Council planners

DPC LogoSmallPastoral Planning by Councils

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Pastoral Planning in Practice,” Today’s Parish (November/December 1994): 11-13, 22-23.

One hot evening last summer I attended a parish council meeting in a California rectory. The meeting stands out in my mind because it was conducted mainly in Spanish. Although my Spanish is rudimentary, I understood enough to like what I heard. Let me tell you about it, because it illustrates the kind of pastoral planning which parish councils can actually do.

The pastor, a florid Irishman who had been in the parish one year, greeted the seven members of the council as they arrived at his front door. He had always been Father Dan to me, but in this setting he was Padre Daniél, with the accent on the last syllable. He indicated a little table with a Mr. Coffee, some cold sodas in a bowl of ice, and a plate of Mexican cookies. Then he invited the members to sit under the ceiling fan at the dining room table.

There was no hurry. The meeting was scheduled for 7:30. At 8:00 we finally sat down. I had to resist the temptation to look at my watch. The pastor introduced me as an amigo con muchas experiencias in councils. Then he stated the evening’s theme, chosen at the last meeting: a reflection the parish’s ministry to youth.

The Consejo Pastorál

Padre Daniél called the consejo pastorál to prayer. Consuelo, one of the parish lectors, read the gospel of the prodigal son. After a few moments of silence, the pastor asked us to share our reflections. Almost without exception, each council member told a story about his or her children. The story told by Miguel, who schedules the parish hall, was memorable. His 18-year-old had just completed a five-session workshop on alcohol abuse, sponsored by the county, after his arrest for drunk driving. “He shamed his mother and me,” said Miguel, “and now we have to forgive him–to forgive and remain vigilant.” After all had spoken, the pastor made a prayer of petition and led the Padre Nuestro.

Following the Sign of the Cross, the pastor quickly sketched the parish’s ministry to youth, which is pretty meager. He then asked, “What are the biggest problems we face as Christian parents?”

This unleashed a flood of reflections. Rosario began by saying how hard it is to get her three teenagers to attend Mass. “I threaten them every Sunday, and I come to the Sacrament with anger in the heart.” Roberto, the town librarian, echoed Rosario’s sentiments. His daughter was confirmed last year, and is now too old for classroom catechesis. She does not want to join the youth group, he said in English, “She’d rather wear mascara and hang out at the mall with her friends.” There was appreciative laughter.

While the members spoke, I watched the pastor jotting notes. When there was a brief silence, he asked, “What can we do to become better parents?” A couple of suggestions were hesitantly offered. Carmen, a long-time catechist whose youngest is finishing high school, praised Sister Inez, the elderly DRE. But Carmen also noted that Sister Inez is no longer as able as she once was to recruit new catechists. She could use some help.

At this point Miguel started to complain about Sister Inez, who forgot to reserve the parish hall last week and wanted to use it during another group’s time. Padre Daniél had to remind him, “We’re here to talk about the youth of the parish, not scheduling the hall.”

Then Roberto said that the adult parishioner who coordinates the youth group speaks no Spanish, although most of the parish youth are Hispanic. Chicanos like Roberto’s daughter, who are mostly bi-lingual, still disdain the group as “Anglo.” Rosario, the mother whose children resist going to Mass, nodded. “All of us parents have the same problems, Padre,” she said. “We need to gather in solidarity and help bear one another’s burdens.”

After listening to the concerns, Padre Daniél spoke. He listed the suggestions which the council had made: more help for Sister Inez in the catechetical ministry, a broader cultural makeup of the youth group, and a support group or assembly for parents. He then asked for help in counting the number of parish youth of catechetical age, assessing the needs of Sister Inez, observing the youth group, and planning a parish meeting for parents.

Finally, he led the group in a prayer during which he referred specifically to the challenges they faced: Miguel’s need to forgive his arrested son, Rosario’s desire to encourage her resistant teenagers, Robert’s patience with his mall-going daughter, and Carmen’s support for Sister Inez. The meeting ended at half past nine.

Was It Pastoral Planning?

At this point, let’s step back and analyze the council as a planning body. Readers of Today’s Parish are familiar with the argument that parish councils should be concerned primarily about pastoral planning, rather than coordinating a system of committees. Pastoral planning harmonizes better with the vision of Vatican II and with the consultative nature of councils. Moreover, it is a limited, and hence more realistic, task for councils that meet only two hours monthly. The question is, was my Spanish-speaking council actually doing pastoral planning?

I can think of several experts in the field who would say no, that was not pastoral planning. It was wholly unsystematic. There was no explicit reference to a mission statement. No deliberate effort was made to gather data. No goals were established and no objectives were set. In fact, no decisions at all were made. All of these constitute formal planning, and the council did none of them.

