A Restructured Parish Council
By Fr. Daniel Rentel
Additional Resources: Sample Parish Council Structure
This year St. Gregory’s will formalize a restructured parish council that we have worked to refine over four years. Since 1996 we have attempted to realign our thinking of parish administration as an expression of ministry and service to God and the people of God. Our vision of what we do rises out of our worship experience, our understanding of Holy Scriptures, and our desire to remain faithful to the ageless tradition of the Church “in council.” When we meet, the whole of parish life is represented; the council itself is thereby integrated into the life of the Church.
We will ask the diocesan bishop to approve the restructured working model this year. I will not attempt to provide scriptural, theological, or historical supports for the description of the council as it is presently structured; such a course would demand an approach not useful to a “resource guide.”
The rector is the permanent chair of the parish council. Beginning as a campus mission, I did not foresee the formation of a parish that would come to include more townspeople than students. This founding purpose strongly influenced the development of the congregation. I needed a level of control and flexibility that would allow for the growth of a “town and gown” community wherein each component could embrace each other and grow from the experience. So it happened that for the first three or four years of our existence there were no officers, no monthly meetings, and no annual parish meetings. We were a worshipping community with a bent toward campus activities and strong ties of fellowship. In that environment, a eucharistic model of hierarchy and organization came to be perceived (if not always understood) to be the working model.
GROWTH REQUIRED MORE STRUCTURE
As we grew, need required that I get help and advice. My first appointment was a treasurer. I’ve no grace for finances, less for record keeping, but saw both as needful for the mission. Next came a secretary. For a time nothing else evolved in terms of appointments, still no council. We did gather annually as a congregation to take stock of where we were and what was needed for us to maintain ourselves and be of service to others. As I think back, it was for these occasions that I first asked someone to take minutes. Two relatively permanent positions, treasurer and secretary, then emerged from our opening years’ experiences. It stayed that way for a time. Had we not moved toward incorporation, we might never have come to experience the need for officers and a board, i.e. a parish council.
Our growth and the desire for property and a permanent spiritual home made incorporation necessary. We adopted the model bylaws of the Diocese of the Midwest for the parish, but had reservations from the beginning. In 1996 I sent a proposal to His Grace, Bishop JOB, asking him to allow us to suspend those articles in our bylaws that focused on parish council structure. The Bishop approved. Since that time we have worked to fashion a council that truly represents parish life and responds to the various needs of the parish and beyond.
A NEW MODEL
In the restructured council, the rector continues to preside. A lay vice-chair shares responsibilities with the rector and is, like him, an ex officio member of all standing committees, represents council on occasion, assists in the preparation of the agenda, and shares in presiding at meetings of both the parish council and the annual parish meeting. Four other officers sit on the council. They are the secretary, financial secretary, treasurer, and one trustee. The trustee is generally responsible for keeping the council moving on action items, and makes sure that the parish is informed on council happenings.
These five are elected by the parish to the council for a period of time determined as much by their willingness to serve as by their ability to serve and be productive. The particular capacity in which the elected officers serve is determined by the parish council. Parishioners who would like to assume a particular responsibility are encouraged to come forward and make their intentions known.
Other members sitting on the council do so ex officio. They are the chairs and/or coordinators of the various programs and ongoing components of parish life. We would say of them: they do something important for the Church. They need to be heard so that what is important can be maintained, funded and further enriched. They therefore sit on the council by virtue of their positions in other areas of church life.
Each chair/coordinator is expected to and encouraged to get help for what he/she does. They involve others. These, in turn, help plan and take on responsibilities themselves within an interest area (ministry) to which they feel called. For example, the parish treasury has working for it a group concerned with stewardship development, an endowment committee, and a pledge drive committee. The treasurer then makes certain that voice is given to their concerns at the meetings of the parish council. When help is needed in various areas, a list is posted, asking people to sign up and join in. It is this expansion of services (ministry) that leads members of the Body to the application of their gifts, talents (charisms) and particular strengths.
If you sit on the council you know that you are expected to produce. At our yearly council retreat every officer, coordinator and chair is responsible for a program evaluation. A written report from each officer and chair is also required in anticipation of the annual parish meeting.
Some positions are permanent. They are the positions of coordinator of religious education, charities (for charities we have a 10% budget line), building, campus, parish life, and student life. (Choir, lessor orders, and clergy also have input into parish life, most usually through what I call the rector’s council. Herein the focus is to a greater degree pastoral and the concern for right worship.) Others, like the chair of the Church Beautification Committee or the Consecration Committee, sit for a useful period of time, then are absorbed back into the parish for yet additional assignments.
Always and particularly on council we move items first by consensus. It is not always easy. Sometimes round table discussions require that we hold onto an agenda item for a month or more until such time as we have enough information to move with one accord. We have the “right” to vote, but find ourselves exercising the privilege less and less often. I believe that has something to do with our perception that we administer to “the Church” in Columbus, and not necessarily to various constituencies. Christ must be served. For that to happen, we in council must attempt in all good faith to discern the will of the Spirit. “Democracy” in such a setting is simply perceived as less important.
We realize—even as we prepare to submit bylaws to His Grace—that we do not have the perfect model. Sometimes the needs of the larger Church are shortchanged because of perceived needs in the local community. Some causes are underrepresented. Our thinking at times becomes too parochial. Nonetheless, we have experienced too many good things as a consequence of operating under the new model to return to the “standard.” Turf disappears, for example. The rector as shepherd does what he is called to do; he oversees the ministration of the parish. He can thereby encourage ministries; he willingly shares responsibilities and gains more for the Lord in so doing. Ministry to do more good convinces more to do more good. Good people often outdo themselves. What they do will be given a hearing to determine usefulness, funding, and additional support. They have an entity, a coordinator on the council, to champion them and their calling.
What is lost has even more potential for good. A false notion of dual presiding comes to an end. Just as there can be only one bishop over a diocese for true conciliarity to flourish, the same holds true for the structure of the parish administrative body. Anything else, at least from my present perspective, is at its base adversarial. If that is true, then genuine conciliarity will never be achieved. Without conciliarity we are diminished as the Body of Christ. Others may have an even better model for all to consider. For us, the progress we have achieved rises in no small part from the unity of purpose we have come to expect from an administrative body that seeks not to be divorced from the common work (liturgy) of the Church.
Ed. note: See Resource Handbook article “Charitable Giving” by Ann Marie Gidus-Mecera (Vol. II, 1992 under Parish Development) for a view of the types of charity activity undertaken by St. Gregory’s Parish.