Published as “If I Were Starting a Pastoral Council . . .” Today’s Parish 32:5 (September 2000): 14-17.
By Mark F. Fischer
In March, I received three email requests for a parish pastoral council constitution and bylaws. My three correspondents were creating or renewing councils in different parishes. They wanted a sample constitution and bylaws as a starting-point for creating their own parish documents. I had nothing of my own to offer, so I referred them to printed resources. But I wished I had something online for my “parish pastoral councils” web site. There are as many kinds of pastoral councils as there are parishes. Scores of books and articles describe such councils, each of them different. Canon Law offers merely the briefest sketch of a pastoral council. Within that sketch, there is lots of wiggle room. Only experience can distinguish between worthwhile councils and the kind from which we should flee at all costs. I began to think about sharing my experience with a sample constitution and bylaw.
One month later I received some pointed advice. Mary Raley of San Antonio and Thom Jones of Houston were sitting with me at the annual convention of the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in Orlando. Mary and Thom are pastoral council veterans, and they warned me. Constitutions and bylaws, they said, can create a false impression. They can wrongly suggest to councillors that the council is a governing body independent of the pastor. “Don’t say ‘constitutions’ and ‘bylaws,'” Mary and Thom said. “Say ‘foundation documents.'” I stand corrected. What we ordinarily call constitution and bylaws are really the agreements that underlie a pastoral council. They signify the relationship of trust that is meant to exist between the council and that pastor who consults it. But they do not take the place of that trust. Pastoral councils possess a consultative vote only. Constitutions, bylaws, and foundation documents do not legally bind the pastor to accept the council’s advice. Mary and Thom gave me sound advice.
With that in mind, let me offer the following “foundation document.” It describes the kind of council I would like to see. My document differs from other constitutions and by-laws in two important ways. First, it is solidly rooted in the Church’s law, and assigns no more to the pastoral council than what the law allows. Second, it has a three-year term without a staggered election of council members. Each three-year term constitutes a planning cycle. At the end of the cycle, the document recommends the selection of a wholly new set of councillors and the beginning of a new planning cycle. Consider, for example, the following “Introduction” to the foundation document.
“Recognizing that sound pastoral decisions are informed by the wisdom of the People of God, Father __________ established the pastoral council of _____________ Church on June 1, 2000. The documents of the Second Vatican Council recommended the establishment of such councils. They state that Catholics have a right and duty to express their opinion on what pertains to the good of the Church. Pastors should willingly consult their people, say the documents, and use their prudent advice. By establishing a pastoral council, the pastor acknowledges the wisdom of his parishioners and expresses his desire to share with them his responsibility for the governance of the parish.”
This introduction is direct. It states that pastors consult councils. Councils offer advice, and do not govern parishes. Other pastoral council authors, however, try to give the council a higher profile. They emphasize the primacy of the council. For example, Father Robert Howes (in his Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council, Liturgical Press, 1991), says that the purpose of the council is “to constitute the primary consultative voice of the people of God.” He means that the pastoral council is primary, and other committees and councils are secondary. That goes beyond canon law, which does not assign first place to the pastoral council and second place to the finance council. No consultative body is necessarily superior to any other. One reason why some authors emphasize the primacy of the pastoral council is that they assign to it the task of implementing its own recommendations through a system of standing committees. In many parishes, the council’s liturgical recommendations are implemented through the Liturgy Committee, for example, and the Education Committee implements recommendations about education. I believe that this tends to obscure the council’s proper role. That role is not to implement but (in the words of Canon Law) to investigate, ponder, and recommend. This brings me to the purpose of the council.
“The purpose of the parish pastoral council is to investigate pastoral matters, to consider them thoroughly, and to propose practical conclusions about them. The council’s task is, first of all, to study those matters brought to its attention and shed light on them. Its second task is to reflect on them thoroughly, to discern their true nature, to evaluate and to ponder them. Its final task is to draw sound conclusions. The council presents these conclusions to the pastor in the form of recommendations. This threefold task of the council-investigating, considering, and recommending conclusions-is called pastoral planning. After the pastor has accepted the recommendations of the council, he directs their implementation. Council members may assist him, but strictly speaking, implementation is the responsibility of the pastor, not the council.”
Many authors obscure the line between recommendation and implementation. William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers (in The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils, Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), for example, give the pastoral council the duty of coordinating a system of standing committees. Through committees, say these authors, councils implement what they recommend. They overstate the council’s canonical duty of studying, reflecting, and recommending about pastoral matters. What are these pastoral matters? The following section gives an answer.
