Staggered elections

DPC LogoSmallAgainst Staggered Elections

By Mark F. Fischer

(Published as “Stop Staggering Council Elections,” Today’s Parish (April/May 1996): 31-33.)

This fictional story of a Vietnamese-American parish illustrates the value of making a change — and the tact such a change requires.

Many, perhaps most, parish councils in the U.S. stagger the elections of their members. This guarantees that no more than one-half or one-third of council members are new at any one time. The supposed advantage of staggered elections is that they maintain continuity in the council. Veteran members teach new members the ropes so that they will continue to do as the veterans have done.

There are good reasons, however, for abandoning staggered elections. One reason is that they unduly multiply the number of elections, making it more difficult to find time for a thorough discernment of members. A second reason has to do with continuity. Maintaining continuity is the rationale for staggered elections, because it enables councils to continuously evaluate parish ministry. But this reduces the council in many cases to passively monitoring activities and listening to often-tedious reports. A final reason for abandoning staggered elections is that they merely preserve the council status quo. Veteran councilors teach neophytes the same old routine, clogging the arteries of the agenda, slowing new initiatives, stifling creativity.

Father Bui Nguyen, the founding pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, worked with his council for several years before he saw the need to shake things up. I met him when he was in the midst of transforming his council. The old council happily spent its time renting the parish hall, preparing the annual festival, and scheduling devotions. But Father Bui saw a more profound problem: the problem of youth gangs in the neighborhoods of the parish. He got the council to help him with the gang problem by holding parish meetings about youth–and got away from staggered elections in the process.

The Inertia of Old Business

When Father Bui first raised the issue of Asian gangs with his seven-member council, the councilors were indeed concerned. They deplored gangs, expressed sympathy for the victims, and worried about the effect of gangs on neighborhood safety and property values. But what could they do about it? One Vietnamese-American parent said that she had about the same influence over her teenage son as any other parent–which is to say, not much. The other parents in the council agreed. They steered Father Bui back to the meeting’s main agenda item, listed under the heading of “Old Business.” It was the Tet, the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, the Year of the Monkey, 1992.

Father Bui later reflected on the meeting. Why had the council been so much more interested in the annual celebration than in the problem of youth gangs? The major reason, he felt, was that councilors were more confident planning the Tet. They believed the problem of youth gangs was for experts. By planning the Tet celebration they felt they were doing their duty as councilors. They were maintaining the council’s traditional activities. They were attending to the parish’s old business.

Advocates of Staggered Elections

A little research showed Father Bui that his councilors’ attitudes were quite common. From the very beginning of the parish council movement, councils have been given a broad scope and told to maintain continuity. Three books written about councils in 1968 by Robert C. Broderick, David P. O’Neill, and the National Conference of Catholic Men, all called for staggered elections. Newer council members, said these authors, should benefit from those who have gone before.

Later parish council authors sustained and expanded the 1968 vision. Thomas P. Sweetser and Carol W. Holden, for example, described their ideal council in 1987 as the “council of ministries.” They recommended that the council “coordinate and give direction to all the pastoral activities and ministries of the parish” (126). Because their vision of the council emphasizes coordination and direction, the authors insisted upon staggered elections to provide continuity. William Rademacher and Marliss Rogers made the same point in 1988. They gave the council the task of overseeing a system of committees (pp. 98 ff.). For that reason, they too recommended staggered elections.

Father Bui did not feel obliged to follow the recommendations of these authors. They were, after all, merely stating a point of view. Moreover, the council guidelines published by Father Bui’s own diocese do not require staggered elections. But Father Bui was taken aback when a canonist friend sent him the 1973 “Circular Letter” to bishops on pastoral councils by the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy. The circular letter states that staggered elections are “advisable” so that “the whole council membership will not go out of existence at the same time.”

The letter impressed Father Bui. It was an official document–in fact, the only Vatican document devoted entirely to pastoral councils. But after due consideration, Father Bui decided that he was not bound by it. The circular letter advised staggered elections but did not mandate them. Furthermore, it was written 23 years ago, when our knowledge of pastoral councils was weak. Father Bui felt that his own experience should count for something.

The Alternative of Discernment

Staggered elections maintain continuity, Father Bui told his councilors, but the tasks for which continuity is essential are not the most important tasks. Several recent publications make this point. More important than continuity is discernment, writes Charles M. Olsen, in his Transforming Church Boards (Alban Institute, 1995). Olsen defines this as the ability to “‘see’ what God is up to” (89). The bureaucratic culture of many churches prevents discernment. The culture emphasizes a continuous process of bureaucratic management. Olsen says this can lead to burnout and paralysis among council members.

