I’m not sure exactly when I began dreading parish-council meetings, those monthly assemblies of parish staff, elected parishioners, and sundry officeholders. It might have been the forty-seventh time the Knight of Columbus made us clench our politically correct teeth by outlining his grand plan to sell Tootsie Rolls “for the retarded.” It could’ve been the meeting at which the pastor showed us a picture of a frightening statue of St. Lucy that a family wanted to donate to the church. He made us vote on it; and when we voted no, he promptly turned purple, told us the statue had already been purchased, informed us further what an ungrateful bunch we were, and stormed out of the room. Was it then that I began secretly to yearn for such parish councils to perish? Or was it when I realized I could recite verbatim the monthly report from the school parents, because it hadn’t changed all year? Or perhaps the meeting when we actually had to vote on the color of wall paint?
I know I’m not alone. Over the years, when I’ve asked friends and colleagues about their parish councils and how they work, most have reported variations on the same dreary theme. First order of business: a round of “reports” by each ministry or organization leader. Next up: new business from the pastor, followed by concerns/suggestions/observations by the rest of us. If anything should come to a vote, it is accompanied by the polite reminder that the council functions solely as an advisory body to the pastor. In other words, no real power. Funny, though, how more than a few pastors I’ve known over the years have quickly discovered the voice and power of their councils when an unpopular decision had to be made. “I know it’s going to cost us a lot,” goes the refrain, “but, hey, it’s what the council voted for...”
One of the blessings of my first assignment as a pastor was the absence of any council at all. A parish council had existed at one point, but years ago it had simply given up and stopped meeting. This opportunity provided us a chance to start from scratch. Following a fair bit of research, we decided that of the many wonderful council designs out there, the one that made most sense to us was a kind of visionary model. Instead of a “nuts and bolts” decision-making group, this model sees the council as a group of individuals who prayerfully perceive the direction in which God is leading a parish community. Three or four times a year, the council spends a day of private prayer and group discussion at a retreat house. All members have an equal voice.
And here’s the kicker: there is no election. Instead, individuals who feel moved to join (and to make a two-year commitment) place their names in a basket kept in front of the altar for a few weeks. On Pentecost Sunday, at the most populated Mass of the weekend, with deep breaths taken on all sides and in a mutual affirmation that God is calling the shots and the Spirit knows best whose voice to use, twelve names are drawn from the basket. Add the parish staff and—voilà!—the new parish council is born. And though it sounds like a crazy method, it works. Freed from popularity contests and a powerless voting system, working through the open hearts of a few who are chosen, the Spirit can get down to the business of leading a parish. After a term ends, twelve new members come on board, bringing new ideas and voices, offering a new vehicle for the Spirit to use.
Trying constantly to decipher the nuances of how God is speaking to us—and through us—makes for more work. Yet, over time, the council in my parish has helped promote quantum-leap improvements in adult education, music ministry, and community outreach, to name just a few successes. Best of all for us personally, we leave council meetings refreshed and energized. No more “pretend voting” or mind-numbing reports. For me, the hardest part has been reaching into that basket to draw the twelve names. I find it easier, though, once I’ve put my trust in there as well.
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