DPC LogoSmallThe Council and the Parish Volunteer

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Should Your Pastoral Council Coordinate Volunteers?” Today’s Parish 33:5 (September 2001): 8-11

Some might say that today’s Catholics do not evangelize enough. But too much evangelization by uncoordinated parish groups can also be a problem, as Father Steve Leslie told me when I visited his church in Southern California. He wanted to know what his pastoral council could do to help him better coordinate parish volunteers.

Father Steve (the names have been changed) discovered that he had a problem during a visit to his barber. The barber has cut Father Steve’s hair for many years, but is not a Catholic. His wife has diabetes and is bedridden. The barber told Father Steve that, on two separate occasions within a single week, members of Most Holy Rosary Church had called at his home.

The first visitors were from the Legion of Mary. Members of the parish’s chapter of the Legion were canvassing the barber’s neighborhood. The Legion, originally founded in Dublin in 1921, exists to comfort people who are shut in or needy. Legion of Mary visitors lend a sympathetic ear and offer material help and prayers. Their visit to his home was a surprise, the barber told Father Steve, but his wife appreciated it.

The second visit from Most Holy Rosary parishioners took place a few days later, said the barber. A couple rang his doorbell and introduced themselves as members of the parish’s evangelization committee. They asked the barber whether he was a Christian. The barber told them that he belonged to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. They thanked him, explained that they were looking for people who were unchurched, and invited him to visit Most Holy Rosary parish any time.

“So I gave them my business card,” the barber said to Father Steve. “I told them that I cut their pastor’s hair, and invited them to stop by for a haircut.”

Later, as Father Steve thought about the conversation with his barber, he felt a bit embarrassed. He was almost certain that the Legion of Mary and the Evangelization Committee leaders did not know that their members were calling upon the same people. The barber’s anecdote implied that the parish’s right hand did not know what the left was doing.

The Council as Coordinator?

When Father Steve told me this story, he expressed the wish that his parish pastoral council might be able to better coordinate the efforts of volunteer ministries. “The Legion of Mary and the Evangelization Committee should not be canvassing the same neighborhoods at the same time,” he complained. “The council should be coordinating their efforts.”

At Most Holy Rosary parish, coordination means that the council is to implement parish policies through a system of volunteers. That is what the council’s own constitution states. The council should “identify and determine the needs of the parish and . . . establish programs to meet these needs,” we read. The council “acts as a coordinating body for all organizations and group activities within the parish.” In Father Steve’s mind, this means that the council should receive reports, note conflicts (such as when one ministry is duplicating the work of another), and advise the ministry heads how to avoid them.

This is how numerous councils in the U.S. describe what they do. But when pastoral councils try to implement parish policies and coordinate them through a system of standing ministerial committees, as Father Steve would like his council to do, they face two difficulties:

There is a tension between the pastoral council as a consultative body and as a body that implements parish policies. Who is really in charge of parish ministry&emdash;the pastoral council or Father Steve?

Although the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People states that parish councils may coordinate a lay association, coordination is not their main work, and the council may not infringe upon the association’s autonomy (no. 26). Is Father Steve asking something of the council that councils were never intended to do?

The fact that both the Legion of Mary and the Evangelization Committee were canvassing the same neighborhood suggests that more coordination is needed. But can the pastoral council provide it? Should it even try? What is the best way that the pastoral council can serve a parish’s volunteer program?

The Council and Parish Volunteers

The more I spoke to Father Steve, the more I realized that he was asking his council too much and too little at the same time. He was asking too much, because it is too much to expect a group of volunteer councillors that meet only a once a month to coordinate all of the parish’s volunteer organizations and activities. This requires staff work, either the work of a paid staff or of carefully chosen volunteers.

