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A handbook for parish pastoral councils

30 November, 1999

Author Jane Ferguson hopes that this Handbook for Parish Pastoral Councils will serve as a reference and resource to assist parishes in the threefold task of establishing pastoral councils, training pastoral councillors and enabling them to serve the parish with faith-filled confidence.

285 pp. Columba Press, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie 


Introduction: Outline of the handbook
Foreword by Dermot A. Lane


Establishing Parish Pastoral Councils in a Diocese
Diocesan Pastoral Resource Office
Diocesan Process

Sample Diocesan Plan of Action
Diocesan Guidelines

Sample Diocesan Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils

Theological and Canonical Support
Diocesan Mandate
Parish Guidelines
Purpose of Parish Pastoral Councils
Diocesan Support


Forming a Parish Pastoral Council and Selecting New Members for an Existing Council
Forming The Working Group – Members of the Working Group
Writing Guidelines – Sample Guidelines
Selection Process – Election, Discernment Process, Sample Nomination Form , Criteria for potential councillors Prayer and Communication – Prayer, Communication, Sample Flyer
Collecting relevant information for the councillors
Introduction and Blessing for Service


Preparation for the Work: A Formation Course for Parish Pastoral Councillors

Formation for Parish Pastoral Councillors
The Parish
The Mission of the Parish – The Kingdom of God, Proclaiming the Good News
What is a Parish Pastoral Council? Recommended Structure, Pastoral, Representative, Shared Responsibility, Vibrant Christian Community, A Consultative Body, Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Guided by Teaching and Tradition

Tasks of Parish Pastoral Councils

Reflecting & Planning
Animation to Action
Facilitating on-going formation

Parish-Inter Relationships

Parish Ministry Groups
Parish Committees
Finance Committee
Ad Hoc Committees

The Be-attitudes of a Parish Pastoral Council


Skills to Perform the Task

Communication Skills
Facilitation Skills
Discernment/ Consultative Decision Making
Conflict Resolution

Working Well Together

Facilitating environment
Good Agenda
Succinct Minutes
Offices and Roles
Social Dimension
Departure & Appreciation


Work: Getting Started: Tools for the Task
Pastoral Planning

Faith Conviction
Key principles
Careful Coordination
Strategic Process

Sample Strategic Process

Call to Prayer
Writing a Mission Statement
Assessing the Needs of the Parish
Setting Goals and Objectives
Translating the Mission into Reality Calendaring


  1. Glossary of Terms
  2. Resources for further reading
  3. Ideas for Communication
  4. Sample Evaluations
  5. Prayer for Selection of New Parish Pastoral Council Members
  6. Blessings for Service on the Parish Pastoral Council
  7. Sample Parish Plan
  8. Sample Parish Calendar


Since the Second Vatican Council the Church has repeatedly recommended the development of parish councils as a means of encouraging the shared responsibility of all the baptised in the life and mission of the Church.

This Handbook for Parish Pastoral Councils by Jane Ferguson will serve as a reference and resource that will assist parishes in the threefold task of establishing pastoral councils, training pastoral councillors and enabling them to serve the parish with faith-filled confidence. Topics covered include: exploring what a Parish Pastoral Council is and how it fulfils its tasks, diocesan support for Parish councils and how a parish might form a pastoral council. It includes a wealth of practical resources and models that parishes can use as their need requires. It is a well researched book and will be of particular value to pastoral coordinators and people working at diocesan, deanery and parish level.



Establishing Parish Pastoral Councils in the Diocese

In every parish in the diocese, a Pastoral Council shall be established, if the diocesan Bishop, after consulting with the Council of Presbyters, so decides. – Canon 536, §1

Parish Pastoral Councils respond to the call of the Second Vatican Council for the co-responsible leadership of priests and people in the total mission of the parish. (1)  They are structures of participation that have the potential to transform the life of a parish; priests and people work together in the power of the Holy Spirit and renew the church as they co-ordinate and harness the efforts of parishioners who live and share the Good News of Christ in the local community.

The local bishop has the freedom to structure parishes in such a way that the people in his care are given the best service possible. Consequently, after consulting the Council of Priests he may decide to mandate the establishment of pastoral councils in each parish. If this policy is going to be effective then a Diocesan Pastoral Resource Office that responds to the needs of the parish should be set in place, a Diocesan Process of Formation for priests and people needs to be established and co-ordinated, and Diocesan Guidelines that clarify the nature and purpose of Parish Pastoral Councils need to be formulated.

Diocesan Pastoral Resource Office
A Diocesan Pastoral Resource Office fully staffed and equipped will assist parishes in establishing pastoral councils, provide resources that respond to the needs of Parish Pastoral Councils and establish a communications network that will facilitate the sharing of good practice, new ideas and common resources.

