DPC LogoSmallParish Council Members: Made or Born?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Parish Council Members: Made or Born?” Today’s Parish (November/December, 1993): 17-19, 32.

Not long ago, I was invited to spend an evening with a Southern California parish council. The parish had just elected some new members, and my job was to talk about the role of the council. Although the pastor was not able to attend the orientation, outgoing and experienced members conducted it well.

In my remarks, I took the tack of the Los Angeles archdiocesan guidelines for councils, namely, that the main function of the council is pastoral planning. The council, I said, discerns God’s will for the parish by assessing needs, clarifying priorities, recommending plans to the pastor–not by implementing programs itself or engaging in parish administration.

This irritated one of the newly-elected members. She said that she did not join the council to merely assess needs and recommend plans, but to “make things happen.” Newcomers to the parish do not know about its many programs, she said, because the pastor does not inform them and the programs do not publicize themselves. She joined the council to make it a more effective communicator–not to engage in a mere discussion group, thank you very much.

As I drove home that night, I thought about how ill-suited she is for the pastoral council. She had criticized the pastor and the parish’s programs, but criticism has a place; that was not the problem. The main problem was her utter misunderstanding of the role of the council, which is to study pastoral problems and recommend solutions. From her point of view, no study was necessary. The council’s job is to act.

This new parish councilor, I reflected, will doubtless learn more in the future about the techniques of her ministry. She may read books about pastoral planning and consensus-building. She may watch videos about the council’s consultative role. She may attend workshops on empowerment, council spirituality, and making meetings more productive. But she may never change her fundamental and mistaken conviction that the council exists not to clarify the parish mission but to “make things happen.”

The Wider Question

This brings me to the wider question I want to address. Today we often hear about discernment in the selection of parish councilors. Many recommend that candidates for the council should discern with the parish community whether they are called to the council ministry. Such a call depends upon many factors, foremost of which is whether the person has the necessary gifts, the basic talent for the work. These gifts come from God, form a part of the individual’s very personality, and are not a mere skill to be acquired. The potential council member can even be said to be “born” with them.

If we take discernment seriously, we do not invite people to join the council unless they have the gifts for the ministry. We must discriminate between those who are and are not called. This makes the ministry seem quite exclusive. But those who favor discernment would say that such discrimination is precisely what hearing God’s call demands of us.

Others hold that the pastoral council ministry is so new that all of us are still learners. No one is entitled to judge whether another is sufficiently talented to serve on the council. Since all are beginners, we must educate one another about what the ministry requires. By means of this education, we turn novice parish council members into experienced and skilled veterans.

Which point of view is more correct? Are parish councilors made or born? There seem to be sound arguments for both points of view. In this essay, I want to weigh the arguments for each viewpoint and then hazard an answer to the question.

First Argument: Councilors Are Made

As a professional educator, I am committed to the proposition that people can learn–even a person as seemingly inapt for the council ministry as the new council member I described at the outset. Most people arrive on parish councils not by any elaborate discernment process, but by a simple election. If the only good councils were those whose members had been discerned in a thorough, meditative, and deeply prayerful manner, there would be very few good councils.

And even in those councils where discernment is practiced, such discernment varies, and does not always result in the profound conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in the community. Consider, for example, the opening sentences from The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils, by William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988):

“The votes are in. You’ve been elected or discerned to the parish pastoral council. You have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you are excited about the prospect of sharing your talents and experience with the parish council. On the other hand, you wonder what it’s all about.”

Mixed feelings indeed. Even a process of discernment does not always take them away. Those who arrive on the council by discernment, the authors suggest, still have to learn what it’s all about.

The New Practical Guide goes on to orient the new council member. Its well-known list of the seven characteristics of the pastoral council–prayerful, pastoral, representative, discerning, prophetic, enabling, and collaborative–portrays an “ideal” council. The authors assume that, by reading about an ideal council, new councilors will want to make their own council resemble the ideal.

