Parochial Councils--Hits or Misses?
By Walter J. Paulits
The Code of Canon Law of 1983 established two types of councils
for each parish, dependent on subsidiary norms developed by the
local ordinaries. The councils were to be the pastoral council
(more familiarly known in the United States as the "parish
council") and the finance council (perhaps more familiarly known
as the "finance committee"). Each was to bring to the parochial
level some sense of the collegiality experienced by the fathers at
the Second Vatican Council. In many parishes, both councils had
been established and were functional prior to 1983. Indeed, in
some dioceses, the councils had been suggested by the authorities
as far back as the years immediately following the Second Vatican
The code of 1983 was sparing in its description of the nature and
role of both parochial councils. It said about the parish council:
Canon 536-§1. After the diocesan bishop has listened to the
presbyterial council and if he judges it opportune, a pastoral
council is to be established in each parish; the pastor presides
over it, and through it the Christian faithful along with those
who share in the pastoral care of the parish in virtue of their
office give their help in fostering pastoral activity.
§2. This pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only and
is governed by norms determined by the diocesan bishop.
The code said about the finance council:
Canon 537-Each parish is to have a finance council which is
regulated by universal law as well as norms issued by the diocesan
bishop; in this council the Christian faithful, selected according
to the same norms, aid the pastor in the administration of parish
goods with due regard for the prescription of can. 532.
(Canon 532 says: "The pastor represents the parish in all juridic
affairs in accord with the norm of law; he is to see to it that
the goods of the parish are administered in accord with the norms
of cane. 12811288." Canons 1281-12X8 determine the duties of
administrators of Church goods.)
Important phrases occur in Canons 536 and 537. In 536: ". . . give
their help in fostering pastoral activity" and "This pastoral
council possesses a consultative vote only."
"Give their help" presumes that the givers are helping someone; in
other words, the givers are defined as assisters to someone who
will profit by the assistance. The helpers are properly
auxiliaries; and it's a noble role. Also, the words "pastoral
activity" must be stressed; the activity the council is to assist
in fostering is the shepherding activities of the parish: the
teaching, the sanctifying and the governing aspects of the
To neglect their responsibility to these areas of parochial life
so that meetings are dedicated to maintenance or purchases or
scheduling or related issues may give the assisters a superficial
sense of accomplishment. But the process is too similar to what
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for, to be comfortable:
"Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and all the
garden plants, while neglecting justice and the love of God. These
are the things you should practice, without omitting the others"
Canon law does not envision "giving help" as "tithing mint and
rue." Instead, "giving help" is about justice and love and peace
and worship, the proper concerns of the parish council.
"The pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only" is the
last key phrase. "Consultative vote" means that the council
debates an issue, tries to arrive at consensus, then votes and
presents a to the pastor. Although the vote may
deliver a strong moral suasion to the pastor, it does not
juridically force him to accept and act on it.
Two considerations immediately arise. First, the pastor, once he
presents an issue for discussion and vote, should be open enough
to the receive the united opinion of the council and accord it the
respect he himself would expect should the bishop ask the united
presbyterate for guidance on an issue. Of course, the pastor may
decide an issue on his own and present his decision to the council
for their information in cases where his information is deeper
than theirs-and especially when the information he has is so
privileged that he cannot reveal it.
But, again, should he present an undecided issue or allow the
introduction of one, he would be wise to listen. Experience in
this type of case indicates that acceptance of the council's vote
is almost universally more prudent than its rejection. The pastor
does not possess all wisdom. He does need counsel, which is
precisely why he has a council.
But the second consideration is that the pastor is not the only
participant who needs perception and prudence. So do the council
members. They must understand and accept their defined role: they
assist and their vote is consultative. Members who see themselves
as unrestricted decision makers subvert the true nature of the
council. In so doing, they supplant the pastor, cease to be
assisters and expect every vote to be binding. In these last
decades, parishes have shipwrecked on a collegial level because
councillors do not accept their role as helpers.
Similarly, the important phrase in Canon 537 is "the Christian
faithful . . . aid the pastor." Again, that not all pastors are
financial wizards and that odds would favor laymen and laywomen
being more proficient in money matters than many pastors-and the
odds would rise exponentially if the lay people worked on money
matters in their regular jobs.
The pastor would be foolish not to take advantage of the mandate
to create a finance committee. But the committee works within the
same parameters as the parish council. The finance committee aids
the pastor; it does not supplant him. The pastor still must be
accountable for every penny earned or spent by the parish. And so,
the finance committee is not the master of the parish's money;
instead, it is a planner with the pastor of the way the money is
to be generated, gathered and distributed.
Parochial councils have, in general, been hits when both the
pastors and the councillors have understood their role-and there
have always been misses when either side misunderstands its own or
the other's role.
