Process & product

DPC LogoSmallWhat Is More Important — Process or Product?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “What’s More Important — Process or Product?” Today’s Parish (January 1993): 21-23.

For several years I have argued that parish councils need to clarify and narrow their purpose. Such councils typically attempt too much — everything from settling disputes to decorating sanctuaries — and they would do better, I have claimed, if they narrowed their scope to pastoral planning. Indeed, I second the motion that planning is what makes the parish council “pastoral.”

But not long ago I was indirectly challenged on this point by a veteran of pastoral council ministry. A group of us were relaxing after a long review of details about an upcoming council workshop. It was late in the day and we had loosened our ties, kicked off our shoes, and were speculating about what insights we wanted councillors to take with them from the workshop.

My friend, a religious sister who has been working with councils for years, brought us to consensus. The most important thing a council can do, she said, is to form a sense of Christian community. As councillors share their faith with one another, she said, they simultaneously assume responsibility for the parish. Community-building, faith-sharing, and responsibility-assuming are what counts, she seemed to suggest. Theoretical proposals, such as re-designing the council as a pastoral planning group, are secondary.

My friend, as I said, had brought us to consensus — no easy feat! But later I was dissatisfied with our conversation. I think we were saying, in effect, that process is more important than product. The mode in which councils operate is more important than what they actually accomplish.

Is process more important than product? Are we indifferent to the purpose for which councils exist, provided that, whatever they do, they do in a genuine Christian spirit?

The Lure of Process

This question is hard to answer because of the diversity of councils. No serious councillor is indifferent to the council’s purpose. But the sheer variety of purposes overwhelms us. Given the endless array of viewpoints about what the “product” of the council should be, an emphasis on “process” is understandable. It is an act of resignation: no one can exhaustively catalogue, let alone authoritatively prescribe, what councils should do. But all can affirm that their process should be prayerful, pastoral, representative, discerning, prophetic, enabling, and collaborative–or whatever group of adjectives best describes a Christian community.

Some have attempted to overcome the process-product distinction with the slogan, “The process is the product.” In the post-Vatican II Church, this means: if we want to promote maturity in faith, then we must treat people maturely. No one will object to this as a general rule for group process. A desired end (or product) is no justification for a means (or process) that robs people’s dignity. But I assume that the goal of the parish council is wider than the faith development of its members. And saying that process is product denies that wider scope. It suggests that the goal of the council is merely to have a good meeting. And this in effect gives priority to process.

If we stress process because we are ambivalent about product, how can we reduce that ambivalence? I propose that parish councillors need to learn more about what they and other councils are actually doing. When the question of council purpose cannot be resolved by theory, practice must show the way. Attention to what councils actually do can give us the raw material for a judgment about what councils ought to do. Then one can see whether a given council process contributes to the success of a desired council product.

Lesson from Germany

A 1989 dissertation by an Innsbruck Jesuit about parish councils sheds considerable light on the process-product distinction. Klemens Schaupp’s Der Pfarrgemeinderat — literally, “The Parish Community Council” — does what no one, to my knowledge, has done before. It presents a snapshot of parish councils as they actually exist in West Germany. And it does so by noting both the effect which participation in the council has on people’s lives and the many ways in which people experience the council.

Schaupp’s book starts with a sketch of pastoral councils in Germany, their link to older Catholic movements such as Catholic Action, and their role in the post Vatican II Church. We learn, for instance, that 178,000 Germans belong to parish councils, that these councils meet a minimum of four times per year (perhaps six to seven meetings on average), and that persons elected to them are more committed than those delegated as representatives from various parish organizations. German councils feel a tension, notes Schaupp, between the council as “advice-giver to the pastor” and the council as “coordinator of parish activities”–just like U.S. councils.

But after this sketch of councils in Germany, Schaupp moves to the heart of his study, which is based on extensive interviews with 35 council members, 19 of whom come from a single parish. This is not a large sample, and so Schaupp calls his study a “qualitative” (rather than quantitative) analysis. His aim, he says, is not to provide a broad-based overview of parish councils, but to tease from the interviews some hypotheses about the promise of councils as models of collaborative ministry.

The Biography of Council Members

The book does not use the American jargon of process and product. But it makes a similar distinction with the terms biography and institution. Biography refers to the way in which councillors describe how their lives became entwined with the parish council. Schaupp not only traces the gradual steps by which people typically join a council, but also their motives for staying involved. He wants to know why they remain.

Schaupp was surprised to learn that almost all the council members he interviewed had distanced themselves, at one time or another, from their home parish. One interviewee, a Mr. Volk, joined a neighboring parish after a period in which he had had little to do with his home parish. The neighboring parish offered a newly-formed choir and a strong experience of Christian community. But after two years, Volk was drawn back to the home parish. Why? “On account of contacts which I had had since boyhood.” Even though he had made new friendships with younger and more active people in the neighboring parish, still the opportunity to contribute to the home parish was decisive. By means of Volk’s story, Schaupp shows how a period of alienation from the home parish is frequently necessary for people to return home and make a mature commitment, such as participation in a parish council.