The Underlying Theory

The educational theory implicit in this approach goes back at least to Plato. In its simplest form, it is the theory that knowledge is virtue. The more one knows about the idea of the pastoral council, the more one can be a better council member. Even before new councilors are skilled and experienced, the theory goes, they are able to recognize a council that functions well. Recognition gives them a desire to be a part of it, and by imitating good council practice, they will eventually share in that good themselves.

This is the Platonic rationale for books, videos, and workshops on pastoral councils. They aim to portray ideal councils so that inexperienced council members can recognize good practice and imitate it. The assumption is that anyone, even those who start with a wrongheaded notion of the council, can realize their mistake and correct it.

Linked to this theory are “democratic” assumptions which stem more from the 18th-century Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau than from the Greeks. These are the anti-aristocratic assumptions that all human beings are in some sense equal and that the common man is the least corrupt of all human beings. Apply the first assumption to the parish council and you get a suspicion of any exclusive criteria for council membership. The second assumption may persuade parishioners that so-called ordinary people have a fresher and more profound wisdom than those especially distinguished for their learning, good sense, or spirituality.

In summary, then, the argument that parish council members are made, not born, has a mixed pedigree. At first glance, it seems to have unimpeachable philosophic credentials. It states that people can learn how to be good council members because they are able to recognize excellence and imitate it. But this thesis stumbles when we ask whether all are equally gifted. The thesis of radical equality and the cult of the common man may blind us to the fact that some are better equipped for council work than others.

Second Argument: Councilors Are Born

No one, to my knowledge, takes the extreme position that councilors are “born”–that is, equipped from the start with everything necessary to serve on the pastoral council. But Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney, in her influential book Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987), makes a powerful argument for selectivity in the discernment of council members. She begins with an assertion which no one will contest: that parish council work is a ministry. But then she goes on to say that ministry is a vocation, and not all are called to it by God. Finally, she concludes (p. 38) that Church vocations are to be tested, and that this testing must be linked to criteria for the ministry of serving on councils. In short, we should be clear about the needed qualifications, McKinney says, and select only those who have them.

To the Christian, there is something immediately persuasive about this. It corresponds to what we know about the particularity of God’s call: not all are called in the same way and to the same ministry. And it corresponds to what we know from the Pauline literature about the destiny and specificity of God’s gifts. They are not all given to everyone and certainly not in the same measure.

This is undoubtedly true for the gift which most concerns McKinney, the gift of sharing wisdom. She calls it “a deep and operational faith that the Spirit lives in the group through its membership and speaks through the lived experience of each one” (p. 14). Such a faith, in itself, is not exclusive. Many Christians will affirm that “the Spirit lives in the group.” But not everyone has the gift which McKinney calls central to the shared wisdom approach, the gift of “letting go.” McKinney defines it as the “ability to ‘let go’ and seek the will of the Spirit in the gathered wisdom rather than in the wisdom of any one individual” (p. 17). This “letting go” is more than humility. It demands an ability to synthesize the insights of others precisely because the Spirit breathes in them.

Not Everyone Has It

McKinney denies that this gift is limited to a special few. She vigorously insists that the pastoral council ministry is for more than a pious and highly-skilled elite. But she does recommend that parishioners help one another see whether they possess the spirituality of shared wisdom, the gifts for group membership, and a genuine call to council ministry. Ultimately, McKinney recommends that would-be council members nominate themselves, and that this self-nomination be tested by the group. Her process of discernment enables people to discriminate among gifts, their own and those of others, and make sound judgments about their suitability for council membership.

