Inevitably as I talk to different pastoral leaders, there seems to be a great deal of role confusion with regard to the key leadership bodies in the parish - in particular how the pastoral council, staff, and finance council relate to each other and the pastor.  With good intention I think the Church has been learning how to make good use of advisory councils since the Second Vatican Council.  Alternatively, some have had such negative experiences with advisory councils that it can feel easier and more efficient to simply make do with limited advisory bodies.  To me, this seems counter to some of our basic understandings of who we are as a Church and what we believe about God.  Specifically the Trinity demands an understanding of God that is intimately and inseparably relational.  The Incarnation requires the Church to reflect that intimacy of relationships in its activity, mirroring it in its relational processes and administration.

Advisory bodies and pastoral staff, when maintaining their proper role and function, have the ability to enflesh our deepest understanding of God.  Not only who God is but how God is.  Here are some of the more frequent ways I have seen or heard parish pastoral leadership groups and councils undertaking roles beyond their responsibilities and causing role confusion:


Pastoral Councils

  • acting as surrogate or supplemental staff or ministry leaders
  • creating, planning, and executing pastoral ministries and activities (a function of staff)

The role as I've often described the pastoral council is one whose responsibility is to identify "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted" (Gaudium et Spes).  It is a relatively straightforward role that can feel to some to be without much responsibility or enough to do.  Yet, this all important role is to identify the pastoral needs that require a response in a particular area of the world.  Where most councils get caught up is that not only do they identify the pastoral needs but they sometimes identify the ways in which the Church will respond.  This, I believe, is a mistake.  Identifying pastoral responses (ministry activities) is best left to those pastoral leaders - priests, lay ecclesial minsters, and parishioners  - who often have training in ministry to plan and coordinate a parish's response.

This can sometimes be difficult for a pastoral council that is acting as a "ministry council" - active parishioners in various ministries that "do" the work of the parish.  Ministry councils, especially for parishes that do not have paid and qualified lay ecclesial ministers, are many times essential to the activity of parish life.  However, two challenges often arise from this approach if they are not distinct from a pastoral council: 1) They tend to overly represent their ministry "constituencies" and to a somewhat lesser extent the parish as a whole.  Pastoral councils are intended to discern the will of God, not the will of the people ( a representative democracy) as my colleague often points out.  While ministry councils can be an important way to live out the ministries of the parish there should still be a separate entity to identify pastoral needs.  2) If there are lay ecclesial ministers or other parish lay leaders of ministry at the parish who are not on the ministry council, having a ministry council or pastoral council determine what a ministry should do and how it should function can create animosity and turf wars.

Conceptually I think of the pastoral council as the pastor's intentional small christian community of the parish. Its a community that prays together, knows each other's joys and anxieties, has high trust, understands the mission of the Church, and actively seeks to listen and understand what are the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of those in the confines of the parish and beyond.  They lift up those concerns so that staff and ministry leaders can respond to them.  Some examples might be that the council notices that there is a higher population of young families moving into the area yet they have few social networks to support them in healthy family development.  Or perhaps there are more industries moving out of the area and closing which is causing a great amount of unemployment.  Or perhaps there have been a record number of suicides of adolescents due to high pressure in school and in family.  These types of needs the pastoral council should be raising up to the pastor.  But to plan and act on those pastoral needs is the role of staff and ministry leaders.

Finance Councils

  • identifying and determining pastoral needs and concerns for parish (a function of pastoral council)
  • developing costs and human resource needs for ministry activities (a function of pastoral staff)

In some instances I have found that the finance council serves the role of both pastoral council (identifying pastoral needs) and finance council (advising the pastor on how to fund the pastoral needs).  While perhaps convenient for the pastor to only have effectively one council, the separation of those concerned about the resources (people and money) of the parish from those identifying the pastoral needs can free individual's thinking about how the needs must be met.  While not always the case, the gifts and skills required for discernment of needs can sometimes be very difficult to find in an individual whose skills are more focused on the management of resources.

