Seeking Wisdom in the Parish Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “When a Pastor and a Council Disagree,” Today’s Parish (April/May 1997): 19-22.

DPC LogoSmallThree years ago, my parish council took a new direction. It made a deliberate effort, as we put it, to “seek wisdom.” Seeking wisdom–that was how we defined the council’s new goal. What made us change? Our pastor of one year, Father John, had gotten fed up with the normal routine of parish council meetings. Politely but directly, he said that he did not need to meet two hours per month to simply maintain the parish’s momentum. Council meetings, he said, had become discouraging. The agendas were dull. The business was mostly busy work. He wanted to grapple with more pressing issues–issues such as the rising number of Hispanic people in our parish.

It was not easy to hear his criticism. It hurt the pride of us who were veteran council members. But he was right. Council meetings had become routine. The connection between council activity and parish mission was no longer obvious. Often we were just “going through the motions.” We to were ready for a change, but we did not know quite what to do.

There were more pressing things, Father John said, than hearing reports from the various parish committees. He said that he wanted to reflect on the meaning of the parish. It was changing, he said, and not the least of the changes was the growth in Spanish-speakers, mostly Mexican-born parishioners. He wanted to explore what this would mean for the parish. He wanted to clarify its mission. And he did not want to do this alone, he said. He wanted us to join him in a search for wisdom.

Changing Our Style

Father John purchased for each council member a copy of Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987). As we read the book, two things became clear. One is that we had not paid much attention to our style of decision-making. There are many ways of making decisions, and we had gotten locked into one way: straight up-and-down voting. McKinney suggests other ways designed to bring out the wisdom of the group.

The second thing that Sharing Wisdom made clear was that we had neglected the spiritual dimension of the council ministry. We had become managers, preoccupied with the business of the parish. Everything we did was designed to ensure the smooth running of parish committees. And in the process of becoming efficient managers, we had lost touch with something–with the spirit that had motivated us to become council members in the first place. With the help of Sister Mary Benet’s book, Father John recalled for us the Spirit of Wisdom.

Spirit of Wisdom is a phrase taken from chapter one of the Letter to the Ephesians. It reflects the Old Testament wisdom tradition and described our council’s newfound goal. We sought that Spirit of Wisdom, trying to apply it to Father John’s various questions about the changing makeup of the parish, God’s plan for it, and its mission. The search was not an easy one. Breaking with the old ways of being a parish council was hard. But little by little, we broke new ground. The council agenda changed. Our prayer deepened. We grew closer together.

No Mere Conventions

More than any word, “conventional” described our old parish council. We gathered in the same place on a regular basis, the parish hall, and observed familiar rituals: call to order, opening prayer, reading of the minutes, old business, new business, and so on. In this we did what had always been done. After a time we took it all for granted. This, we believed, is what parish councils do.

Father John challenged that assumption. He had a different point of view and different questions, such as the question about Hispanic parishioners. Things that we felt were essential, such as the regular list of agenda items and the reading of reports, did not seem essential to him. He already knew what was going on at the parish. Too much time, he felt, was spent on sharing information. This left almost no time for the extended discernment for which he longed.

McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom helped us break with the routine. The book suggests that the “wisdom group” (that is, the parish council) ought to focus, in its meetings, on one or two important issues. By being selective, the group can devote more time to genuine discernment. Father John’s wish to reflect on the changing make-up of the parish, on its meaning, plan, and mission, helped us become selective. He presented us with a set of discussion questions. These were questions such as, “How does the parish serve its parishioners, both English- and Spanish-speaking?” and “How does the parish build community?” and “What attracts people to our parish?” The questions showed what he meant by the “meaning” of the parish.

Father John’s list of questions bore little resemblance to our traditional agendas, but we went along with them. Father John acted as facilitator of the discussion. He first encouraged us to share our reactions to the questions with the person next to us. Then he asked us to form groups of four and try to find at least one area of agreement. Then he invited one from each foursome to speak to the group as a whole. All the while, he kept track of the discussion. At the end of the meeting, he summarized what we had said. No one thought we could spend an entire council meeting discussing the “meaning” of the parish, but that is exactly what we had done.