Ancient philosophy offers a staunch support for McKinney’s position. This is Aristotle’s teaching about the nature and recognition of excellence in deliberation. Excellence in deliberation is linked by Aristotle to practical wisdom, the wisdom which aims at the highest good attainable in human affairs. Unlike scientific knowledge, which is proven and secure, practical wisdom has to be discussed. Because it has to do with what is best for a community, it demands knowledge of the community’s members and good common sense more than it demands knowledge of what is scientifically predictable. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics (VI:11) that having good sense in matters of practical wisdom–and thus being able to deliberate well–is a natural endowment. Unlike scientific knowledge, which has to be learned, good sense is something inbred. This supports the idea that a good council member is born, not made. No one studies to acquire the common sense and practical wisdom needed by councils. But the presence of those qualities can be discerned.

To sum up the argument, then, the good parish council has certain abilities which cannot be learned in a course of study. They are gifts from God, the first and foremost of which is faith in the spirit which animates the community. This faith manifests itself in attentiveness to the Spirit, in the capacity to let go of one’s own preconceptions and synthesize the wisdom of the group. Aristotle viewed the matter in a complementary way with his treatment of practical wisdom. Those who possess it are able to see what is good, not just in the abstract, but for a particular community. Not everyone has this charism or wisdom, and they cannot be acquired an a methodical or automatic way. One has to be born with them.

Made or Born?

My answer to the question of whether council members are made or born is a compromise. The best councilors, I would say, are “born” councilors who then “make” something of their native gifts. The innate gifts come first. If an effervescent “doer” gets elected to the parish council because he is a crack organizer of religious education volunteers, spring festivals, or the parish census–but is not able to engage in study, reflection, and deliberation–then he does not have a vocation to council ministry. He does not belong on the council. No amount of education is going to give him the gift of sharing wisdom. If the council is a silk purse, he is a sow’s ear.

Few of us, thanks be to God, are in this person’s dire predicament, utterly incapable of study, reflection, and deliberation. We are moderately studious, occasionally reflective, and able to hold our own in a conversation. These modes gifts we can develop and refine.

But which of us belongs on the council? Discernment of the vocation of possible council members is crucial. Such discernment is recommended both in Sharing Wisdom and, to a more limited degree, in The New Practical Guide. Discerning the council vocation is not an exercise in magic or spiritualism, but in Christian common sense. It involves educating people about what the council ministry entails and letting them see who has an aptitude and a call.

I witnessed such a discernment during the two pastoral conventions at the Diocese of Oakland in 1985 and 1988. Each diocesan convention involved preparatory meetings and two weekend sessions. The preparatory meetings and the weekends gave the 300-plus delegates an opportunity to learn about the pastoral council ministry by doing it–that is, by studying diocesan problems, reflecting on them, and discussing them with one another.

By the time it came to selecting the 20-member council, the convention delegates knew what the pastoral council was going to do; indeed, they had laid the groundwork for it. And they knew one another as well, having spent hours together in meetings and convention sessions. The actual discernment of pastoral council members did not take place in a candlelit room, full of burning incense, muttered prayer, and sudden transports of the spirit. In fact, it was actually done by nomination, discussion, and election. Prayers were forthright and dignified, a mixture of simple ritual and spontaneous reflection. But the selection merits the word discernment. The key elements of discernment–intelligent preparation, frank discussions, and openness to the wisdom of the group as the presence of the Church–were all there.

To be perfectly honest, I must say: not all of those chosen as pastoral council members were equally gifted. Some were shooting stars, lighting up our council meetings; others were long distance runners, plugging along and giving their best. But all of them were “born” councilors, chosen for gifts which the convention delegates publicly recognized. Then the councilors, because of the gifted people they were, “made” something of those gifts, putting them at the service of the Church.

For Your Council

Most of us have heard about the discernment of council members, but not all of us have experienced it successfully. In order to make it a success, you must first clarify the task of the council. If you want your council to be a reflective pastoral planning group, you must state that clearly from the outset. Then, following McKinney’s advice, hold a series of open meetings about the issue or issues which the council will tackle during the next year–religious education, evangelization, liturgy, whatever is urgent and deserves attention. During those meetings, the parishioners with the gift of sharing wisdom will surface. Those who participate in the open meetings will recognize who they are. Let them choose your council.