Another author who emphasizes discernment is Dominican Sister Mary Kay Bailey. Council member selection is a call to ministry, she writes in the anthology Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council (Paulist, 1995). Bailey does not mention staggered elections. The length of a term is unimportant, she feels, in comparison to whether a person called to ministry “has the skill, time and energy to meet the [Church’s] need” (64). Imposing an arbitrary limit on a term or task, she says, may hinder the work of the Spirit.

These recent books call to mind the work of Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney. She was among the first to break with the precedent of parliamentary elections and staggered terms in her book Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987). Instead, she proposes a series of meetings to inform parishioners about an issue and to discern who is willing and able to pursue the issue further in a “spirit of prayerful reflection” (100). Hers was the recommendation which Father Bui decided to follow.

Father Bui had an issue, the issue of Asian gangs. Now he wanted his council to share its wisdom with him. But restructuring his council called for great tact. He feared that the members might take offense if he implied that he was dissatisfied with them.

An Expanded Council

Father Bui began by explaining his concern about the gangs to the council. He invited the members to pray and share their reflections about the problem. He then asked the council to help him plan a series of parish meetings to educate parishioners about the gangs. His aim was to draw upon their interest and wisdom.

Father Bui’s plan to hold the parish meetings included restructuring the council. To do this, he needed the council’s help. So after he had sketched the plan for the parish meetings, he told them that the task of grappling with the gang problem was too big for a seven-member council. He wanted to expand the council to fifteen members in order to treat the gang problem more thoroughly. He asked the existing council to help him select, from those who would attend the parish meetings, eight new members. The expanded council, he said, would focus on studying the gang problem and recommend solutions to it.

Father Bui admitted to his councilors that the new focus would prevent next year’s council from accomplishing its traditional tasks as in the past. He asked the councilors to assist him in the traditional tasks, such as planning the Tet. Since they were experienced, he said, they could plan the celebration outside of the council meetings. Although those traditional tasks might not receive the attention they had in former times, he said, they need not be entirely forsaken.

Privately, Father Bui explained to me that his proposal to the existing council required great delicacy. He did not want to offend the members by suggesting that their previous duties were unimportant or unneeded. But he did want to shift the council’s focus. By inviting the old members to help him make that shift, he allowed them to save face. They could serve their terms and remain on the council until the gang project was complete. At the end of the project, the council would go out of existence. Father Bui foresaw that a new cycle of parish meetings would then develop another project and select a new council.


Following the general outline presented by Sister Mary Benet McKinney, Father Bui and his council held four parish assemblies about the youth gang problem. The topics for the four meetings were as follows:

  • Youth Gangs: Our Neighborhood Experience
  • The Roots of the Youth Gang Problem
  • What Can We Do About Youth Gangs?
  • Who Will Carry on the Struggle Against Gangs?

The fourth meeting was devoted to a discernment of parishioners who had the skill, commitment, and enthusiasm to join a reconstituted parish council which would study the gang problem. Over the following two years, the council studied the problem, invited experts to present city and state efforts to halt the spread of gangs, considered a number of parish responses to the problem, and created a plan for establishing a youth group and youth ministry. The council did not spend any time discussing the schedule of the parish hall, but that suited Father Bui. He felt that he and the parish were engaged in more important matters.

Most members of the old parish council stayed beyond their elected terms, seeing the youth project through to its conclusion. Father Bui is now planning another series of parish assemblies to lay the foundation for a new council. Its topic? The parish liturgy and how to make it more participative and representative of his people’s culture.

Father Bui found that the old method of staggered elections did not attract the kind of councilors he wanted. The McKinney method of parish assemblies and discernment of interested parishioners brought together those with real passion, skill, and interest. By keeping the council together throughout the entire youth gang project, the councilors developed together in knowledge, confidence, and insight. Their creativity and “shared wisdom” transformed the parish council and made a more profound contribution to the parish. The creation of the youth group is already having an impact on the safety of the neighborhoods and the well-being of the parish’s young people.

To be sure, the “old business” of scheduling devotions and planning celebrations no longer appeared on the council agenda. But Father Bui did not miss it. He simply asked some trusted parishioners to undertake that task for him. Staggered elections, he had found, are based on an outdated vision of the parish council. It is a vision of the council as coordinator of parish ministries and standing committees. In its place, Father Bui had instituted a pastoral planning council. He had the satisfaction of seeing the council identify a problem, study it, and develop concrete solutions to it.

This year’s Tet celebration at Vietnamese Martyrs was markedly different. To celebrate the Year of the Rat–a Vietnamese symbol of industry–parishioners featured a presentation by parish young people about their new youth group. But Father Bui’s mind was elsewhere: he was already thinking about rejuvenating the parish liturgy.