A Parish Council Offers Practical Advice on Pastoral Matters:  As quoted from Pope Paul VI, “The purpose of the Parish Pastoral Council (PPC) is to examine and consider all that relates to pastoral work and to offer practical conclusions on these matters, so that the life and activity of the people of God can be brought into greater conformity with the Gospel.” The St. Therese Parish Pastoral Council enables the community to systematically plan its pastoral program and to fulfill it effectively.  

What is a Parish Pastoral Council? 

Parish pastoral councils help in fostering pastoral activity (Canon 536), distinct from parish finance councils, which aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods. (Canon 537). The experience of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles over the past thirty years has clarified the answers to the following questions: What do pastors stand to gain by having a council? and What do parishioners accomplish by serving in one? 

Pastors establish councils because they seek practical advice on pastoral matters.  They believe that God's Spirit speaks through their people.  They consult their councils because they want to know what is wise and prudent.  Outside experts cannot judge what is best for a particular parish, because they are not part of it. Councils offer what no expert can offer: a judgment about what is right for a particular parish.  That is the pastor's primary motive for having a council. 

Parishioners want to serve on councils, we believe, in order to advise the pastor wisely and prudently.  Every leader needs good counsel.  Recommendations developed by a pastoral council will be good to the degree that the council reaches its goal.  That goal is to investigate pastoral matters and to reflect on them thoroughly, so as to draw sound conclusions.  Council members believe that God's Spirit is present in their community.  They study the pastoral situation so as to help the parish see it more clearly.  They have the satisfaction of doing an important task, which contributes to the well being of the Church.   

The Pastoral Council as a Planning Body: The foundations of pastoral councils rest in the Church's official documents and in the teachings from Christian antiquity about communion, participation, gifts, and consultation.  However, what do pastoral councils actually do?    The answer, in a phrase, is pastoral planning.  Councils help pastors plan the parish's pastoral program. Next, we will look at the purpose of councils, their particular functions, and how pastoral planning builds consensus and helps the parish discern the future, which God offers.   

The Purpose of a Pastoral Council: Pope Paul VI stated that the pastoral council is "to examine and consider all that relates to pastoral work and to offer practical conclusions on these matters, so that the life and activity of the People of God be brought into greater conformity with the Gospel. When we look at this definition, we see that it has three parts. 

The first part of the definition states that councils examine pastoral matters.  The term "pastoral matters" is very broad. In short, it means, whatever pertains to the work of the pastor, including the well being of the community, the needs of the parish and concerns that will need attention in the future.  The pastoral council identifies these issues and studies them thoroughly. 

The next part of the definition states that the council "considers" the issues it has examined.  Its aim is to get a deeper understanding of the concerns.  No council will be satisfied with a dry recitation of facts and figures about the parish.  It wants to understand their meaning:   

  • What do facts and figures say about the faith of the parish? 

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in the parish?

  • What problems loom on the horizon?  

When the council "considers" pastoral matters, it seeks to discern how God is present in the situation.  It prays to discover how God invites the parish community to act. 

The final part of the definition has to do with practical conclusions.  The council has investigated a situation and reviewed it.  It now has to make a judgment.  It has to recommend to the pastor what the council believes he should do.  It has to judge, not what is right for parishes in general, but what is right for this particular parish.  The goal is to bring the parish more into conformity with the Gospel.  

The three aspects of Pope Paul's definition express the purposes of the council: to examine, to consider, and to draw conclusions.   The role of the Parish Pastoral Council is, through ongoing pastoral planning, to maintain the integrity of the parish mission and the goals and objectives related to it.  Within this model, programs and events continue to take place in the parish through the efforts of many dedicated parishioners, always in the context of the parish mission and its pastoral plan. 

Membership of Parish Pastoral Councils: The Parish 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 solely 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. 

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, administration, 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.