The resources necessary to sustain and support the endeavours of parishes fall into two main categories:

Resource people who are familiar with the teachings of the church and have the necessary skills to work with parishes; they would be available to journey with individual parishes and give input at the various deanery meetings.

Practical resources and annual formation courses/ days that respond to the needs of the newly formed and existing pastoral councils.

Diocesan Process
When Parish Pastoral Councils are mandated in a diocese there is a very real danger that parish priests might simply set up a group in the parish just to keep the bishop happy. Experience in England and Ireland has shown that if the understanding of ‘lay involvement’ is limited to ‘helping father’, or if people and priests are unclear as to the nature and purpose of Parish Pastoral Councils, or if the council has the wrong members, then the end result is a facade of consultation rather than a life-giving experience for those involved.

If a diocese is serious about building effective Parish Pastoral Councils then it needs to give real consideration as to how it might approach the matter. A diocesan plan of action that attempts to get the parish priests on board and ensures the theological formation and skills training of priests and people will go a long way to ensuring that parishes set up life-giving structures of participation that lead the parish forward with confidence, clarity and faith.


The following plan of action is designed to inform, educate and support pastoral councils in each parish in the diocese. It takes into account the variety of experience evident throughout a diocese: some parishes will have no leadership group; for others it will involve developing a pastoral council from an existing leadership group. Those parishes that have already put time and resources into forming effective pastoral councils will use the diocesan guidelines to review, renew and revitalise their existing structures.

For those parishes that have no leadership group it is strongly recommended that a small working group is set up in the parish to oversee the process of establishing a pastoral council.

The following outlines a three-staged plan of action that focuses on:

  • All the priests of the diocese
  • Working groups and representatives from existing Parish Pastoral Councils
  • Parish Pastoral Councillors

Stage One: Gather the Priests of the Diocese
The effectiveness of a Parish Pastoral Council depends to a large extent on the priests of the diocese and in particular the parish priest. If priests working in parishes are not convinced of the importance of Parish Pastoral Councils then no amount of instruction issued from the bishop’s house is going to make an impact. To this end the first stage involves gathering all the priests with the local bishop in order to:

  • Offer a vision and rationale for Parish Pastoral Councils, paying particular attention to the theology that underscores pastoral councils and the important role of the priests on the Parish
    Pastoral Council.
  • Present the diocesan plan of action.
  • Allow the priests to share experiences, name concerns, express needs.
  • Pray. The day might end with liturgical celebration incorporating a special blessing for priests as they go forward to set up Pastoral Councils in the parishes.

Stage Two: Gather the Working Groups and Representatives from Existing Parish Pastoral Councils
Each person attending the gathering would have the opportunity to read over the diocesan guidelines prior to attending the meeting. The gathering would:

  • Offer a vision and rationale for Parish Pastoral Council
    Present the diocesan guidelines and a time-line for their implementation
    Provide an opportunity for clarification

Stage Three: Formation for Parish Pastoral Councillors
1. Initial Formation

In many instances Parish Pastoral Councils have failed because there has been no formation or because only certain parties have availed of the formation that has been given. Regardless of the professional competency of the group or the theological training of members it is important that all have a common and clear understanding of the nature, purpose and skills needed for effective ministry of a Parish Pastoral Council. To serve the needs of the people and priests formation courses for Parish Pastoral Councillors might be run in each of the deaneries or with a cluster of parishes.
2. On-going Formation and Support
The need for on-going formation and support at a diocesan level cannot be stressed enough.

  • On-going formation: this will involve the Diocesan Pastoral Resource Office listening to the needs of parishes and acting accordingly. The provision of on-going formation courses, resource people to journey with parishes and annual gatherings will go a long way towards meeting the needs of the parishes.
  • Support from the bishop: experience has shown that there is no substitute for the support and encouragement given by the local bishop at diocesan gatherings or during pastoral visits to the parish when the bishop informally meets with the members of the Parish Pastoral Council.

Diocesan Guidelines

The pastoral council has only a consultative vote, and it is regulated by the norms (2) laid down by the diocesan bishop. – Canon 536, §2

The diocesan bishop is responsible for ratifying the diocesan guidelines which regulate Parish Pastoral Councils. The diocesan guidelines provide the basic model from which each individual parish fashions its own guidelines. The guidelines may regulate matters such as the method of selecting members, the scope of the council, terms of office, its structure, etc. The diocesan guidelines might also indicate occasions when a parish priest is obliged to consult the pastoral council.