At the same time, Father Steve was asking too little. He was not asking his council to do what the Church expects pastoral councils in general to do. Their task was defined by Vatican II’s Decree on the Office of Bishops, namely, to study pastoral matters, reflect on them, and propose conclusions in the form of recommendations (no. 27). This is what councils should be good at&emdash;the work of dialogue and discussion that leads to practical wisdom.

So I proposed to Father Steve that he invite his pastoral council to focus next year on the volunteer ministry. For a year, I suggested, the council should examine the ministry of volunteers at Most Holy Rosary. The aim of the investigation would be (1) to learn about the scope and activity of the parish’s volunteer ministries, (2) to honor their accomplishments, and (3) to propose ways to coordinate them better. The end result of the yearlong study would be a narrative report that describes the ministries and recommends ways to support them.

When the report is finished, it could be distributed to the parish and become an occasion for a parish-wide celebration. Every ministry and organization wants to celebrate its accomplishments. But from a planning point of view, the study would do something more concrete. It would enable Holy Rosary Church to know the extent of volunteer ministry in the parish. Then it could plan how to give volunteers the support they need. It might even help the parish avoid the duplicated work of two parish groups canvassing the same neighborhood.

Who Does the Work?

Whenever I propose that the main work of the parish pastoral council is research and planning (as distinct from the coordination of committees), people challenge me. Father John C. Iffert of Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia, Illinois put the challenge most recently in the form of an email. In a pastoral planning type of council, he asked, “Who are the doers of the work?” Father Iffert is concerned about overwhelming his employees. “Are there still commission/committees that simply aren’t coordinated by the Council,” he asked, “or is the load placed on the staff?”

Father Iffert fears that, if the parish pastoral council does not coordinate parish committees, then the job will fall upon his staff members, increasing their work load. In our correspondence, we did not discuss who does what. But Father Iffert clearly wants to expand the participation of volunteers in parish ministry, not overburden an already hard-working staff.

“Who are the doers of the work?” My answer is that parish ministry should be done by parish volunteers organized into committees. These are committees of the parish (not of the parish council). In general, these committee heads coordinate themselves. Supervision of them ultimately belongs to the pastor and his staff, not to the council.

The pastoral council assists the pastor by research and planning. It assesses parish needs, developing goals and objectives to meet them. But once a pastor accepts the plans recommended to him by the council, then a new phase begins. In this new phase, the pastor is not consulting but implementing. He invites volunteers to help him. These volunteers may be pastoral council members, committee members, or rank-and-file parishioners. But when he asks them to implement a parish initiative, they are no longer doing the specific work of pastoral councils. They are serving as volunteer ministers of the parish under the pastor’s direction.

Coordination by the Pastoral Council

The main job of the pastoral council is not to direct, supervise, or hold volunteer ministers accountable. That is an executive function, not a consultative one. To be sure, the council may offer to coordinate, but it does so as a consultative body. The council may assist volunteer ministers by studying what they do and recommending ways to help them do it better. It may investigate a problem and propose a way to solve it. It may examine how a ministry works and conclude that certain changes can improve it. In these ways the council coordinates and at the same time preserves its consultative nature.

Do your parish’s standing committees and commissions at times fail to cooperate? Do groups occasionally duplicate each other’s efforts, or step on each other’s toes? Does ministry limp when a parishioner volunteers to do a job and fails to follow through with it?

These are apt topics for the pastoral council. After it has studied them, the council may recommend that a specific ministry be reorganized, or that ministry heads should meet more often, or that volunteers need better coordination. In these ways the council exercises its ministry of research and planning. Implementing the plans, however, is an executive function. And in the parish, the pastor is the chief executive.

Father Steve Leslie needs help to keep the Legion of Mary and the evangelization committee from canvassing the same neighborhoods. Father John Iffert wants to expand participation in the work of the parish and see that volunteers are properly supervised. I would advise these pastors to consult their councils. Then they may want to recruit a parishioner — possibly a retired person with a pleasant personality who knows the parish — to coordinate under their supervision the parish’s volunteer ministers.