Three Los Angeles pastors have been colleagues and fast friends for more than twenty years, but their parishes do not resemble each other in the slightest. All three pastors were born in Ireland, came to California as young men, and became pastors in the late 1980s. Each leads his parish in a different way, and that is especially true for the pastoral councils.
I chatted with them about councils at a recent gathering of priests held in the archdiocesan seminary. Listening to their experiences, I realized that each pastor champions a distinctly different model. Each council is legitimate, but tailored to the pastor. The differences illustrate the principle that form follows function. The form of the pastoral council, we can say, differs according to the function it serves. Let’s look at the three models they advocated, and then analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Father Athlone’s Council of Ministries
The first pastor (we shall call him Father Athlone) inherited a council from his predecessor. The previous pastor had organized his parish into six ministerial commissions: liturgy, education, social justice, spiritual life, administration, and evangelization. When Father Athlone became pastor, he found that each of the six oversaw the ministries that fell under the commission’s auspices. The liturgy commission, for example, comprised the heads of the Eucharistic ministers, the lectors, and the choirs. At its monthly meetings, the commissioners did informal evaluations, discussed changes in procedure, and agreed upon schedules.
Every year, the six choose one of their members to represent the commission on the pastoral council. These representatives constitute the main part of Father Athlone’s council, whose primary task is to coordinate the six commissions.
“Our meetings deal with all the immediate practical issues of parish life,” said Father Athlone. “To be sure, we’re not able to do much long-range planning,” he said, “but each council member looks out for the interests of his or her commission, and meetings are never dull.”
Father Boyne’s Comprehensive Plan
In contrast to Father Athlone, Father Boyne did not inherit a pastoral council, but started one from scratch. And unlike Father Athlone, Father Boyne definitely wanted pastoral planning. He felt that the various ministry groups in the parish -– the catechetical team, for example, and the parish food bank – were well able to coordinate themselves with the help of the parish staff. There was no need for a pastoral council to do that.
Indeed, Father Boyne distrusted councils of the coordinating type. In his previous parish, such councils were far more than “consultative only.” They made decisions, he felt, which pastors had to grudgingly affirm without sufficient time for thorough reflection. Father Boyne really hates to make quick decisions.
So he has asked his council to develop and maintain a comprehensive pastoral plan. By that he means a set of goals and objectives for each of six areas of parish life: worship, education, evangelization, service, stewardship, and leadership. The council recommends these goals and objectives to Father Boyne. He usually accepts them and implements the recommendations with the help of staff and volunteers.
Father Boyne’s council works on “planning cycles” that last three years. In other words, every three years the council reviews the parish’s pastoral plan, assessing how well it was implemented. It surveys the goals and objectives in each of the six areas, and adjusts them or recommends new ones.
“I like the pastoral planning type of council because it doesn’t force me into snap decisions,” said Father Boyne. “The planning cycle gives me time to think.” Undoubtedly the six planning areas are not always of equal importance. “There are times when I ask myself why we need to consider worship and evangelization,” said Father Boyne, “when we only face important questions in leadership and education.”
Still, the council’s focus on six areas has its benefits. “We don’t just look at my own favorite issues or at what’s fashionable,” said the pastor. “By looking at six different areas, the council has to take a comprehensive view.”
Father Cavan’s Pastoral Instrument
Our third pastor (we’ll call him Father Cavan) is a strong-willed leader. Some would call him impatient. Comprehensive planning, in the sense of a systematic look at each area of ministry, does not interest him. “No one learns how to be a good pastor,” he said, “by studying systematic theology.”
Father Cavan prefers what he calls “focused planning.” Each year he establishes a theme for the council based on what he believes to be the parish’s most urgent need. This year’s theme is “The Parish Family – – La Familia Parroquial.” Father Cavan has asked the council to study how the parish welcomes Spanish-speaking parishioners and to recommend ways to be even more welcoming. He wants the councillors to examine how friendly the parish is to Spanish speakers, not just at Sunday Mass but in every area of parish life, and to develop ways to be even more hospitable.
In past years, Father Cavan has asked the council to investigate youth ministry, liturgical music, home-based catechesis, care for the sick and dying, and the kind of multi-purpose building the parish ought to build. “These have been major issues for the parish, issues with long-term consequences,” said Father Cavan. “They deserve the kind of detailed attention that councils are designed to give.”
Two things distinguish Father Cavan’s model of pastoral council from the councils of Father Athlone and Father Boyne. Unlike Father Athlone’s council, Father Cavan’s is a research and planning group. It doesn’t attempt to coordinate all parish ministries, but only studies particular issues and offers its conclusions to the pastor. And unlike Father Boyne’s council, it doesn’t attempt to write a comprehensive plan. “A comprehensive plan tries to please everyone and winds up pleasing no one,” said Father Cavan. “I focus the council’s attention on a particular theme because I know it’s important and I want the council’s planning to be thorough.”
