In the early years after the Second Vatican Council, many dioceses required the establishment of parish councils. These early manifestations of councils looked to the model of local civic councils and tended to focus on dollars and cents issues rather than ministerial ones. Let’s face it: it is much easier to decide the size of the parish budget or the color the hall should be painted rather than strategize about groups of people the parish is not reaching.
In 1983, when Canon Law was revised, the finance council was mandated and each parish was to identify members who would assist the pastor with and monitor parish funds. The pastoral council, often referred to as the “parish council,” was identified as an “elective” council at the discretion of the local bishop in consultation with the presbyteral council to establish. Most dioceses required pastoral councils in addition to the mandate for finance councils. The role of the parish pastoral council – not necessarily the practice – has changed. The pastoral council is to assist the pastor with planning for pastoral activity.
An effective council can be assisted by attention to three areas: organization, operation, and outcomes. Organization has to do with how the council is organized to act. Operation focuses on the scope of the council’s activity. Outcomes deals with the results and impact of the activity of the council. Let’s explore each area in closer detail.
Every diocese which requires councils has statutes or guidelines for the organization of the council. These should be followed and implemented carefully. After years of working with councils on the parish and diocesan levels, there are several organizational practices which I maintain are essential to an effective council.
- Council election or selection should take place every three years rather than annually. Most councils that have annual turnover and elections spend much of their yearly schedule filling vacancies, planning elections, and orienting new members. The council should be a working group that is trying to accomplish some action over a five-to-six-year period. Members can hold up to two consecutive terms.
- Council officers should also be chosen for three-year terms.
- Nominees for the council must have at least one-year of experience serving on a parish committee or ministry team. It is essential that council members have some understanding of the inner workings of the parish as well as an appreciation for ministry. Not identifying qualified nominees has frustrated many a pastor about the wisdom of even having pastoral councils.
- Strongly consider having an all-parish meeting night which begins with prayer, is followed by meetings of the pastoral council and committees, and then leads to reports on highlights of each group’s meeting, and concludes with a social. Finance councils can meet at another time but its members are also welcome to attend.
- If the parish is clustered with another or shares a pastor, strongly consider forming a combined pastoral council or, at minimum, meet periodically during the year. The mission of the church is the same. Working together on mission is far more effective and efficient. Pastors also appreciate having fewer meetings each month.
Too many councils meet regularly but struggle with what they should be discussing and doing. Here are the major areas of focus for a pastoral council.
- Must know the present and future realities as well as the parish data. Finance councils have the monthly financial statement and pastoral councils have demographics and annual parish ministry reports. How can a council plan for pastoral activity without know what is going on in the community and the parish itself?
- Pastoral councils are to monitor ministerial activity in the parish. Councils should meet at least annually with each committee or ministry group which is leading ministries in order to discuss what is going well and what needs greater attention.
- Councils should develop a vision or master plan for future ministry in the parish. Too many parish councils have been watching their parishes decline in membership and ministerial involvement and basically done nothing other than affirm budget cuts and a longing for “the good old days.” The next installment will focus on strategic planning.
God bless the many good and faithful council members who have served without feeling anything was accomplished during their time of service. Pastoral councils need to have accomplishments and outcomes which are significant. Here are some general examples.
- A new building project or renovation. Parish leaders and parishioners get very excited about a project that unfolds before their very eyes. The same can be true about developing a new staff position or beginning a new ministry. People can see before their very eyes direct results of a common effort. Fund raisers tell us that parishes should think about a capital campaign every 7 to 10 years.
- Much more difficult to assess as well as achieve are the qualitative improvements in parish ministries. There is a big difference between doing something and doing it well even when it comes to ministries. Councils need to work with leaders and parishioners to provide every parishioner with access to quality ministries.
- A vision for the future. Too many parishes are locked in their pasts and either want “the pendulum to swing back” or “things to come full circle.” Our faith tells us to look to the future with hope. Parishes need a strong sense of where they are heading and what they are striving to become. Parishes that fail to plan for the future are planning to fail.
Councils will become more effective when leaders and members are committed to improve their parishes into becoming living signs of Christ’s presence.