By Mark F. Fischer
(Published as “How Should Councils Spend Their Time?” Part I, Today’s Parish (September, 1991): 20-22.)
I was the secretary of my parish council from July, 1984 to October, 1985. Since it was my first parish council, I did not know what to expect. I listened and dutifully kept the records. Now, as I look over the minutes of that time, I realize how poorly the council functioned as a pastoral planning body. Consider, for instance, how the council spent its time.
40% receiving reports about special parish concerns. Some of these reports called for decisions. For example, the report on proceeds from the Thanksgiving drive asked how the remaining $185 after holiday disbursements should be allocated. Other reports, like that on the search for a Spanish-speaking catechist, were informative only. Our sole response was to thank the presenter.
25% receiving regular reports. The greatest amount of time was spent on the parish school, which was spending beyond its budget and enrolling fewer and fewer of the parish’s Catholic children–the smallest number being the parish’s Hispanic children. The report which consumed the second biggest block of time was the regular report on parish finances. They were scarcely in better shape than the school finances.
17% revising the council constitution. A large chunk of this time was a deliberation on whether the council has “authority” or whether it merely “shares responsibility.” The original wording of the constitution was that the council has “advisory authority,” whatever that means. The purpose of the council was “to develop a parish community.” None of us complained that this mandate is far beyond the scope of a council which meets two hours per month.
8% hearing proposals. The most interesting proposal was from the leader of the choir’s soprano section, who wanted to be compensated for her services. This upset the other sopranos, my wife included, who felt that if one should be compensated then all should be. The meatiest proposal–and the one with the greatest potential–was for the development of a comprehensive parish financial statement and budget, neither of which the parish had ever had. One year later, a newly-formed finance council had completed a record of expenses, but there was still no projected budget.
5% planning council elections. Part of the time was spent on parish-wide elections. There was a concern about Hispanic representation on the parish council. The result of the election was the addition of a second Spanish-speaking member to the 14-member council. Another concern was the election of a parish council chairperson, vice-chairperson, and secretary. All but one of those nominated for each position declined. That explains, incidentally, how I rose to office.
The rest of the time was taken by complaints, commendations, and announcements. My time estimates were not made with a stopwatch, but they are fairly accurate. In what follows, I will critique the council for not focusing on pastoral planning. Not everyone agrees, however, that that is what councils should do. So in the final part of this essay, I will say why the vision of councils as pastoral planning bodies is gaining adherents.
Critique from the Planning Perspective
Most striking about my old council was its disorder. The council was like a ship without a rudder. The pastor rarely met with the chairperson to plan the agenda, and never with the officers as a team. Instead, the chairperson usually wrote an agenda which was distributed at the meeting. The agenda mixed the sublime and the ridiculous. Some time was devoted to a reflection on the parish’s overall well-being. Some time was devoted to minor cash disbursements and bickering sopranos.
The disorder, I would say, was due to a poor understanding of councils. The pastor did not view the council as a pastoral planning body. And in his defense I must say: neither did we. We were not prepared to accept any limitation of the council’s scope, not even those limitations which would have given us a sharper focus. And if someone had urged us to cut the numerous reports and focus only on substantial problems, we would have become defensive: Who says our reports are unimportant?
To define a council as a pastoral planning body can mean many things. But all of them have this in common: such a council’s main work is to plan a solution for a pastoral problem. According to this vision, a council identifies a problem, studies it, explores solutions to it, and recommends the best solutions to the pastor.
As I look back on the parish from a seven years’ distance, I can say that the major pastoral problem during my council tenure was the parish’s transition from a mainly English-speaking population to one in which the largest number of young families were Hispanic. That was not clear to me at the time. But the council minutes hint at it in a variety of ways. They note the search for a Spanish-speaking catechist, the glaring absence of Hispanic children from the rolls of the parish school, and the uneasiness about poor Hispanic representation on the parish council.
If we had seen this problem clearly and had been given direction, we could have performed a more important service than we did. Documenting the influx of Hispanic parishioners, projecting the consequences of it, reviewing books and articles by those who have faced similar transitions, we could have anticipated emerging needs: to adapt the liturgy, to make the school more attractive to the new parishioners, to develop leaders. Instead, our most important work was calling for the development of a budget–a budget which the finance council was unable to complete even after a year of work.
Focusing the parish council on pastoral planning might have solved other council problems as well. For example, the council constitution could have dropped the language about “developing a parish community” and replaced it with a statement about considering pastoral problems and their solutions. A focus on pastoral planning would also have simplified council elections. If it were recognized that the council’s main task during the year was, e.g., to examine the consequences of a rising Hispanic population, then council members with specific gifts for that task could be sought. Indeed, the parish might dispense with elections altogether and consider other ways of discerning candidates for council membership.
Toward a U.S. Consensus
There is much to be gained by a council which focuses its attention on a major pastoral planning issue. Many, however, would reply that councils ought to do more than pastoral planning. They maintain that councils coordinate ministries, foster communication, and serve as a general clearing house for parish events–and that none of these projects can be dropped. Is my argument for councils as pastoral planning bodies anything more than the pique of a disgruntled, one-time secretary?
Yes, the argument finds support in recent books, in the merger of national organizations, and in recent diocesan publications. They indicate that the U.S. Church is moving toward a consensus that pastoral planning is the main work of parish councils.
Books. Recent publications about pastoral councils differ on the primacy of pastoral planning. For instance, the 1988 New Practical Guide for Parish Councils by William Rademacher and Marliss Rogers views pastoral planning as an important part of the council’s work, but not its main focus. However, Robert R. Newsome’s 1982 The Ministering Parish would recast the council exclusively in the research and planning mold. Despite their differences, both publications agree with Mary B. McKinney’s 1987 Sharing Wisdom. It states that if councils are really to make wisdom their goal, then they have to become more reflective. That means clearing trivia from the agenda, choosing an important matter for discernment, and giving it time. All of these are prerequisites for the planning model.
Organizations. Pastoral councils have so much in common with pastoral planning that two national organizations of people who work with pastoral councils and pastoral planning formed a new organization in 1989: the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development. The merger suggests not only that pastoral planning is the work of councils, but that such work should take place in the kind of community which a council can be.
Guidelines. Pastoral council guidelines published by the dioceses of Cleveland (1990), Los Angeles (1991), Oakland (1990), and San Antonio (1990) all say, in their statements of either purpose, function, or objective, that pastoral planning is the work of councils.
It is true to say that the kind of pastoral planning which councils do differs from that done by professional planners. Almost no volunteer groups can accomplish what paid consultants can. But many are discovering this truth: when parish councils limit their scope and instead, by focusing on a major pastoral issue, clarify the issue and how the parish might respond to it, councils accomplish something at least as important as “staying on top” of every parish event.