But I would argue that the Spanish-speaking council was indeed engaged in pastoral planning. The essence of planning is a movement from self-knowledge to vision, and from vision to an improved practice. And that was precisely the movement of my consejo pastorál. When Padre Daniél asked what are the biggest problems the councilors faced as Christian parents, he was inviting them to reflect on their actual situation. And when he asked how they might become better parents, he was calling forth their vision. To complain that he did not use the words “self evaluation” and “mission statement” is to quibble.

Using technical jargon is not essential to pastoral planning. In fact, it can get in the way. Far more important is what Robert Howes, in his newly-released Parish Planning: A Practical Guide to Shared Responsibility (Liturgical Press, 1994), calls “the RECKON Road.” The first three letters of “reckon” stand for Rediscovery, Engagement, and Commitment: rediscovery of the parish’s actual situation, engagement of parishioners in evaluating that situation, and commitment to improve it. Whenever a pastor ask parishioners about the fundamentals of their lives–such as the challenges they face as parents–he will “rediscover” the actual situation of the parish. Parishioners do not need to be told how important parenting is. Mothers and fathers are already fully engaged in it, and the pastor should invite their commitment to ministry which will support them. From this point of view, my consejo pastorál had begun along Howes’ “RECKON Road,” whose last three letters stand for “keep on.”

Finally, I would say that my Spanish-speaking council was undertaking precisely what canon 511 of the Code of Canon Law says that “pastoral” councils ought to do: examine pastoral problems, study them, and propose practical solutions. What pastoral problem is more important than the ministry to youth, and in particular, the need to support parents? And where can pastors find solutions to this problem, if not by consulting parents? Canon Law says nothing about mission statements, goals, and objectives. But it has a lot to say about pastors knowing their parishioners and enlisting their support in the development of ministry.

The Context of Planning

So it is clear that the consejo pastorál was engaged in pastoral planning of a very basic kind. But if having a conversation with the pastor around the dining room table is pastoral planning, then what about the specifics of technical planning? Every planning manual requires parish self-study, the development of a mission statement, the setting of goals implicit in the mission, and the establishment of objectives for meeting the goals. Where do these fit in?

I would say that these specific tasks fit into a larger context. The context can be understood in terms of three general topics: first, the competence of advisory councils; second, the readiness of a council to plan; and third, the leadership of the pastor. Outside of this context, the specifics of mission, goal, and objective have no meaning. Too many councils, trying to move from coordinating parish committees to pastoral planning, become preoccupied with the specifics and neglect the context within which specifics make sense.

Consider, for a moment, the competence of councils. Pastors consult councils to reflect on significant parish issues with people who have a stake in them and who understand the community. The insight of councils pertains to parishioners. Councils can advise a pastor on how his pastoral leadership is being received, on the needs of the parish, and on which needs are more important than others. Without a council, pastors may implement a program which they feel is necessary but toward which their parishioners may be indifferent, if not downright hostile. Without it, the best-designed program may fail.

To be sure, a pastor should not consult about everything. If a matter has no direct bearing on parishioners–if, for example, the pastor wants advice before making a technical decision, a decision about which parishioners have little knowledge and whose success does not depend on parishioner acceptance–then he ought not to consult the council. No pastor should ask the council, for example, what religion text to buy. It is not competent in that area. Instead, he needs the opinion of catechists and curriculum specialists.

Many experts in Church consultation shy away from this matter of competence. They think that defining the competence of a council demeans lay initiative. Instead, they make pronouncements about the role of the council without fully explaining them. The development of long-range goals belongs to the council, they say; implementation belongs to the parish staff. Or policy is a council matter, administration is not. Behind such pronouncements, however, is the question of competence. The competence of a pastoral councils is the practical wisdom of the parish community, the ability to clarify what is good and appropriate in a particular parish setting. It is not technical knowledge of theology, administration, psychology, or education.

The Readiness of a Council

If competence is the first element shaping the context of pastoral planning, the second is readiness. Readiness is usually defined in terms of a group’s knowledge or ability and its willingness to undertake a task. A pastoral council may be composed of highly skilled individuals with a lot of experience working together as a council, or it may be composed of relative newcomers who have never been on a council before. Councilors may be confident and willing to undertake a complicated planning task, or they may be tentative and nervous. My Spanish-speaking council had a low level of readiness. Members were new to the council and unfamiliar with planning jargon.

Without an understanding of readiness, leaders can demoralize councilors by asking them to undertake tasks for which the council is unprepared and lacks confidence. If Padre Daniél had stated from the outset that he was asking the council to formally evaluate the parish’s ministry to youth and plan ways to improve it, they might have been intimidated. Instead, he correctly judged their level of readiness and asked questions appropriate to it. “What are the biggest problems you face as Christian parents?” he asked. “What can we do to become better parents?” Rather than launch into a lecture on the nature of pastoral planning, he invited his people to share with him their lives. He rightly judged their level of readiness.