Model A: The Council of Ministries
Let’s call the councils of Fathers Athlone, Boyne, and Cavan models A, B, and C. Then we can summarize the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Model A is commonly known as the Council of Ministries. Thomas Sweetser and Carol W. Holden gave it that name in their 1987 book Leadership in a Successful Parish. The council guidelines for the Archdioceses of Hartford and Detroit, for example, implicitly endorse this model. Its fundamental feature is a system of parish standing committees. Committee representatives form the council, and the council oversees the implementation of the parish’s mission. The strength of this model is widespread parish participation in the standing committee structure.
But the structure is also a source of weakness. It is, first of all, ambitious in scope. Its premise is that the pastoral council can coordinate all facets of parish life. This is a tall order for even for the most experienced pastoral council. How can a group of volunteer councillors who meet once a month realistically hope to coordinate all the ministries and standing committees of the parish?
Membership is a problem. Council of Ministries members represent six standing committees. Adversarial relations may develop as the councillors compete for the parish’s resources. If each councillor’s goal is to ensure that his or her ministry receives adequate resources, the councillor may be jealous of the resources allotted to other ministries.
And finally, there is a danger that the council may be driven by its committees. They may demand that the council hear their reports, arbitrate their disputes, and respond to their requests. Immediate concerns may prevent the council from looking to the future. Father Athlone found this to be true. His council never had time to do pastoral planning.
Model B: Comprehensive Planning
Father Boyne’s Model B may be called the Comprehensive Planning Model. This is the model that regards the council, not as a coordinator of parish ministries, but as a body that plans for the parish. This is the model recommended in the 2001 book Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council by Mary Ann Gubish and Susan Jenny and implemented in the authors’ own Diocese of Greensburg. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati follows a similar model. It is noble, unified, and catholic. In it, six areas of planning form the parameters of a comprehensive parish vision.
Model B avoids the adversarial relations to which the Council of Ministries is heir. It does so by clearly maintaining the council’s consultative identity. The pastor consults the council, but does not require that it direct a system of standing committees. The council plans, the pastor and his staff implement with the help of volunteers. Implementation is not the council’s responsibility.
Model B also emphasizes prayer and consensus. This emphasis is designed to augment the council’s cohesiveness and communion. Councillors who pray together, who seek consensus, who reflectively discern issues—these councillors should not be adversaries. These are the strengths of Model B, the comprehensive planning model.
But even with the lowered expectations of this model, even with its wise refusal to coordinate a system of committees, Model B remains ambitious in scope. It tries to plan for the parish in a comprehensive set of areas. Father Boyne liked this aspect of the model. But not every aspect of parish life needs attention at every time. Not every parish planning effort needs to be comprehensive.
Model C: The Pastoral Instrument
This brings us to Father Cavan’s Model C, the Pastoral Instrument Model. The great advantages of this model are its realistic expectations and clear task. The task of the council is nothing more or less than the minimum that Vatican II and canon law prescribe. Church documents state that pastoral councils are to investigate, ponder, and draw conclusions. They need not coordinate a system of committees or plan according to a comprehensive agenda. The pastor, according to this model, knows his parish. He consults the council about the parish’s needs. The council assists him by its study, reflection, and considered recommendations.
Of course, the drawbacks of this model are also apparent. It sees the council as a “pastoral instrument.” The council is an instrument of the pastor who consults it, not an instrument of lay leadership. The pastor remains the leader. Father Cavan liked that aspect of Model C. He invited his council to examine issues of real importance. He relied on the council’s advice.
Model C has another drawback. It offers no guarantees of widespread parish participation in planning or ministry. If a pastor turns the council’s attention to a narrow or insignificant topic, no council member can say, “But Father, the diocesan guideline says that we are obligated to plan for liturgy, evangelization, and education.” The model offers no due process for councillors who believe that the pastor has wasted their time.
Model C presupposes good pastors, pastors with serious matters about which they want the council’s advice. Its premise is that a good pastor wants to know the reality of the parish, so he can love and serve it better. This model is not designed to correct the failings of poor pastors.
Conclusion: Which Model Is Best?
Each of the three models has its strengths and weaknesses. Model A, the Council of Ministries, ensures widespread participation. But because the individual ministry committees drive its agenda, planning gets short shrift. Planning is the strength of Models B and C. Model B, the Comprehensive Planning Council, develops goals and objectives in each area of ministry. It aids the pastor who needs clear direction. But not every area of ministry is equally important, and Model B may pay undue attention to the less important areas. Model C, the Pastoral Instrument, gives the pastor the greatest freedom to concentrate on the areas that are most important. It depends on the pastor’s strong leadership, which may be a weakness as well as a strength.
After listening to Fathers Athlone, Boyne, and Cavan, I conclude that each of the three council models has a value. Something is gained and lost in each. The pastor plays a pivotal role in the choice of the model. If the council does not meet the needs of the pastor – the one who, after all, consults the council – then he may grow frustrated. He may seek another model. In terms of pastoral councils, no one size fits all.