Parish Councils: Back to Basics
By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Help Your Parish Council Be Better This Year,” Today’s Parish 29:5 (September 1997): 8-11.
Does the memory of last year’s parish council make you dread the coming year? It certainly gives me pause. The very thought of last year’s controversy over First Communion apparel makes me break into a cold sweat. Let me recount the story and suggest how you can avoid similar controversies in the new year.
The Apparel Affair
First Communion apparel, by all rights, should not be a topic of parish council deliberations. The question of whether seven year olds ought to wear all-white clothing for the First Communion is not high on my list of pastoral problems. But it reared up in the context of a routine report from the Education Committee and utterly dominated the council meeting. I believe it should never have been a parish council matter.
The problem arose because the parents of the First Communicants could not agree on what the children should wear. One group of parents, in the name of tradition and good liturgy, advocated all-white apparel: white suits, shirts, and ties for the boys; white dresses, shoes, and stockings for the girls. White, they said, reminds us of our Baptism.
Another group of parents, in the name of simplicity and economy, said white blouses and shirts were sufficient. These parents would accept pants and skirts of other colors if the children wore white shirts and blouses. They felt that families should not be obligated to purchase wholly new outfits for First Communion. The two sets of parents were at odds. They had appealed the question to the Education Committee, and the committee had kicked the matter upstairs to the parish council.
Culture was a further complication and made strange allies. Mrs. Rodríguez, whose daughter, Consuela, was in the First Communion class, wanted the girl in an all-white dress. That was what Mrs. Rodríguez remembered from her girlhood in Guadalajara, and nothing less would do for Consuela. Mrs. Rodríguez joined forces with Mr. Edwards, who had just finished a basic course in liturgy. Mr. Edwards preferred albs for the children, as a sign of their Baptism. He was willing, however, to settle for all-white outfits, and supported Mrs. Rodríguez.
Arrayed against them was the husband and wife team of Marius and Betty Scatena. They are the linchpins of the Social Justice Committee, tireless workers in the parish food pantry and advocates of the poor. Although their children are grown, the Scatenas were appalled at the expense of new First Communion outfits. Marius even made an unfortunate comparison between the expense of new outfits and the expense of Quinceañeras, the coming of age celebrations for Mexican-American girls in our parish. Both, felt Marius, were extravagant. That did not endear him to Mrs. Rodríguez. It also indicated the underlying tension between Mexican-American and U.S.-born parishioners.
Father McCarthy, the pastor, listened to the arguments with growing discomfort. He dislikes controversy. Going into the meeting, he had expected little more from the parish council than standing committee reports. Typically they inform him about their activities, and in that way he monitors their progress. He had anticipated no problems from them. But as the temperature rose, he looked at the chairwoman, Mrs. Danacher, and she looked at him. Watching the two of them shift uncomfortably in their seats, I wished the discussion to be cut short. Eventually it was. Father McCarthy asked the Education Committee to poll the parents of the First Communicants and report back to him. After that, the meeting — painful and unproductive — limped to a conclusion.
What Went Wrong
The meeting ran aground, I would say, on the shoals of vision, agenda, and facilitation. First, there was no vision for the meeting. All we expected was the presentation of reports from standing committees. Expecting little, we got less. Or in this case, we got more than we bargained for. Secondly, the agenda for the meeting was primitive. Although we had a printed agenda in advance, it was a rudimentary list of topics: approval of minutes, old business, reports from committees, and so on. “First Communion Apparel Controversy,” unfortunately, never made the list. And finally, the meeting was poorly facilitated. The request for the parish council to solve a problem which properly belonged elsewhere came as a surprise. Father McCarthy and Mrs. Danacher should have strategized about it in advance. Instead, they were caught unawares. The meeting lacked a vision, a solid agenda, and good facilitation. Each of these deserves a comment.
When a pastor has no vision for the parish council, council morale usually drops. Members quickly understand that their role is to maintain the status quo, to affirm current efforts, to perpetuate a parish system. The system was in place before them, they realize, and it will remain in place when their term is up. With this realization, energy and purpose flag. That had happened in our council. We were demoralized. When controversy erupted over the question about what children ought to wear at First Communion, members gravitated toward it just to ease the boredom. But the underlying issue, the tension between U.S.-born and Mexican-born parishioners, did not even get mentioned.
Agendas ought to be more than a “to do” list, but that is all our agenda was. Ordinarily when I receive an agenda in the mail, I first study it to see what important issue faces the group. Unless the agenda indicates a matter of substance, I wonder why the meeting has been called. Secondly, I study the agenda in order to prepare myself for the meeting. What can I do, I ask myself, in order to make a sound contribution? And finally, I spring into action, making phone calls, studying the issues, readying materials for distribution. If an agenda does not help me to do this (and my council’s agenda did not), the postage was wasted.
