfied with “business as usual” and wanted their councils to achieve a wider pastoral vision. And the Kuala Lumpur councilors requested greater clarity about the role of parish councils. Frustrated by a lack of engagement with wider societal issues, and sensing that their council ministry could make a greater contribution to the Church, they hungered for the deeper sense of mission about which Kim speaks.

I believe that Kim’s assessment of the need for parish councilors to focus more on mission is sound. But in my opinion, establishing yet another council is not the answer. Rather, the solution is to gradually shift pastoral councils from the coordinating function to a mission-oriented planning function. Coordinating, as Kim uses the term, is easier than planning. It is more immediate and less abstract. And although the U.S. councils which coordinate parish ministries do more than help implement plans developed by others, nevertheless they are vulnerable to Kim’s critique. Insofar as they organize present parish activities, they have less time for strategic planning, and less time for mission.

Councils spend a lot of time coordinating, I believe, because it seems more urgent and because councils are ready to coordinate before they are ready to plan. But as a council increases in maturity and knowledge, its ability to plan and its confidence grow. This is what managerial theorists mean by progress in a group’s readiness to do a task.

I am convinced that most parish ministries do not need to be coordinated by a council which advises the pastor, because he and ministry leaders can coordinate parish activities themselves. But pastors do need a council to plan. Planning is much more difficult than coordinating because it demands a willingness to abstract from immediate concerns, to identify the larger problems which face the parishioners and their neighbors, and to reflect on how the parish can contribute to their solution.

This is not so much a technical task for which a council can be quickly trained. Rather, it is a process of conversion. It requires time for reflection and prayer. Above all, it requires strong leadership from the pastor. Here pastors can truly exercise their authority, Kim says, “as an office of service in order to motivate councils” (p. 171). The pastor’s job is to lead himself and the council into a deeper Christian vision.

Parish Councils on Mission may not persuade U.S. parishes to establish a third “pastoral” council in addition to the present finance council and the parish council which coordinates. But if the book can reveal to U.S. councilors a deeper sense of their mission to Church and world, we owe Peter Kim Se-Mang a debt of thanks.


On the day before I finished this article, I borrowed a seminary car which had recently been repaired and started driving into town to gas it up. My copy of Parish Councils on Mission lay on the back seat. At the first stoplight, the car died. I tried without success to crank it up. Then I noticed smoke coming from under the hood. The man behind me pushed the car through the intersection. As I coasted to a stop, the passenger compartment filled with smoke. I jumped out, the car burst into flames and, by the time the fire truck arrived, the car was an inferno.

After I had spoken with the authorities and the car was cool, I retrieved what was left of Parish Councils on Mission: the excellent bibliography and a letter from Peter Kim. I was grateful for that much and immediately sent away for a new copy to Benih Publishers, 174 Jalan A10, Taman Melawati, 53100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Fax 603-621-2139): $10.00 plus $3.00 surface mail. Now there’s a hot item!