Pastoral Councils: Engaging Parishioners in the Church’s Mission
The creation of pastoral councils has been called one of the gifts of Vatican II. Although they were originally recommended on a diocesan level, as consultative bodies to the bishop, their value to parishes would soon become apparent. They are a recognition of the shared responsibility of priests and parishioners in furthering the mission of the Church.
“It is a wonderful way for us to fulfill our priest, prophet, and king role as Catholics. We’re assisting the pastor in determining what we need to do to make our parish more in line with what Jesus asked of us — to go and make disciples,” says Mary Colombo, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Wells, who serves as chair of the Diocesan Pastoral Council.
“I want to make our parish as vibrant as possible, knowing we have just so much talent in our parishioners,” says Jennifer Hikel, chair of the St. Paul the Apostle Parish Pastoral Council in Bangor.
In the Diocese of Portland, parish pastoral councils date back to 1981 when Bishop Edward O'Leary, the ninth bishop of Portland, first mandated them. Every bishop since has reaffirmed their importance.
Parish pastoral councils are composed of laypeople selected by pastors. Deacons and parochial vicars may also serve on them as ex-officio or non-voting members. The pastoral council’s role is not as a governing body but to assist the pastor in pastoral planning.
“It is a representative body from the parish which is trying to discern where the Spirit is leading them,” says Colombo.
An effective pastoral council should reflect the diversity of the parish community. St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook, for instance, has members from all three of its churches and rotates meetings among them.
“We all take responsibility for what is going on. We’re all good leaders,” says Sharon Blakeslee, chair of St. Anthony’s pastoral council.
St. Paul the Apostle Parish has a council made up of nine lay members and two deacons, representing its six church communities.
“One of our strengths is how diverse we are. It’s not all guys or all gals. It’s not all the same ages,” says Hikel. “Everybody has something to bring to the table that is different from everybody else, not only their thoughts but what they’re involved in. We branch out all over the place.”
Those branches allow council members to serve as a bridge between the pastor and parishioners.
“I think it is a great way to get communication between parishioners and the pastor — to bring any questions, concerns, and information they need from them to him and vice versa,” says Hikel. “Sometimes it’s hard to grab hold of a clergy member if you just see them once a week after Mass.”
“It’s important to keep everyone in the loop,” says Blakeslee. “If there is a parishioner with a need, they can reach out to one of us as members and say we have a problem there or we need to fix something there, instead of having just the pastor handle that.”
Having those extra ears and hands is something the pastors appreciate.
“It's empowering to me as a pastor to work so closely with people who place their parish and churches as high priorities in their lives. The members of my pastoral council consider themselves servants of the people and are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their parish. We are blessed to have council members who have excellent listening skills and a strong sense of empathy — both of which are essential elements of the discernment process,” says Father Louis Phillips, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
“Our members are faith-filled Catholics who take their baptismal vocation seriously. They are fully engaged at meetings. They share their ‘institutional wisdom’ (past), offer insights and make recommendations (present), formulate the vision and goals (future), and are fully engaged in the life and ministries of the parish. Their personal witness expresses their ultimate hope: that all people may deepen their relationship with the Lord and His Church,” says Monsignor Andrew Dubois, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish.
Because the Diocese of Portland views pastoral councils as so vital, it recently revised its Parish Pastoral Council Policies and Norms and held workshops around the state to affirm and offer guidance to those parishes with active councils and to assist those that need to establish them again.
“I hope, as a result of this, they will have a regular meeting scheduled and that they carry out this planning process. I hope they become very aware of the challenges and the strengths of the parish, so they know what they need to prioritize in order to benefit the life of the parish,” says Colombo.
While pastoral councils should reflect their own communities, their activities should center around gathering data, studying problems, having prayerful discussions, and recommending solutions. What they shouldn’t do is govern the parish, run parish events, evaluate parish commissions, or develop policies for ministries. They also should never act without the pastor’s involvement and approval.
“It does come down to the direction of Monsignor. ‘OK, I’m going to run with it. You’re going to run with it, and this is what I want you to do.’ Every meeting, we leave with action items,” says Ryan Armstrong, a member of the St. Paul the Apostle Parish Council. “I see my role as making Monsignor’s job easier at the benefit of the parish as a whole.”
“We advise. We give opinions, but everything funnels through Monsignor,” says Hikel. “He thinks about things so much, which is great, and he truly takes all of our opinions to heart.”
Hikel and Armstrong say they were both pleased to be asked to serve on the pastoral council. Hikel says she was invited because of her involvement in the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) training and pastoral planning in which all Maine parishes participated.
“Knowing what the process was with CLI and setting pastoral goals, I wanted to see those through,” says Hikel.
Armstrong, the council’s youngest member, says he didn’t know what a pastoral council was when he was invited to join, but it sounded like a great opportunity.
“I have had so many ideas for so long, especially from traveling and seeing different parishes and churches and how they operate, so I was like, ‘Absolutely,’” he says. “I said, ‘Get ready because I’m going to flood you with ideas.’”
Armstrong says he wants to “get the ball rolling” so that others will be energized to step in as well.