Parochial Councils--Hits or Misses?

Author: Walter J. Paulits

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 Council.

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 community.

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" (Lk 11:42).

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 life.

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 grasp.

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 for years.

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 ephemeral.

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 for years.

FATHER PAULITS writes from Glen Burnie, Md.

This article was taken from the May 1996 issue of "The Priest". To subscribe please write: "The Priest", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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