“The scope of the council is pastoral matters. These may include everything that pertains to the pastor’s ministries of proclaiming God’s word, celebrating the sacraments, caring for the faithful, promoting the mission of the Church to the world, and being a good steward of parish resources. The scope includes all the practical matters of parish life. There is, in short, nothing about which the pastor may not consult the council, apart from faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church.”
Pastoral councils cannot change Canon Law or church doctrine, but practical matters are wide open. Father Howes stated that “no major area of pastoral concern should be segregated away from a council’s right and obligation to overview it.” I affirm his viewpoint. Some writers distinguish between “policy” and “daily administrative decisions.” They say that councils make policy but not administrative decisions. This is a well-meaning effort to limit the scope of the council. But I dislike it. It wrongly suggests that a council makes policy on its own, rather than offering recommendations to the pastor. The council only recommends. But its advice can be more or less persuasive. Its persuasiveness depends on the quality of the members’ work. No council can force a pastor to do what he believes will harm the parish. A pastor would be foolish, however, not to accept good advice. What are the criteria for good council members?
4. Criteria for Membership
“Pastoral council members are chosen, above all, for their ability to accomplish the main task of the council-the work of investigating, considering, and recommending practical conclusions. They are baptized Catholics, in good standing with the Church, who reflect the parish’s various neighborhoods, social and professional groups, and apostolates. Finally, they are parishioners noted for their faith, good morals, and prudence.”
These are the criteria for council membership implicit in the Church’s official documents. Rademacher and Rogers offer a list of ten additional qualifications for pastoral council members. Among other things, they say that the potential councillor should be a praying Christian who desires to reconcile the parish and who accepts the teachings of Vatican II. But apart from a few general words about possessing a “skill, gift, or talent” and the “ability to relate to other members as a team,” Rademacher and Rogers say nothing about the ability to accomplish the council’s specific work. They do not say that the qualifications of a council member should include the ability to study, ponder, and recommend. These are essential, I believe, to the selection process.
5. Selection of Members
“Twelve pastoral council members are elected every three years. The election takes place on the last of a series of four weekly assemblies during the month of September to which all parishioners are invited. The first assembly introduces parishioners to the work of the pastoral council. The pastor explains his motives for establishing it and invites parishioners to express their hopes for it. Participants at the second assembly identify the strengths of the parish and those areas in which the council may help it to develop. The third assembly is devoted to a reflection on the qualities of a good councillor and it culminates with nominations. In the fourth assembly, participants elect, in an atmosphere of prayer and discernment, the twelve new councillors.”
My foundation document specifies twelve councillors. The number, however, is not important. Father Howes, for example, recommends fifteen members. The council should be large enough to include wise advisors and not so large (as the Vatican advises) as to be unable to carry out effectively the work committed to it. More important than the size is the way in which councillors are chosen. Official documents about pastoral councils state that they should be “representative,” but not in a juridical sense. They exist to make present the wisdom of the People of God. In order to attract such “representatives,” I believe that three things are needed. First, parishioners should receive a thorough orientation to the work of the council. Second, they should have an opportunity to nominate parishioners who are willing and able to do the council’s work. Finally, they should have an opportunity to elect them. Orientation, Nomination, Election-Rademacher and Rogers call this the O.N.E. process. After the selection of the councillors, it is important to choose officers who act in concert with the pastor-presider.
“The pastor presides at every meeting of the council. He consults, he accepts or rejects recommendations, and he develops the agenda with the council officers. The pastor and councillors select three officers from among their number. They are the chairperson, vice-chairperson, and secretary. With the pastor they develop the council agenda. The chairperson facilitates council discussions, making sure that everyone speaks and is heard. The chairperson also monitors the work of the councillors between regular meetings. The vice-chairperson assists the chairperson and facilitates meetings in the chairperson’s absence. The secretary keeps the minutes. He or she ensures that they are sent, along with the agenda and supporting documents, to each councillor at least one week before every meeting.”
Although the pastor is the presider, he shares leadership of the council with its officers. To be sure, the pastor has legal responsibility for the parish. He alone has the legal right to speak on its behalf. But his final decision, as Robert T. Kennedy observed in a 1980 article in Studia Canonica, is only one part of decision-making. The other parts include research, reflection, and the development of recommendations. And in these parts, the officers of the councils may exercise leadership. They aid in the operation of the council.