The following factors are taken into consideration in the formulation of diocesan guidelines:

  • Diocesan Pastoral Plan:
    If a clear direction has been identified for the diocese this ought to be incorporated into the guidelines. For example, should a diocese wish to focus its energies on evangelisation/ faith formation/liturgy / justice issues etc., these can form part of a mission statement in the introduction and parishes might also be mandated to set up standing committees that would focus on these areas.
  • Raison d’être:
    The introduction needs to make it clear that the raison d’être of Parish Pastoral Councils is based on our understanding of what it means to be church, rather than on the shortage of priests.
  • Flexibility:
    Diocesan guidelines need to be flexible in order to respect the diverse nature of parishes in a diocese; they ought to leave plenty of room for parishes to decide what will work best for them.
  • Terminology:
    In an effort to move away from the County Council approach to councils and Robert’s Rules of Order perhaps the use of the term ‘guidelines’ rather than ‘statutes’ might be more appropriate when talking about pastoral councils. What we need in parishes today are prayerful groups of faith-filled people relying on the Holy Spirit and directed by gospel values. 



Diocesan Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils






Theological & Canonical Support
Parish Guidelines




Reflection and planning










Selection process
Criteria for membership
Period for membership
Casual Vacancies
Composition of the Pastoral Council  



Diocesan Contact Person
All members






Diocesan Support

Standing Committees
Ad Hoc Committees
Ongoing formation



  Sample Diocesan Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils



Theological and Canonical support for Parish Pastoral Councils
In his document At the Beginning of the New Millennium, Pope John Paul II states that ‘the church of the Third Millennium will need to encourage all the baptised and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the church’s life.’ This responsibility is rooted in the church’s teaching that all the baptised share in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet and the King and all the baptised have an equal and active part to play in the life and mission of the church. (3)

Parish Pastoral Councils are structures of participation where the shared responsibility for the mission of the church and the genuine equality and action of all the baptised is both encouraged and sustained in the life of the parish. (4)

It is in this context that Canon 536 on Parish Pastoral Councils should be understood and applied:

  1. If after consulting the council of priests, the diocesan bishop considers it opportune, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish. In this council, which is presided over by the parish priest, Christ’s faithful, together with those who by virtue of their office are engaged in pastoral care in the parish, give their help in fostering pastoral action.
  2. The pastoral council has only a consultative vote, and it is regulated by the norms laid down by the diocesan bishop.

A Parish Pastoral Council is to be established and operative in each parish in the diocese by the year…
In the case of a parish with more than one Eucharistic community, there are two options:
a.  One Parish Pastoral Council with representatives from eachcommunity will meet on a regular basis for the good of the entire parish community.
b. Where appropriate each Eucharistic community will have its own co-ordinating group which will meet on a regular basis to serve the needs of the local community. Representatives from each Eucharistic community would form an overall Parish Pastoral Council and would gather at agreed times during the year.

Parish Guidelines
The general framework provided by this document will assist each pastoral council to fashion its own specific guidelines. Whilst taking into account the special needs of the individual parishes the Parish Pastoral Council guidelines should remain faithful to the basic nature of Parish Pastoral Councils outlined in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law.

The guidelines are to be submitted to the diocese for approval; (The relevant diocesan office would be named here).  They are to be reviewed every five years by the Parish Pastoral Council and resubmitted for approval.


The vibrancy of God’s life and love is manifested when all the baptised collaborate in the mission of Christ. Parish Pastoral Councils are leadership structures that enable priests and people to work together to build up dynamic Christian communities that are characterised by faith, evangelisation, worship and service. To this end they discern what is best for the parish in light of the gospel, the church’s teaching and what the Holy Spirit is saying through the People of God. Their major tasks involve:

Reflection & Planning
Discerning the needs of the parish community and involving the whole parish in response to the needs.

Enabling the baptised to discover their call as disciples of Christ by discerning the gifts of the parishioners and developing them through the provision of training and on-going formation.

Providing structures that will marry the needs of the parish with the gifts and resources in the parish.

Ensuring that effective dialogue takes place within the parish, the diocese and the wider community.

Reviewing the life and activities of the parish so that parishioners might have
a sense of proceeding towards bringing about the reign of God.

The Finance of the Parish is catered for by the Finance Committee which is obligatory by Canon Law.


Selection Process
Parishes must decide upon a method of prayerfully selecting members that is appropriate to their own particular situation. Some of these options include:

• Nomination by parishioners followed by a process of discernment
• Election by the parish community
• Selection of representatives from parish organisations
• Selection by the parish priest in consultation with the parish curates and/ or with the present council members
Criteria for membership
Members shall be baptised Catholics who participate in the life and worship of the parish and are available to attend a minimum of half the meetings in the space of one year. .