Facilitation is the final ingredient of a good parish council meeting. A good facilitator has scouted the territory of the meeting beforehand. He or she employs the agenda like a map. With such a map, a good facilitator leads the council toward those regions in which it can make a meaningful contribution, avoiding the swamps of petty controversy. When people wander off, the facilitator calls them back. When unexpected obstacles are encountered (e.g., sacramental apparel), the facilitator judges what the council is able to do, and decides whether it needs to delay or call for help. In our case, we needed help. Anger between Mexican-American and U.S.-born parishioners was erupting in the guise of a controversy about white clothing. A good facilitator would have known that the underlying issue needed more attention than we could give at that moment.
This Year’s Council
My pastor, Father McCarthy, faces a number of significant issues. But the most important — both to his mind and to many on the council — is the problem of integrating Mexican-born and native English-speaking parishioners. Father McCarthy has asked us to study it this year under the slogan of “The Family Which Is Parish.” He realizes that integration is a pastoral problem of the highest importance. It affects every aspect of parish life: education, liturgy, social justice, you name it. The council’s task is to study the problem and recommend ways to better integrate all parishioners. If we are able to maintain our focus on this topic, I believe that the council will make a significant contribution.
Father McCarthy and Mrs. Danacher, the chairwoman, have committed themselves this year to improving the agenda. By this they mean, first of all, to design printed agendas which will better prepare us council members for the meetings. Instead of merely a list of topics, they have promised to indicate on the agenda the key issues underlying each topic. The agenda will not merely announce “Education Committee Report.” It will, in addition, highlight the report’s content: “The committee proposes the addition of a Spanish-language track for elementary catechesis.” With this fuller agenda, the leaders will enable us council members to study the issues beforehand.
Besides better printed agendas, Father McCarthy and Mrs. Danacher have committed themselves to a year-long agenda for the council. In other words, Father McCarthy wants the report on “The Family Which Is Parish” to be finished by the end of the year. He and the chairwoman have a plan to complete it. The plan includes parish assemblies in the fall. The purpose of the assemblies is to raise consciousness about Hispanic culture in the parish and to brainstorm ways to build unity. After these assemblies have been held, the council will have a wealth of information and recommendations on which to work.
A year long agenda will also benefit parish committees. The Education Committee will propose the introduction of multicultural elements into catechesis. The Liturgy Committee is studying how to integrate prayers and acclamations in Spanish. The Social Justice Committee is recommending ways to strengthen its outreach to Hispanic parishioners. After each committee has reported to the parish council, the council will be able to synthesize its recommendations to Father McCarthy. “The Family Which Is Parish” is the agenda for the year, and each monthly meeting of the council will contribute to it.
With this year long agenda in place, I believe that Mrs. Danacher will be better able to facilitate council meetings. She has said that, in the past, she was not sure about her role. Now, with a definite goal for the council, Mrs. Danacher can be more directive. The parish council is no longer merely maintaining a system of autonomous standing committees. Instead, the committees and the council are working together, accomplishing a definite task.
Recommendations for Your Council
Every parish council needs a vision, because vision is a sign of hope. Councils must have the hope that they are contributing to the parish. Does your council have hope? Does it believe that its work perpetuates more than the status quo? Is it convinced that it helps the pastor and the parish solve real problems? Without that hope, the council is not doing, and cannot do, its job. Pastors ought to help councils see what the parish’s problems are. Councils need to study those problems and help pastors recognize solutions.
How different things are when the pastor needs the council and puts it to work. Then councils are not just maintaining a system. Then they have a mission. The mission of parish councils will vary — at one time it will be to judge, at another to research, at yet another to plan. But an important mission, whatever it is, will give the council identity and purpose, and prevent it from being distracted by marginal issues. At the beginning of the year, every council needs to ask itself what it hopes to accomplish by the end of the year. Every council meeting needs to be judged on whether it moved the council closer to its goal.
In order to accomplish its goal, the council needs a plan — a plan in the form of an agenda. Bad agendas are cursory and vague. They do not indicate whether councilors are to share information, to brainstorm, to vote, or to reach consensus. Good agendas clarify the issues in advance. They indicate how council members can prepare for the meeting. They state what is expected from the council. Going into the council meeting with a good agenda, members know whether they will discern, evaluate, or discuss. They also know the basis for the discernment, evaluation, or discussion. Do the agendas of your council give you this information? They ought to!
A good agenda is the facilitator or chairperson’s best friend. It aids facilitation by clarifying what the purpose of the meeting is. In preparing agendas, facilitators are also preparing themselves. They know what they want to accomplish. They know how each item and each member can contribute. They know how much time to allot to each item. And knowing these things, they are better able to make the important judgments which belong especially to the chairperson and facilitator. Judgments about when to continue a discussion or put it off to a later meeting. Judgments about when to refer a matter to a committee. Judgments about when to ask the pastor or a council member to state a point more fully. Do you have a chairperson or facilitator, otherwise qualified, who has difficulty running the meeting or ending on time? If so, I recommend that he or she clarify the purpose of the meeting and lend more of a hand in preparing the agenda.
Based on what I experienced last year with the apparel affair, I have some trepidation as I approach this year’s parish council. But with a new vision, better agendas, and more confident facilitation, this year’s council gives me reason to hope.