Advisory Councils serve the pastor's apostolate, the laity's apostolate, or both?

Tom Gallagher wrote a thought provoking article in today's National Catholic Reporter regarding the role of advisory councils. In it, Mark Fischer, a contributor to this Catholic Standards for Excellence Forum explains that the primary role of advisory councils are to serve the apostolate of the pastor. Sr. Brenda Hermann, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity, and Msgr. James Gaston, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh offers that the role of the councils are to serve the apostolate of the laity:

"Our starting point is both decrees on bishops and on the laity; however, the primary role of the laity is to the world and it's essential for parishes to prepare and support the laity," Hermann said.

"There is a whole understanding in the life of the people of God and no place to bring it [into the church]," she said. "Parish pastoral councils are the place where the mission fields of the laity and the ordained intersect and interact."

"The daily life concerns of the laity are the primary pastoral concerns of the church and pastoral councils," said Gaston, who is also pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Lower Burrell, Pa.

Which approach have you taken with parish advisory bodies?  What are some of the practices that you have used within these advisory bodies that would fit into either of these two visions?

For more information the NCR article recommends the following resources:

Mark Fischer's website on parish pastoral councils

Villanova University's Center for the Study of Church Management

For another view of parish leadership, see the Parish Evaluation Project, co-directed by Jesuit Fr. Thomas Sweetser and Wendy Rappé

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This is a very interesting and timely question for our pastoral council.  We have been pretty informal in taking on work but are working to be more strategic.  On balance we tend to focus more on bringing laity issues and perspective before the pastor.  In the last few years, we have managed several listening sessions required by our diocese as part of a parish viability study.  We are very involved in community building celebrations and events.  We've just completed the pledge phase of a capital campaign that reached 50% of its goal in a tough economy and the pastoral council worked closely with the finance council to carry it out.  So we are pretty hands on.

We are in a medium sized community with a declining population base surrounding by moderately to very healthy suburbs.  We are looking at every aspect of our operations and ministry to identify assets and areas we need to work on to remain viable.  I'd say a vibrant pastoral council needs to serve both the laity and the pastor depending on the issues at hand.  Pastors help when they ask for honest input, even if it's sometimes painful.  Laity who think a pastor or LEM will do what he/she wants anyway or who want the pastoral leader to tell them what the council should do aren't serving the parish community or the pastor.  A lot of parishes are struggling and it will take creativity, compassion, commitment, and love to identify how the Spirit is calling it to act -- that is where real purpose and energy will be found.

Thanks for the thoughtful response Ben.

Jeff Korgen offered this comment on a separate forum post insisting the advisory councils are intended to serve the pastor.

I also wonder if you or others have helpful processes or formats to share here that help councils give the necessary input that pastors need and often want from their community?

At St. Thomas More in Centennial, Colorado, which is considered a mega-church with more than 4,700 families, Father Andrew Kemberling and the parish take the roles of the two councils seriously. Father Andrew was very emphatic when he first came to St. Thomas More in 2000 that these two are the only ones named councils. Ministries of the parish are called committees, ministries or groups, to set the councils apart.

The responsibilities of the finance and pastoral councils are spelled out in our constitution and bylaws which, after 10 years, is currently under review to make it relevant. Neither council meets without the pastor.

Mandated by the Universal Church, the Finance Council's main responsibility, as you all know, is to steward, along with the pastor, the resources of the parish. The Pastoral Council, on the other hand, which may be mandated by the diocese or archdiocese, is, in fact, mandated in the Archdiocese of Denver. Thus, we have followed the norms given to us by the diocese. At St. Thomas More, its main responsibility is to make sure that all clergy, commissions, leaders, staff, and parishioners carry out our parish mission to "Go and Make Disciples," and in the end, to build the kingdom of God at St. Thomas More and beyond.

To carry out our mission, the Parish Pastoral Council and staff pulled together three goals (1. Share our Faith, 2. Invite all People, and 3. Foster Gospel Values) and objectives under each goal (16 in all), using the USCCB's publication "Go and Make Disciples." The goals and objectives fit one sheet of paper, which can be distributed and read easily, rather than in a binder full of strategies which, more often than not, nobody looks at after the strategy session is over.

These goals and objectives are reviewed several times during the year.

1) Staff: beginning of the fiscal year, regular department heads (about 15) and large staff (about 45) meetings (school faculty and staff 40) and during their annual review on goals and objectives and how they have carried out their focus objective for the year.

2) Pastoral Council: Beginning of fiscal year, monthly meetings and the Leaderships Days in June. On the latter, the staff and all parish leaders come together to review how the commissions have carried out their focus objectives the past year and to choose their focus objectives for the next fiscal year.