Another over-reach of the finance council is to predetermine or provide a de facto budget for the parish without attention to current pastoral needs or what the parish staff and ministries intend to do from year to year.  A finance council is at its best when it is tied into knowing the pastoral needs the pastoral council has identified to address and assists the pastoral staff and ministry leaders by helping them to resource their plans.  This relationship is much more collaborative and growth focused instead of managing a parish's ministries to the budget.

Finally, a finance council has an entire cadre of ways to support the pastor and parish in its finances.  The areas where a finance council (usually accomplished through sub-committees) can achieve its greatest purpose is by attending to the following areas:

  • Budget reviews and monthly reconciliation of accounts
  • Reviewing and developing financial controls for the parish
  • Assisting with the development of human resource policies and appropriate salary scales (with diocesan assistance)
  • Developing a long-term strategy for financial, human resources, buildings, and technology
  • Assisting with stewardship and acceptance of gifts, donor relations and management
  • Review of contracts, insurance, and legal requirements of the parish

Pastoral Staff & Ministry Leaders

  • identifying and determining pastoral needs and concerns for parish (a function of pastoral council - although staff should inform the pastoral council's identification of pastoral needs.
  • determining final budget and human resources for ministries (a function of pastor and finance council)

I have also seen and heard of parishes that do not have either a pastoral council or finance council (despite canon laws requirement for a finance council) and rely completely on their pastoral staff for identifying pastoral priorities and submitting a budget that is approved with little to no oversight from anyone but the pastor.  This again can streamline parish activity and can be an easy way to establish commitment around a vision because there are fewer people involved in the interchange of leadership.  I see at least two problems with this: 1) It limits the role of all the baptized and therefore can perpetuate a clericalized model of Church - even if that clericalization has broadened to include highly competent lay ecclesial ministers.  As pastor, he is responsible for bringing the whole christian community toward greater christian maturity.  A more engaged laity in the leadership of the parish broadens those who are engaged in the Church's mission, naturally catechizing the faithful, and leading to a broadening of its missionary reach.  2) A parish that is overly dependent on priests and lay ecclesial ministries tend to have greater difficulty when leadership (of any key person) transitions.  If ministries and even entire parish's rise and fall on the leadership of a few then when leadership transitions (an inevitability) ministries and people can flounder and fall away.

How have you seen your parish leadership thrive or struggle? Is there role confusion in your parish leadership?  Share your experiences and thoughts as it relates to this post.

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This is a superb compendium of Leadership responsibilities.  As I am leading a team to align our Parish to our Mission, I could not have selected a better article to begin my best practices search.

I will be looking for best practices in all of the 7 elements of Parish life, so if you could please point me to the true "best Practices" I'd be most grateful.

BTW, what is a "best practice?"  In the secular supply chain management world, we came up with this definition:

A current, structured, proven and repeatable method for making a positive impact on desired operational results.
·Current - Must Not be emerging (bleeding edge) and must NOT be antiquated
·Structured - Has clearly stated Goal, Scope, Process, and Procedure
·Proven - Success has been demonstrated in a working environment.
·Repeatable - The practice has been proven in multiple environments
·Method - Used in a very broad sense to indicate: business process, practice, organizational strategy, enabling technology, business relationship, business model, as well as information or knowledge management.
·Positive impact on desired operational results. - The practice shows operational improvement related to the stated goal and could be linked to Key Metric(s). The impact should show ether as gain (increase in speed, revenues, quality) or reduction (resource utilizations, costs, loss, returns, etc.).
Do we have a definition for use in the Catholic Standards of Excellence?
Thanks again for great article!


This is an excellent description of "best practice".  And I am so glad the article was helpful to your work. I would submit that our Catholic Standards for Excellence, which is a listing of best practices or benchmarks would fit this criteria.

If you would be interested in seeing these for a parish, you can order a copy of the codebook here.  

Let me know your thoughts about them when you review them.

As always,



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