This “biographical” dimension to council membership is akin (but not identical) to what Americans mean by “process.” Schaupp describes how members experience themselves in the council. But whereas Americans might speak of a “process” by which a council gradually moves toward a decision, or even of the “group process” used in a particular council meeting, Schaupp expresses a much broader picture. His concern is not to tell councils what processes they should employ, but rather how council membership fits into the “process” of members’ lives, leading them to make commitments, testing them with difficulties.

Impressions of the Institution

Biography is one dimension of Schaupp’s study. The other dimension is what he calls “institution.” This refers to the way in which members experience the council. Given the fact that Schaupp focuses exclusively on lay people, rather than on priests, it is not surprising that the council as “institution” fits no doctrinaire model drawn from Vatican documents or canon law. The laity’s experience of the council is diverse and drawn from experience. Some see the council as:

  • a democracy in which parishioners can speak according to parliamentary rules,
  • a representative forum for usually unexpressed viewpoints,
  • an organizing committee for parish events,
  • a gathering for the most active parishioners,
  • a channel for adapting diocesan initiatives to the parish,
  • a mediator in parish conflicts,
  • a place to meet and make friends, and
  • a party of support for the pastor.

This list follows no one scheme of what the council ought to be. It describes the many identities which parish councils actually have in the eyes of council members.

In the past, I have criticized guidelines for parish councils that give similar long lists of council “purposes.” My criticism stems, first of all, from published literature which argues that pastoral planning should be the foremost task of councils. And the second basis for my critique is that long lists of parish council responsibilities are too ambitious for a volunteer group that meets once a month.

But Schaupp is not concerned–at least, not primarily–with what councils ought to do. He wants to describe how lay people actually experience them. And it is not surprising to find in Germany the same frustration that U.S. councillors feel when overly formal parliamentary rules and overfilled agendas prevent people from speaking freely or from feeling ownership of the council.

For example, Schaupp reports that the people he interviewed understood the council to operate democratically. But that does not mean that they could speak freely. They experienced the council meeting as hemmed in by parliamentary rules. One of the interviewees, Mrs. Müller, put it this way: “Everything was very democratic, exactly according to the constitution and the by-laws which apply, so that one could never just say what was on the tip of one’s tongue.”

Why not? Overpreparation is one problem to which Schaupp points in his treatment of council leadership. The pastor of one parish showed him a council packet, prepared for every member, which contained time-lines, action plans, and important information from the chancery and elsewhere, each printed on a different color of paper. Such overpreparation may create a false impression, Schaupp suggests. He describes this impression by quoting another interviewee, Mr. Rambacher, who felt “as if there were too much harmony in the council.” The prepared materials, Rambacher said, “provide no point about which one can disagree.” When the council can only assent to prepared materials, the assent has little weight.

In summary, Schaupp’s analysis of the parish council as institution expands what we Americans mean by product. We tend to think of some achievement that people can point to: a recommended program, a concluded study, a pastoral plan. But Schaupp, by describing in the words of council members how the council as institution affects them, suggests that the final product is more a spiritual reality. No matter what one points to, the visible product only represents–or fails to represent–an underlying spiritual consensus. To that extent, an over-emphasis on product can be misleading.

Neither Process nor Product

If we return to the question with which we began, we can see that it was overly simplistic. The pastoral council cannot be exclusively concerned with process or with product. A myopic focus on group process blinds the council to its wider ministry, a ministry to the whole parish. And a preoccupation with product, with the council’s material results, may lead the council to ride roughshod over its members. In so doing, it may destroy the very consensus which pastors seek.

Schaupp’s The Parish Community Council pushes us beyond the process/product alternative. To be sure, the book lacks a profound insight into how parish councils can develop a sense of trust and esprit among members, a sense indispensable for a climate of trust and openness. This is the insight of U.S. authors such as McKinney, Rademacher and Rogers, and Sofield and Hermann, authors who present a variety of suggestions about what councils ought to do.

Schaupp’s book does not prescribe what ought to be, but clarifies what is. Through the living voices of his interviewees, Schaupp presents the link between the council and the outside life of councillors. And he reveals how council activities shape the councillors’ perception of the Church–and ultimately, their own faith. Process is more than what the council does during its two-hour meeting, and the council product unfortunately may be accomplished at the price of councillor alienation.

Questions for Reflection

Your council can build upon Schaupp’s efforts by examining how it actually spends its time. I suggest that the council take a few minutes, perhaps in the context of prayer, to list what members believe are the council’s most important accomplishments. These are your council’s “product.”

Then the members might describe the means by which the product emerged. How did the council open its eyes to the reality of the parish, learn about the true state of things, reflect on the gospel’s call, and draw practical conclusions? This is the council’s “process.”

Finally, reflect on what you have done. What was the most important accomplishment? What enabled it to happen? This kind of reflection on experience will help solve the theoretical problem so common among councils throughout the world: the problem of how councils can best spend their time.