The importance of judging readiness is implicit in all good pastoral planning manuals. An early example, and still one of the best, is William Harms’ Who Are We and Where Are We Going? (Sadlier, 1981; now out of print). There the first step in planning is not writing a mission statement or drafting goals but rather building commitment to the process of planning. One builds such commitment by understanding what planning is: an effort to increase parish vitality by clarifying and responding to the gospel. But it takes some time for councils to understand this, let alone pastors!

Readiness explains why the conversation between Padre Daniél and his council did not appear, at first glance, like pastoral planning. Seen from the perspective of Harms’ book, the consejo pastorál was still at the level of building commitment to planning. The members did not yet understand what planning means. Padre Daniél conducted the meeting with due regard for their readiness. By asking for help in counting the parish youth, in observing the youth group, in assessing the needs of Sister Inez, he was moving from one phase of planning to another. He was moving from building commitment to gathering information.

The Leadership of the Pastor

This brings us to the role of the pastor, the third item which determines the context of pastoral planning. It is my conviction that no significant planning can take place without the pastor’s leadership. Some critics may misinterpret this statement as expressing resignation in the face of a pastor’s tyrannical hegemony. Canon Law states that councils are consultative only, complain these critics, and so insisting upon the leadership of the pastor means that he alone has the say.

But leadership by the pastor–authentic pastoral leadership–is not tyranny but empowerment. The truly pastoral priest is not one who insists upon his own prerogatives, but who understands official leadership as an authority granted by the whole Church for community service in the name of Christ. He consults his council because he loves his parish, passionately desires its well-being, and seeks its advice so he can lead better. Like Padre Daniél, who had to interrupt Miguel’s complaints about Sister Inez, he exercises power, but he does so to keep the council focused on its task. He is the key figure in the planning process because he alone can make decisions in the name of the parish, and he wants to make good ones.

Without his leadership, councils find themselves in a dysfunctional relationship. Properly functioning, a pastor asks questions of his councilors. He asks them because, like a latter-day Socrates, he knows that he does not know everything. He wants to tap the council’s practical wisdom in parish affairs But when a pastor does not ask questions, thinking he already knows all he needs, the council-pastor relation malfunctions. The council finds its advice spurned. Even the best, most thoroughly researched, most persuasively expressed pastoral plan will flop if the pastor is uncommitted.

But when he is committed–ah, then the magic starts to happen. The pastor begins to ask what really matters to the parish. Council members get curious too when they see that questions are motivated by a desire to help the parish become a genuine Christian community. The really enthusiastic pastor can even engage the services of professional consultants, such as Chicago’s Center for Parish Development or the Parish Evaluation Project in Des Plaines, Illinois. These consultants can help him achieve a thoroughgoing renewal or a fundamental reorientation of a moribund parish. But working with the council alone, a good pastor, like Padre Daniél, can clarify the needs of parish youth and support parish efforts to meet those needs. With pastoral planning, a pastor can help a vital parish become more alive.

Planning Resources

Councils wanting to begin pastoral planning in earnest have a lot of literary help. In addition to Robert Howes’ new book on Parish Planning, three archdioceses have recently published planning workbooks:

  • Gilder, Constance. The Ministry of Pastoral Planning: A Planning Guide for Parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Nine self-contained (stapled) booklets for a total of 100 pages. Archdiocese of Baltimore: Division of Planning and Council Services, 1993. $6.00.
  • McGourty, Richard, and David Baldwin. Tomorrow’s Parish: Choosing Your Future. A two-volume long-range planning process for parishes. English and Spanish versions available. Archdiocese of Chicago: Office of Research and Planning, 1994. No cost for the two volumes (170 pp. each); $100.00 (negotiable) for a diskette version (Word Perfect 5.1).
  • On the Way to Renewal: Parish Self-Study Guide. Two volumes in binders, 47 + 49 pp., + 18 pp. of handouts. Archdiocese of Philadelphia: Office for Research and Planning, Robert J. Miller, Director, 1992.

The important thing to remember, however, is not whether a parish complies with some expert vision of planning. Far more important is to attune the council to planning’s heartbeat. Is your council asking about its area of competence, that is, examining the parish’s burning questions in light of the gospel? Is the council willing and able to do this, or does it need to raise its level of readiness? And is the pastor leading the process, giving the members confidence that their discussions will have an effect? If so, then the context for pastoral planning is already present–and the specifics of mission, goal, and objective will follow.