“The pastoral council has a three-year planning cycle, and members are selected for a three-year term. The pastor defines the theme of the planning cycle during the September assembly at which the council is selected. In the beginning of the council’s second and third year, the members facilitate a parish assembly to report on the council’s progress and to elicit the advice of parishioners. At the end of the third year, the council completes its work. Then a new council is selected and a new planning cycle begins.”
The definition of a three-year planning cycle is the distinctive feature of the “foundation document” I am proposing here. It assumes that the council is creating a plan at the pastor’s direction. It may be a plan to evangelize the community, to improve the liturgy, to expand the existing parish, to merge with another nearby parish, or to develop a youth ministry. Whatever it is, creating the plan is the council’s main task. At the end of its three-year term, the council will turn its work over to the pastor and a new planning cycle will begin. The advantages are twofold: a clear task and an established deadline. This kind of council will never have to ask what its agenda is.
“The pastor develops the agenda with the council officers. It states the goals for each meeting, the means and group process for reaching the goals, and the materials needed to accomplish them. The agenda guides the meeting. It begins with a review of the minutes of the previous meeting and concludes with a brief evaluation. If the pastor is dissatisfied with the consultation, he expresses his reservations and asks the council to clarify whatever remains obscure. When he is satisfied with the consultation, he formally accepts the council’s recommendations. He may then ask the parish staff or other parishioners to implement them.”
Nothing is more important to the council than a well-prepared agenda. Father Howes assigns it to an “Executive Committee,” and Rademacher and Rogers recommend an “Agenda Committee.” Whatever we call the group, the members must develop the agenda in concert with the pastor. After all, he is doing the consulting. The agenda should say what the council hopes to do during its meaning, and describe how it hopes to do it. If the council was not able to do what the agenda said it would do, the agenda was probably too ambitious. The council may have been trying to do what rightly belongs to the staff or the finance council.
9. Relation to the Staff and Finance Council
“The pastor consults others besides the pastoral council about parish governance. He relies upon the parish staff for their expertise and consults them daily about the management of parish operations. Indeed, he may occasionally ask parish staff members to attend council meetings in order to put their knowledge at the service of the pastoral council. Moreover, the pastor relies on the finance council to develop, monitor, and report on the parish budget. Finance council members are chosen for their technical skill in realms of accounting and finance. The pastoral council, by contrast, offers practical wisdom. That is the ability to investigate pastoral matters in a general way, to reflect on them deeply in dialogue, and to propose conclusions appropriate to the parish.”
As parish staffs grow, they often take on jobs formerly done by the pastoral council. Each is in danger of stepping on the toes of the other. The solution is sound leadership by the pastor. He must distinguish between those technical questions that require expert opinion (i.e., the opinion of his trained staff or the expertise of the finance council) and the more general questions that do not require expert advice. If the questions are technical, he should consult technical experts. But if the pastor wants to know what decisions will unify the community, increase its momentum, and make best use of parish volunteers, he should consult the pastoral council.
“The pastoral council meets once a month from September to May. Meetings are two hours in length. Between the monthly meetings, council members are expected to follow up the previous meeting and prepare for the next. This usually entails work on ad hoc committees. The first meeting of the new pastoral council is dedicated to the call and mission of the newly-chosen members. The council’s second and third year begin with a parish assembly. After each assembly, the council assimilates the assembly results. During the final meeting of each year, the councillors reflect on the progress of the three-year planning cycle. The pastor thanks them for their service and reflects on the progress made by the council toward reaching its goals.”
Some pastoral councils try to get by with quarterly meetings. Some try to intersperse regular meetings with gatherings of the heads of all parish ministries. But quarterly meetings are too infrequent. And gatherings with the heads of all ministries can prevent the council from doing its main work, the work of investigating, reflecting, and drawing practical conclusions. That is why I recommend monthly meetings and a three-year planning cycle. The three-year planning cycle and the selection of new councillors every three years makes this “foundation document” different from the constitutions and bylaws of most pastoral councils. It envisions a pastoral council that does not monitor or supervise existing ministries. Rather, it is planning for the future and it has a single theme.
Mary Raley and Thom Jones warned me not to offer a constitution and bylaw that would mistakenly suggest that the councils exists independently of the pastor. I think this “foundation document” fills the bill. Its success hinges upon the desire of a pastor to examine an issue thoroughly. Such a pastor will find collaboration with this kind of council creative, deliberate, and reflective.