A broad representation of the whole parish is the ideal; it is essential that the members of the council undertake to be representative of the whole community and focus on what is best for the whole parish, not individual parish groups.

Prayer, reflection and skills training are of paramount importance to ensure the Parish Pastoral Council is effective. On-going formation should be provided for every member of the Pastoral Council.

Period for Membership
Elected and appointed members of the Parish Pastoral Council are to have terms of office. The terms should be no shorter than one year and no more than four years.
Depending on the length of the terms, the parish might include the possibility of reappointment. If this is the case then it needs to be stated how many times the person may be reappointed – the period of time in-between appointments also needs to be stated.
The parish might consider having staggered terms to maintain a minimum of stability and efficiency.
Casual Vacancies
The Parish Pastoral Council itself may fill any casual vacancy by invitation; the length of service of the person who fills the vacancy needs to be outlined.

For a meeting to run efficiently and act effectively the Parish Pastoral Council should consist of between 10 and 15 members.

Composition of the Parish Pastoral Council
The guidelines for the Parish Pastoral Council shall state the number of:
• Ex officio members,(5) which should not exceed 40% of the total membership
• Members selected by the parish in general
• Parishioners who are appointed because of their expertise in particular fields


At least four officers should be mentioned in the parish guidelines: president, chairperson, secretary and diocesan contact person.

The parish priest – or when there is no priest, the parish co-ordinator appointed by the diocese – has been entrusted with the care of the parish by the bishop. He convokes the meetings and is the president of the council (6)

The chairperson is elected by the members of the council for a determined period of time with an option for renewal The role of the chairperson is to prepare the agenda with the president and the secretary and to facilitate the meetings of the Parish Pastoral Council Parishes might wish to appoint a Vice Chairperson to assist the Chairperson.

The secretary is responsible for keeping a record of the meetings of the Parish Pastoral Council and for circulating relevant material to the council members. The secretary could be elected for a renewable term of office; alternatively, parishes might decide to appoint a secretary who is not a member of the council as the task may limit participation in a meeting.

Diocesan Contact Person
The diocesan contact person liaises between the parish and the diocese through the appropriate diocesan office and is elected for a renewable term of service. The name of the contact person will be forwarded to the appropriate diocesan office.

Responsibilities of all members
Responsibilities will differ according to the needs of the individual parishes but in general the members of the council will be required to:
• Attend the meetings of the Parish Pastoral Council on a regular basis
• Participate in the deliberations of the council
• Assist where possible with the implementation of Parish policies
• Grow in knowledge and awareness of what is happening in the parish
• Take part in the training / induction of all new council members and avail of on-going formation


The guidelines of the Parish Pastoral Council should specify the frequency of the meetings. Some parishes may need to meet monthly while others may choose less frequent meetings. The minimum requirement for meeting is five times a year.

The collaboration between the Parish Priest and the Parish Pastoral Council is integral to each stage of the parish decision-making process. In virtue of his office, the Parish Priest presides over and ratifies all stages of the process leading up to and including final choices and implementations. This collegial process respects the authority of the Parish Priest who takes into account the integrity, expertise and prayerful deliberations of the members of the council.

The agenda for each meeting will be finalised by the secretary, chairperson and the president of the council. Ideally the agenda should be circulated to council members in advance of the meeting, together with any notes or other relevant material required. Minutes of the meeting will be circulated at an agreed time after the meeting has taken place.
The unique nature of the Parish Pastoral Council demands that a period of time be set on the agenda for prayer and reflection during the meetings.

Parishes must determine the minimum number of members who must attend the meeting and state which members are to be included. In general the minimum number of members required is one over one half. A legitimate quorum must include the parish priest or his named delegate.


The Parish Pastoral Council is primarily concerned with promoting action through pastoral planning; it must also provide the necessary means for action. This may at times involve setting up standing committees and ad hoc committees.

Standing Committees
These are permanent in nature and generally facilitate some form of ministry or organisation in the parish. The guidelines should state their relationship with the council.

Ad Hoc Committees
Ad hoc committees (working groups) may be set up for specific purposes and with a definite time limit, e.g. planning a centenary celebration for the parish.


The diocese is committed to providing resources, training and ongoing formation at diocesan and deanery level; parishes are strongly encouraged to avail of these provisions.

1. See The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary. Edited by Cariden, J Green, T & Heintschel, Paulist Press, 1985, p 431


2. Referred to as Guidelines through out the handbook.

3. See Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 10 (Hereafter AA)

4. See Code of Canon Law, 208

5. The ex officio members might consist of the curates in the parish, religious working in the parish, a member of the Finance committee etc.

6. In the case of prolonged sickness or absence, the Parish Priest may delegate someone to represent him. 

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