What's a council member to do?

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Posted: Wed., Jan. 04, 2017

Father Samuel Esposito

In fall 2010, after the release of the diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils, “One Body, One Mission,” I was among a group of facilitators who took the show on the road, so to speak. Along with a partner, I was dispatched to several parishes from 2010-11 to host council members from the region, all wanting to learn what this text was about.

In case you’re a bit rusty, “One Body, One Mission” is a kind of workbook designed to help the members of parish pastoral councils fulfill their primary role, which is planning. Bishop David Zubik decreed that every parish was to implement these guidelines and get councils up to speed.

A number of priests, deacons and lay leaders went through training in 2010 under the tutelage of John Flaherty and Dr. Mary Ann Gubish to guide council members and open the possibilities of their work as parish leaders.

Pastors came, but not in great numbers. It was mostly council members who learned how to create parishes that hit every one of the five essential elements that Bishop Zubik outlined in his first pastoral letter, “The Church Alive!”: Eucharist, formation, evangelization, catechesis and stewardship.

In 2011, Bishop Zubik appointed me as regional vicar for the western portion of the diocese from Beaver County to Greene County — at that time, 49 parishes. Vicars are responsible for visiting their parishes. During visitations, all four vicars heard two common questions: “How do we get more people involved in parish life since the same folks do everything?” and “How do we involve or attract young people?”

For many parishes, the necessary resources to respond to these questions in effective ways are not present. We need trained and compensated lay professionals to take the lead. The advisory councils are present to shape, in collaboration with their pastors, a vision and plan for the parish, but unless there are people who have the ability to carry it out, all the vision and planning in the world won’t make a difference.

Pastoral councils are important. Sadly, some pastors didn’t utilize these lay leaders to full capacity. With more than 200 parishes, some councils were trained in the diocesan guidelines and others were not. It depended on the pastors and their ability to cooperate with what was offered as a way to bring lay leadership forward. The old model of parish councils that worked on committees and were the doers in the parish was officially over, yet still existed in places where parishioners and pastors kept it going.

After a few years of visits and working with councils, including diocesan-sponsored workshops and retreat days, we arrived where we find ourselves today. On Mission for The Church Alive! is under way. Consultation is taking place and discernment from all the feedback will be our call for 2017. But prayer is the most essential element of any planning.

This deepened sense of prayer isn’t some quick recitation of prayers but time to allow God’s Spirit to touch every heart that is open to what God is calling us to be and do. Scripture reading, faith sharing, periods of quiet, music … all can be components of this kind of prayerfulness.

As councils continue to meet this year and next, some are wondering what their role is since planning might not seem opportune until we know which parish models will be selected, and how parishes will come together in the future. There is some fear of the unknown, which is common given that no decisions have been made and there are now more questions than answers.

So what should current councils be doing? My response would be prayer. And dialogue. And listening. Three definite approaches that council members can take, both as an advisory body and as individuals who are in leadership roles.

Prayer: Continue to gather as a body in prayer. Listen to the word of God, reflect on what it asks, speak about how it impacts your life, how it challenges you. Pray with other parishioners, at the times your pastor calls people together and even in informal settings. Pray for openness to the Holy Spirit, who has guided the church for more than 2,000 years and isn’t abandoning us.

Dialogue: Talk with one another; ask the difficult questions about grieving and letting go, and finding new life. Look at possibilities that can be realized when resources are more equitably shared across every parish. Ask others for feedback, and help the Secretariat for Leadership Development and Evangelization better understand how to work with councils.

Listen: Be in touch with your parish On Mission team leaders. Talk with your pastors and other clergy. Calm the fears of parishioners who share their concerns with you. Become a safe presence where people can be honest with you, even as you challenge them to be hopeful about the future. And listen to what God is saying to you.

When God called Abram (Abraham), the destination was not yet known, but still this man of faith set out on the journey because he believed that the Lord was with him. More than ever, if we are to create vibrant and sustainable parishes, we need effective advisory councils. Calling forth the gifts and talents of each baptized person isn’t optional. It’s critical.

Father Esposito is vicar of diocesan vicariate region 3. Members of pastoral councils and finance councils are invited to register themselves and complete a survey on the diocesan webpage: http://diopitt.org/webforms/pastoral-advisory-council-registry.