When the pastor misunderstands what the councils should be, he
uses them as a facade for the presence of collegiality in his
parish. He observes the law but has no sense of the spirit. The
parochial venture is entirely his, and the councils are either
rubber stamps or noisy opponents. And the councillors are not
stupid; they sense quickly how the pastor regards them, and their
ultimate reaction is disgust and frustration. When the pastor
misuses a council, the entire parish structure sways-and
dysfunction can be read by everyone except, possibly, the pastor.
Councillors, too, can misread their role. The most common disease
infecting councils whose councillors simply will not be
councillors in the spirit of Canons 536 and 537 is power grabbing.
Councillors who expect to manage the parish do not understand the
futility of the goal they have embraced.
When one newly elected president of a parish council exclaimed,
"At last, now I'm in charge," the pastor had to disabuse him
immediately. The president of the parish council is not in charge,
and the finance committee is not in charge. The pastor is in
charge. But sometimes both councils make power moves over the
years. The parish council might arrogate powers over matters that
are not its concern. And the finance committee might assume a
control over money and property that makes the pastor superfluous.
Whenever I've run into problems like these in my councils, I've
tried all types of education. Perhaps the most effective
correctives I've used are the distinctions among advisory boards,
CEOs and CPAs.
The parish council can be likened to a board, but not the type in
which final authority is vested. Advisory boards that counsel
executives are perhaps the closest analogues we have to what
parish councils should be. These advisory boards bring their
goodwill, expertise and common vision to the executive. They know
that what they offer is , which attains great status when
it is communal and enthusiastic. They know that the advice can be
accepted or rejected.
They also know that acceptance bolsters their own sense of
participation and ownership, and that rejection does not. If the
rejections are continuous and the attention of the executive is
always elsewhere, the members typically do what we all would
expect them to do: resign. In the words of a lawyer at the Oliver
North hearings: "We are not here to be potted plants!"
So it would be injudicious to say that an advisory board has no
power. It has scads, but the power is a moral one that an
executive of good sense and experience will listen to. And if he
can't accept the advice, he will promptly explain why.
Besides, the expectation that a parish council can conduct the
day-by-day running of the parish is preposterous. Councils meet
once or twice a month. Councils I have been associated with
sometimes cannot remember a decision they voted on three months
earlier. To expect to be able to meet every time an important
decision must be made is a burden most councillors would not bear.
But councillors must be aware that life does indeed go on between
meetings, and that decisions must be made, bills paid, crises met,
initiatives strengthened, meetings held, and so on. The council is
not the thread running through all the days between meetings; the
pastor and his staff are. If the pastor is loyal to the spirit of
the advice he has accepted from the council in ways unanticipated
by the council, the councillors are foolish to become indignant
because "they were not consulted." In many cases they can't be
consulted: they are at their jobs or involved with family matters,
and the need for decision is urgent.
In plain terms, parish councils cannot be CEOs; they are advisory
to the CEO. And nothing is implied here about the council's
dignity or its prerogatives; the council attains its dignity by
its close attention to the help it offers in the parish's
teaching, sanctifying and governing missions. But that help is
most effectively given by the council's work on identifying the
genius of this particular parish, its goals, its objectives and
its mission statement. The help is also shown in the careful
attention it gives each year to the finance committee's work on
the annual parish budget.
The parish council is a planning organization; it polls the parish
to discover the needs and wishes of the parishioners, and then it
plans the strategies for meeting the needs and wishes. It also has
a responsibility of locating the lacunae in the parish's Christian
conscience and consciousness, and of prodding the parish to become
involved in matters greater than the parish's own self-interested
concerns. So the parish council expends its time and talent on
knowing the parish and devising plans for the parish's pastoral
The parish council is a planner. It -and this point cannot be
overstated -is not a manager. The sure death of the vitality of
the council is micromanagement, the urge to direct every
organization and committee on how to do its work (e.g., trying to
tell the CCD administrators which texts to buy and what subjects
to teach). Parish committees recruit people of various expertises;
the parish council has no business guiding those committees in
their work, especially when councillors know less than committee
heads and members.
I have seen parish councils that have misunderstood their nature
and mission. The parish always suffers because short- and long-
term planning is not done and because committees are badgered by a
council that is not minding its real business.
And I think that the harm comes because of the seductive nature of
being members of the most prestigious of all the parish
organizations. To be on a parish council, especially by election,
is to be like a senator or a representative. The councillor
ascribes power to his position. And power is like a drug: if one
likes it, one wants more and more of it.
I've seen power addicts on parish councils. They value only what
generate-and they want to generate everything. One result
is friction between them and the perceptive pastor who senses the
danger of what's happening. Another result is factionalism on the
council, because the power grabber looks for disciples and allies,
and others who suspect the motives and messages of the budding
dictator either sink in fear before him or actively fight him.
I have seen real hate result from factions. And I have also seen
paralysis cripple the council, because any hope that dialogue and
compromise could achieve consensus disappears-the power grabber
never compromises and always pushes his (or her) own agendas. The
meetings become shambles.