First Reactions

Of course, not all members were happy with the turn which the council had taken. Some felt that we ought to have spent more time sharing information about parish committees and projects. Others felt that Father John had imposed the discussion of parish “meaning” on the council, and that the “sharing wisdom” approach of Sister Mary Benet was nothing but a fad. Discussing in twos, then in fours, then reporting to the group had seemed refreshing the first time, they complained, but even that can become routine. “Maybe the old agenda was a bore, but we got things done,” said the most cynical council members. “Discussing what the parish ‘means’ is all talk and no action.”

Those criticisms struck a nerve. Indeed, they resonated with at least one aspect of the Biblical wisdom tradition. Any approach to wisdom that becomes a mere routine, the tradition teaches, loses touch with wisdom. Even a sophisticated modern-day search for wisdom, such as the one recommended in Sharing Wisdom, can become merely conventional. That is why the Biblical wisdom tradition often repeats the phrase, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). Wisdom springs from reverent attentiveness. Whatever gets in the way of that attentiveness, whether a sophisticated group process or simplistic one-word agenda items, stifles wisdom.

Father John recognized that some of us had difficulty with the changes he was making. When we met next, he discussed the previous meeting. He explained why he wanted to steer the council into uncharted waters. The parish was changing, he said, and the number of Hispanic parishioners was growing. If we were to lay the basis for a renewal of the parish, we had to pay attention to these changes. He wanted the council’s help, he said, to deepen his knowledge of the parish.

A Deeper Love

Deepening our knowledge of the parish–that is the way Father John described the council’s goal. But it soon became clear that he meant more than merely gaining information. What he really intended was a knowledge akin to love. When Father John spoke of knowing the parish, he created an almost mystical image in our minds. The parish was not merely a number of families, a regular income, the provision of services. No, for him it was the community of Christ’s body. It was a spiritual reality, a bond of loyalty, a shared commitment. Father John was inviting us to enter imaginatively into the mysticism of parish life. He wanted us to see that the life of the parish is nothing other than the life of Jesus Christ. For him, knowing the parish was an act of love.

That does not mean that Father John was indifferent to parish facts. He was a whiz with the computer, maintained an up-to-date parish census, and could tell you to within ten dollars how much the parish took in last Sunday. But that was only part of the reality, and not the most important part. There were other facts, he said, facts which he might not have in his computer, which were no less real. One of these was the growing presence of Spanish-speaking people in the parish. They may not be registered parishioners, but their presence was felt.

Father John then observed that there was no Spanish-language Mass. At a previous council meeting, we had discussed how the parish serves those who do not speak English. Most council members took the view that parish services were available to all, regardless of language. But Father John expressed the opinion that, unless the parish reached out to the Spanish-speaking, they might not avail themselves of parish services at all. None of the regular Sunday morning Masses were full to capacity, he said. Why not celebrate the 9:00 Mass in Spanish? He was no expert in the Spanish language, he said, but he could say Mass in Spanish and give a homily.

Most council members did not like this proposal. It was, they said, a break with tradition. Some families had been attending the 9:00 Mass for generations. Celebrating the Mass in Spanish would alienate them. Moreover, the collection might drop. Most Hispanic parishioners earn less than the English-speakers, councilors said, and so the collection at the Spanish Mass would not offset the loss of income from the Anglos. Above all, said the critics, who could be certain that adding a Spanish-language Mass would actually serve Hispanic people better? It might be that Hispanic parishioners prefer going to English-language Masses.

Adhering to the Model

I had to admire the response of Father John to the council’s negative remarks. He did not get angry. Instead, following the model in McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom, he listened closely to each council member. Every member knew that Father John was deeply committed to serving the parish, especially the Hispanic Catholics whose ranks were growing. Everyone knew that his proposal to shift the 9:00 Mass from English to Spanish was heartfelt. The fact that he really listened to those who opposed him, taking notes and asking questions, showed the strength of his commitment to the shared wisdom model.

Reflecting back on that meeting, I believe that the parish council had come to a crossroads. It was the crossroads of wisdom. Without a doubt, Father John was seeking the wisdom of the group. And wisdom seemed to lead in two directions. Most of the group were articulating the wisdom of what one might call the “good life.” That is the wisdom of maintaining the community, preserving its continuities, reinforcing its strengths. It also meant holding fast to the way Masses at the parish were regularly celebrated, namely, in English.

