Manual for Parish Pastoral Councils
Overview Formation Models Membership Resources Help

Membership of Parish Pastoral Councils

The pastoral council should not be too large—only large enough "so that it is able to effectively carry out the work that is committed to it. Twelve to fifteen members are sufficient. Nevertheless, who belongs on the parish pastoral council? and in what sense do they "represent" the parish?

Criteria for Selection

In very general terms, Canon Law speaks about the members of the pastoral council. They will be chosen, it says, to reflect the wisdom of the entire people of God. Members need the specific gifts of the wise counselor. These gifts are, first, the ability to study, investigate, and thoroughly examine pastoral matters. Secondly, wise councilors should have the ability to reflect widely and the patience to meditate deeply. Finally, council members must be able to listen to opposing opinions, unite various points of view, and determine with others what is best for the parish.

This is the reason that the parish pastoral council includes a variety of people. It should not be a "lay" council, but should include priests, deacons, and religious. Members of the parish staff can belong, but since they inform the pastor on a regular basis, they need not sit on the council. All pastoral council members, however, must be Catholics in good standing with the Church. They must be committed to a life of prayer, to the mission and ministries of the parish, and to the Church's understanding of consultation as reflected in this guideline. Finally, they must be willing to participate in continuing education, formation, and the council's group process.

Representation

In its membership, the pastoral council includes a variety of parishioners because they represent the People of God. When choosing council members, special attention is given to the diversity in the communities, age, social conditions, the professions of parishioners, and the role they hold in the parish. This implies the importance of participation by the entire parish community in the discernment of council members. Widespread participation in the selection of councilors not only draws on the wisdom of parishioners, but avoids any suggestion that the pastoral council is composed only of those who agree with the pastor's point of view. The Church's official documents state that pastoral councils are to represent the people of God, but not in a legal sense. Rather, council members are representative in that they are a witness or a symbol of the whole community. They make its wisdom present

Selection of Members

How can a parish find wise councilors? There are a variety of methods, usually, three principles apply. The first is the principle of gifts. It is common knowledge that every parish has members with the gifts needed for the council ministry, and that parishioners are able to recognize these gifts. The second is the principle of clear expectations. The clearer the pastor can explain the work of the council and his expectations for it, the easier it will be to attract suitable councilors. The third principle is that of discernment. There are many methods of discerning the gifts of potential council members, and these processes should be utilized.

The Principle of Gifts. Serving on the council is a ministry that requires certain gifts. These include, first, an understanding of the parish. The mission of a council is to investigate, ponder, and propose practical conclusions about pastoral matters. The potential council member should have the ability to study, reflect, and integrate others' viewpoints. Second, wisdom and prudence are essential. Potential members should have the gifts, which describe the lay person who advises a pastor, namely, a knowledge and competence that are widely recognized. Finally, councilors must have good character. Proven faith, sound morals, and outstanding prudence describe the character of the potential council member.

Clear Expectations. Pastors must clearly explain to the parish what they want from a council. They need to say what the council's major planning focus will be. They need to list the variety of topics the council will explore. They need to say what they hope the council will accomplish. In short, they should state the questions that motivated them to create a council in the first place. Then they can attract the kind of councilors who can be of most assistance.

Another expectation is the term of office. Terms vary from parish to parish, but two- or three-year terms are most common. Most people believe that terms should be staggered. In other words, not every council member should leave office at the same time, but only a few each year. That ensures continuity in the work of the council. When a pastor leaves the parish, the new pastor decides if and when to reconvene the council. Councils do not meet in the pastor's absence.

Pastors should also describe the commitment they are asking of council members. They should say in advance how often the council will meet and how members will be expected to prepare for meetings. They should state any requirements for in-service training or retreats. The more explicit a pastor can be about his expectations, the better his chances of attracting good council members.

Discernment. Discerning who belongs on the council has two aspects. One, is popular participation. Councilors are chosen to reflect the wisdom of the parish community. This is the reason, that pastors rely on the help of parishioners to select council members. There are various ways that parishioners help the pastor determine who has the gifts for the council ministry.

The second is informed choice. Unless parishioners understand the pastoral council, and have a thorough opportunity to judge who is best for the role, their choice will not be informed. That is the weakness of popular elections. A popular election by parishioners who do not appreciate the work of the council is not helpful. Parishioners should know that the pastoral council has a specialized role. It requires people with particular talents. Selecting from among parishioners who have a gift for service on the council requires a leisurely and genuinely spiritual discernment involving dialogue and prayer. When parishioners understand the council's ministry and have an opportunity to discern which parishioners are suited for it, they can contribute enormously to the selection of councilors.

Committees

Almost every pastoral council has committees. They fall into two categories: First, a standing executive or agenda committee; and second, a variety of ad hoc committees. These committees are not standing committees, but are formed to do a particular task and disband after it is completed.

Executive Committee. Usually, the executive or agenda committee is composed of the pastor and council officers, i.e., chairperson, vice-chairperson, and secretary. This committee plans the agenda and informs the members of it in advance. The pastor presides and the chairperson conducts the meetings, assisted by the vice-chairperson. The secretary keeps the minutes of the council meetings, to allow members to judge whether they have accomplished their agenda.

The executive committee determines the council's agenda. Occasionally, however, parishioners will ask the committee to place on the council's agenda items separate from the council's main work. When parishioners submit items for the council's agenda, the committee can respond in one of two ways. First, the committee places the item on the council meeting agenda, either immediately or at some future time. Second, the committee informs the parishioner that the item does not belong on the council's agenda. The council then asks the pastor, parish staff, or another parish organization to respond to the item in question. In either case, the committee should explain its decision to the parishioner.

Ad Hoc Committees. It is common for pastoral councils to appoint committees that help them accomplish their work of study and reflection. These ad hoc committees undertake a special investigation, do research, take a survey, poll parishioners, or consult experts. The aim of the ad hoc committees is to enhance the main work of the council, the work of investigating and pondering an issue. Neither the council nor its committees, strictly speaking, implements the recommendations of the council. When the pastor accepts the council's recommendations, he establishes committees to implement them. These are parish committees, not committees of the council.

The general principle is that the pastoral council recommends and the pastor (through his staff and through volunteers) implements. The council helps define the means by which to implement its recommendations, but they remain recommendations.

Relationship to the Parish

The pastoral council is a representative body, not a body of representatives. It reflects the wisdom of the People of God, not constituencies within the parish. Council members should not be chosen because they belong to this or that ministry or parish organization. They should be chosen because they have the gifts necessary for the pastoral council.

Unlike the parish staff, the pastoral council is not a group of experts in catechesis, liturgy, pastoral care, or education. The council's gift is practical wisdom. To be sure, council members are encouraged to educate themselves in the various fields of theology and pastoral care. They need not be experts, however, to join the council. Pastors turn to the council not for expert opinion, but for the wisdom of the community. Experts can no doubt judge what is good in general and as a rule. But unless they are parishioners, they cannot say with authority what is appropriate for the parish. Councils are meant to aid in that judgment. They can tell, from among the many options possible for a parish, what is right.

Parish staff members can sit on the parish council, but are not active members. They serve, as need warrants. Parochial vicars and pastoral associates, however, should participate by virtue of their office. They are associates of the pastor who with him implement the pastoral care of the parish.

The pastoral council does not "coordinate" parish committees in the sense of directing them. That role belongs to the pastor. He should make sure that other parish groups (such as the finance council, and other organizations and committees) provide the pastoral council with the information members need to advise him. The council ought to be aware of the activities of other groups.