Power grabbing is the first capital sin of parish councils. And
that is true of the presider of the council too: the pastor can be
as much a power grabber as anyone else. And he can induce the same
hates and factionalisms as anyone else. In short, the parish
council asks for death when it opts for power.
Many of the above observations also apply to the finance council
or committee. But the focus is narrower because the subject is
more limited: money. Realism demands that we acknowledge the
necessity and importance of money, for without it no salaries are
paid, no professional staff is formed, programs are enfeebled and
initiatives are stifled. The unfortunate correlative is that the
person or persons who control the money control much of what
happens in the parish.
Canon law stipulates a group of lay people to assist the pastor in
financial matters. Much depends on how the group is formed: by
appointment, by election, by self-volunteering or any other means.
Should the "character" of the group eventually evolve into
volunteerism, at least one signal flag should be lifted.
Volunteers who have not been sifted either by parochial
appointment or election or consultation with the pastor can become
dangerous to the well-being of the parish. They have no mandate
except what they give to themselves, and no power except what they
Experience has shown that some people who volunteer for the
finance committee pursue the adage: "He who controls the purse
strings controls everything." Some people join the finance
committee for power. And the power is broad: creating and
enforcing the budget, monitoring every dollar spent by every
committee, forbidding necessary purchases- "running the parish" in
a sense even more fundamental than that which the parish council
sometimes arrogates to itself.
The power is that of granting or withholding funds necessary for
the committees and works of the parish. The power grab is
fundamental and effective. It must not be allowed to happen. It is
inherently invalid and illegal and incredibly arrogant. The pastor
must react against a finance committee that has become a
collective financial czar. He has to redraft its constitution and
mandate and spell out exactly what its role is.
Finance-committee members are the helpers of the parish council,
the committees, and the pastor and staff. And the help they supply
evidences how far their role is from being a CEO in the parish.
When I clarified my own finance committee's mandate, I told the
members that their major role was: to track the numbers of our
balance sheet; to poll committees on their financial needs so that
a yearly budget could attempt to satisfy them; to devise a budget
that projected income and expenses in line with past incomes and
projected expenses; not to do any cutting of the projected
expenses (that was not their role; it was the role of the parish
council); to present the budget each year to the parish council;
to explain the figures to the council; to heed the council's
instructions to them concerning projected income and expenses (at
this point, they could make putative cuts); and to return with a
budget that might then be ready for the council's vote.
I looked upon this process as one that would consume nine months.
Hence, the committees had sufficient time to develop their
requests, and the finance committee had time to digest them and
shape them into a form that could be used by the parish council.
In other words, I made the finance committee an organ of the
parish council (in our diocese, we could do that), subject to the
council in every way. I told the finance-committee members that
they were to resemble much more a CPA than a CEO. They worked with
the numbers; the council made recommendations concerning the
numbers; and the pastor approved the final budget. The finance
committee tracked the ; the council and the pastor said
what could be spent.
The final stipulation I made for the finance committee was that
once the budget was approved, the power to spend the money
allotted to the committees and organizations always rested with
those groups. The finance committee was not to go to any group to
monitor how the money was being spent. That kind of control was
exercised by the pastor's signing the checks and the staff's
keeping the books.
That kind of reining in was not easy. When the finance committee
recognized what I was doing, they were resentful. But I had seen
fantastic harm done by the looser kind of operation the committee
had been following and I had been allowing. I explained all this
to the finance committee several times, but I never did convince
one or two hard-core people. To have tasted the power of the purse
was a pleasure they would not give up. But they gave it up. They
had to. They didn't know how to compromise, and eventually I had
to order what I much rather would have arrived at by mutual
consent. The sanguine hope that all things can be reasoned to
consensus is sometimes a chimera, although I nourished that hope
Have parochial councils been hits or misses? As a retired pastor,
I think that they can be magnificent organisms for the cooperation
of the pastor and the laity.
I'm not sure that the older model of election to the councils
should live much longer. Elections engendered some of the power
grabbing I've been speaking about. And rarely in my experience did
the elections do what theorists first promised: involve the entire
parish. In too many elections, volunteers were dragooned into the
nominations-and then, too often, perhaps only a quarter of the
parish voted. Had I continued much longer as an active pastor, I
would have dropped the election process in favor of some form of
discernment of spirits and enlightened recruiting.
I would have extended terms of office, because I had experienced
the frustration of the turnovers each year because of elections.
Turnovers were a prime cause of the short collective memory of the
council-and especially troublesome were the new officers elected
each year by the members of the council. The councils were too
Having said all that, I would still affirm the necessity of
structured dialogue between the pastor and the parishioners, with
mutually understood roles, missions and prerogatives. But I do not
think that the form in which the dialogue occurs has reached
perfection. All I know is that the pastor must not create a
meaningless collegial facade; and the parishioners must not grab
for power that is not theirs. Somewhere in between is exceedingly
fertile ground that some, maybe many, parishes have been tilling
FATHER PAULITS writes from Glen Burnie, Md.
This article was taken from the May 1996 issue of "The Priest". To
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