Not every council member, however, rejected the idea of Mass in Spanish. Some saw the wisdom, the prophetic wisdom, of Father John’s proposal. Doubtless it was not the conventional wisdom of maintaining the status quo and of avoiding conflict. But it is undoubtedly wise for parishes to make plans in response to demographic change. Moreover, there is a profoundly Christian wisdom in making a change on behalf of Spanish-speaking Catholics, mostly immigrants, who in our parish are somewhat marginalized. But in this case, prophetic wisdom conflicted with conventional wisdom. Which course of action, we asked, is more wise?

McKinney’s Sharing Wisdom could not solve this conflict. It offers no foolproof method for making a decision. To be sure, we followed its tried-and-true advice about how to reach consensus. We listened to one another’s opinions carefully, we honored the minority voices (even the pastor’s!), and we made a deliberate effort to share our wisdom, such as it was, in a spirit of love. But that did not settle the issue. Most council members remained opposed to the Spanish-language Mass. Only a few saw things Father John’s way.

Wisdom and Law

Father John did not have to remind us that our deliberations were consultative. Canon Law makes it clear that parish councils do not have juridical power. Canon 536 gives them a consultative vote only. We knew that if Father John had wanted, he could simply have thanked us for our advice and ignored it, celebrating the 9:00 Mass in Spanish. It was his legal right to do so. Indeed, it would have been his moral obligation had he felt the change were necessary.

But the issue was not the legality of such a choice. It was the wisdom of it. And if Father John had ignored the council, I believe he would have been extremely unwise. Rejecting the majority’s advice would have turned the council against him. Council members would have wondered why he sought their advice if he was not to take it seriously. Above all, Father John’s rebuff to the council would have shattered the mystical image he labored to cultivate, the image of the parish as Christ’s body. He undoubtedly had the legal right to reject the council’s advice. But wisdom cautioned against it.

Father John did not reject the council’s advice. He honored its traditionalism, affirming the conventional wisdom about maintaining the English-language Masses. To this day, none have been converted into Spanish. But Father John is not complacent or resigned to the traditional schedule. His desire to celebrate the 9:00 Mass in Spanish remains firm. I asked him why he had not simply made the change when the law of the Church allows him to do so. He answered that the Biblical wisdom tradition presented a better way. He quoted the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach, known as Ecclesiasticus: “In all wisdom there is the fulfillment of the law” (19:20).

I think he meant that, for a person of faith, law and wisdom go hand in hand. No law was written to be applied unwisely. Canon Law does not intend for pastors to foolishly reject good advice. No, good advice is meant to be taken. Law and wisdom are not opposites, but complementary. The law is wise, even the law that councils are consultative only, and wisdom completes that law. By taking the council’s advice, Father John acted wisely and preserved the council’s morale.

But he also has plans for the Spanish-speaking. For example, he has hired a Hispanic ministry coordinator. He has introduced Spanish elements into the 9:00 Mass, such as readings in Spanish, bilingual service music, and Latin-flavored rhythms. He makes the announcements at the end of Mass in two languages. Without alienating the English-speaking parishioners, Father John has tried to cultivate the Spanish-speaking. His brand of prophetic wisdom is not the same as the council’s, to be sure, but the council may yet come around to his way of thinking.

The Lessons of Wisdom

By inviting his parish council to join him in a search for wisdom, Father John not only revitalized it, but showed other councils how they might benefit from the wisdom model. The model teaches three lessons. First, it shows that wisdom does not flow from the mere application of management techniques. Instead, it is more a matter of reverent attentiveness to God’s Spirit. Fear of the Lord–not slavish obedience to a fixed agenda or process–is the beginning of wisdom.

Secondly, the model suggests that wisdom has many dimensions. There is a conventional aspect of wisdom (wisdom as preserving the good already present in the community), and a prophetic aspect (wisdom as responding to changes in faithfulness and hope). Even though the conventional voices were stronger in Father John’s council than the prophetic voices, no voices were not stifled, and the prophetic may yet prove persuasive.

Finally the model teaches something about the relation between wisdom and law. The law of the Church which grants pastors the right to not accept the advice of councils is not a license to ignore the council. Wisdom fulfills the law, which God intends to be wisely applied. Pastors have the freedom to consult as they see fit because they should not be coerced. Wisdom is a grace and, like every grace, must be free.

The wisdom of Qoheleth, the preacher of Ecclesiastes, is relevant here. When he describes the world as a “vanity of vanities,” he does not advise indifference. His goal is rather one of detachment: detachment from his own understanding of what is wise. This advice pertains to councils. It frees everyone, pastor and councilor alike, to appreciate the wisdom of the group.