3) Parishioners: Regularly informed through our bi-monthl news magazine, "More Informed" which is mailed to all our parishioners. The More Informed's August issue features summaries of how the commissions have carried out the parish mission.

With very clear mission and vision, we find that we have direction and unity as a parish. Thus, we have found that evangelization is truly one of our two spiritual hallmarks (the other is stewardship as a way of life).

Please see attached our Constitution and Bylaws.

Please note: This is an updated version of our Constitution and Bylaws which has been reviewed by the parish staff and the Pastoral Council. This will then be presented to the parish leadership during our Leadership Days on June 5 for their comments, prior to the pastor’s signature on the June 6.



Thank you, Mila Glodava, for posting the Constitution and Bylaws of St. Thomas More Church in the Denver archdiocese.  I have never read a parish constitution and by-laws.  Although I have read many parish pastoral council constitutions and by-laws, the idea of a parish version is new to me.


I was surprised to see that the Thomas More Constitution and By-Laws, as thorough as they are, fail to cite the Church’s foundation document for pastoral councils.  That document is Vatican II’s “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops,” par. 27.  The language of that document gives the pastoral council a threefold role: (1) to investigate, under the pastor’s direction, some aspect of the local church’s situation; (2) to ponder or reflect on it; and (3) to reach a conclusion and recommend it to the pastor.


Instead of using the language of Vatican II (which was affirmed in the 1973 document Omnes Christifideles and subsequent publications), the Thomas More document describes the role of the pastoral council in this way: “The Parish Pastoral Council shall advise the Pastor on the development of Pastoral priorities for the parish.”  To my mind, this is inadequate because it fails to express the essentially consultative nature of the pastoral council.  The PPC does not advise the pastor as independent body.  Rather, the pastor consults the council, inviting it to undertake its threefold role of investigating, reflecting, and recommending.


The Thomas More document describes six “duties” of the pastoral council: to promote the parish constitution, to train commission and committee members, to help the pastor to identify needs, to help the pastor with planning, to evaluate existing programs, and to encourage participation.  These are all worthwhile, especially the two that describe how the council “helps” the pastor.  


But I would prefer to see the pastor’s role expressed more forcefully: he asks the council to help promote the constitution, he asks the council to offer training, he asks it to identify needs and to plan, he asks it to help evaluate programs, and he asks it to propose ways to encourage participation.  These are essential elements of what we might call the "psychology" of the pastoral council.  If we do not emphasize that the pastor consults, we run two risks.  One is to suggest that the PPC has an authority independent of the pastor, as if the PPC were an executive body that promotes, trains, evaluates, etc.  The second risk is to minimize the role of the pastor as presider and consultor.  He is the one with questions.  He is the one who asks the council to investigate, reflect, and recommend.

Thank you, Mark, for your comments on our Constitution and Bylaws. I'm glad that you saw some deficiencies. Your comments and suggestions are very timely because we are still reviewing to make it better after 10 years.

I will discuss your suggestions wih Father Andrew and then bring it to the attention of the parish staff and leaders. Should you have other comments, please feel free to let me know.


Another fundamental disagreement highlighted in Tom Gallagher's article is about whether pastoral councils are to do pastoral planning.  Gallagher summarized an argument by Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James Gaston from their book entitled Build a Life-Giving Parish: The Gift of Counsel in the Modern World (Ave Maria, 2010).  Hermann and Gaston claim that pastoral planning is not the fundamental purpose of the pastoral council.

This argument flies in the face of the common wisdom, namely, that the Church's threefold description of the pastoral council's work -- investigating, reflecting, and recommending conclusions -- is precisely the task of pastoral planning.  Msgr. Gaston expressed his viewpoint this way:

We no longer view pastoral councils as the primary planning body in a parish. Planning is not an essential council function; it can be delegated to a staff or to another parish group. In addition, the planning model focuses primarily on the parish, its programs and its activities. Too often this is done while neglecting to ponder the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people, churched and unchurched. (p. 103)

It might well be that Gaston and Hermann are reacting against a type of pastoral planning that they view as onerous.  Such pastoral planning is often seen as a pointless activity of drafting lists of goals and objectives, lists that no one has the desire or resources to implement.  Certainly, if this were an accurate description of pastoral planning, no one would want to do it.  That is why Gaston and Hermann would prefer to have the pastoral council "pondering the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people."

But is pastoral planning a pointless activity?  It can be succinctly described in the Church's language as the council's work of investigating, reflecting, and recommending.  The pastor who consults a council with that in mind -- who consults precisely because he wants to be an effective shepherd -- is engaging in pastoral planning that wastes no one's time.

Well said.  In practice, if the council with the pastor don't identify specific outcomes that are expected and who will take the lead, not much will be accomplished. 


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