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Parish Pastoral Councils: A formation manual

17 June, 2012

The book
PPCSThis is a ‘how-to-do-it’ workbook that lays out the necessary steps for forming, enabling and sustaining a parish pastoral council. It moves from introducing the concept of a parish council to its formation and planning, and on to its first year of activity. It provides detailed step-by-step procedures, which can be easily adapted to any parish situation. The procedures are further detailed on an accompanying CD, which provides visual aids and kick-off points for discussion.

The focus is practicable and singular: to form a parish pastoral council with sufficient knowledge and training to get some ‘real’ work done for the good of all in the parish community.

The Authors
Debra Snoddy is a full-time lecturer in Biblical Studies and is Chair of the Continuing Education Committee for the School of Adult and Community Learning at All Hallows College, Dublin.

Jim Campbell has been a member of the staff of the Institute of Cultural Affairs since it began in 1972. He currently teaches a suite of facilitation courses at All Hallows College, several of which are accredited in an academic degree programme.

Andrew McNally has served as a curate, Diocesan Advisor for Religious Education and as Director of Pastoral Renewal and Family Ministry in the Archdiocese of Armagh. He has been involved in adult faith development, pastoral planning and the formation and support of parish pastoral councils and pastoral area resource teams. He is presently administrator of St Patrick’s parish, Dundalk.


  1. Creating a Parish Pastoral Council
  2. What Does a Parish Pastoral Council Do?
  3. Stages in the Formation of a Parish Pastoral Council
  4. The Parish Gathering
  5. Reflection Session 1
  6. Reflection Session 2
  7. Reflection Session 3
  8. Reflection Session 4
  9. Rite of Commissioning of the New Parish Pastoral Council
  10. Formation Meeting: Parish Pastoral Council Mission Statement
  11. Formation Meeting 2: Team Charter
  12. Formation Meeting 3: Listening Project
  13. Creating a Three-Year Strategic Plan: Planning Instructions for Chapter 14
  14. Planning Session 1: Present Reality and Vision
  15. Planning Session 2: Priorities and Goals
  16. Planning Session 3: Brainstorming and Implementation

Appendix: Charter Pack

213 pp. With CD to be used with Adobe Acrobat Reader. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie



As St Paul and the apostles set out to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ across the Roman Empire, they did so by creating local communities of the faithful. There quickly emerged a loose network of these local communities, mostly located in major urban centres across the eastern half of the Empire. This became the model for all future development of what was to become the Church. The creation of a governing and supportive superstructure came about in response to the growing number of local communities and the need to weave them into a coherent and powerful unified force for the spreading of the Good News. The process for Church development across its history has been to firstly establish a group of the faithful in a local community, then spread the Good News and develop other communities within the geographical area. The final stage was the clustering of a number of these communities into an administrative unit.

This history reminds us of two essential and fundamental realities of the Church, past, present and future: first, the Church is about community; second, the local community is the foundation of the Church. As we think about the future of the parish it is essential to not lose sight of this history. The parish is the foundational local community of the Church, without which there is no future for theChurch.

For many centuries across the western world, the parish has been almost synonymous with each and every local community. The local parish church building stood on the hill above the community or in many instances occupied one side of the town square at the heart of the community. The local parish was the provider of education, assistance to the ill, help for the poverty stricken and arbiter of good and bad in all aspects of the community’s life. It was the heart and soul of the community. Its feast days and celebrations were the holidays and celebrations of the community. Its sacraments, marking the journey of a person’s life, were fundamental to life in the community. However, in the last half century, something has happened in the life of the local parish that makes this picture a nostalgic recollection of the ‘good old days’. Thus, while the church building still occupies a central location in the community, the life of the parish and the life of the local community are no longer synonymous.

Thousands of books have been written seeking to explain what happened and why it happened. Fingers have been pointed in all directions. Blame has been assigned to almost every dimension of both the Church and society. Many solutions have been proposed and many tried to somehow bring back that which has been lost. This has been somewhat limited and usually localised. However, if the flood is overwhelming the dike everywhere, holding up your small part does not stem the flood. What are we to do?

  • We must understand the profound changes that have affected our world in the past several centuries and how they have left us with the world we have today. There have been three great paradigm shifts in the last several centuries that have completely shifted the worldview of today’s humanity.
  • To be a person of faith is to be a person in community, a person in covenant. This foundational understanding of the Christian life is at the core of the local parish and we must articulate and demonstrate this in a meaningful and practical way for the world around us.
  • Finally, we must turn our faces towards the future, take the essence of the Christian life and invent the practical form of the local Christian community for our age, just as they did in those long-ago days when Rome ruled the world.

I will only discuss one of the paradigm shifts in detail since it most directly involves the subject of this book. We will briefly mention the other two for the sake of clarity. But first, what is a paradigm shift?

The Nature of a Paradigm Shift
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published a short book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Written while he was a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard, it has sold over a million copies in sixteen languages. Through this book, Kuhn was responsible for popularising the term ‘paradigm’. Kuhn describes a paradigm as ‘essentially a collection of beliefs shared by scientists, a set of agreements about how problems are to be understood’. This term and Kuhn’s analysis of the nature of the revolution that is a paradigm shift have become widely understood. It is used as a tool to enable us to reflect more profoundly on our society and the changes we are experiencing.

  • One of Kuhn’s fundamental insights is that, when a paradigm shift occurs, the common worldview in the new paradigm is completely unintelligible to someone operating out of the old paradigm. Before 1912, when scientists looked at a tabletop they saw matter, solid substance. After 1912 and the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, some people found themselves in a world where the tabletop was mostly empty space filled with bundles of energy and forces. The old joke about people fearing that in Einstein’s world they would fall through things reflects the unintelligible nature of the new worldview to those who still find themselves in the old.
  • A second crucial insight is that this shift is revolutionary rather than evolutionary. It is as if bits and pieces of the new worldview start to emerge over time, but at some point they suddenly come together and make a complete picture – a new worldview. It is like having a thousand pieces of a picture puzzle, a few of which have been joined together and then all at once all of them fall into place and the puzzle is complete. For years there was a growing body of scientific evidence that just did not fit into the Newtonian explanation of the nature of the universe. Suddenly, with the publication of Einstein’s paper, all these bits and pieces came together and there was a new picture of the nature of the universe.

The New Paradigm of Governance
In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV is reputed to have said, ‘I am the state’. He was the sovereign and sovereignty (‘supreme power and the right to exercise it’, according to Collins Compact Dictionary of the English Language) resided in his person. However, by the late eighteenth century a new paradigm of governance had emerged. Louis XIV’s descendant, Louis XVI, was confronted with this new paradigm of governance and denounced it with fear and loathing. He was the sovereign and as sovereign there was no question in his mind about his right to exercise supreme power as the embodiment of the French state. However, in the new paradigm of governance the location of sovereignty had shifted: the head of state was no longer the sovereign; sovereignty resided in the people. The United States Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, contains the following statement that could only have been written out of the new paradigm of governance:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. (Emphasis mine)

This was, of course, completely unintelligible to Louis XVI and to most of the ruling class of Europe and the world. However, today this paradigm is the accepted political common sense of the world.

Since the eighteenth century, when this new paradigm of governance emerged, there have been two historical trends that have had an impact on the life of the Church.

  • The first of these is the question, ‘Who will participate in the governing process?’ In the eighteenth century, men of property were identified as the people who should participate in the governing process. Since those days we have seen the gradual expansion of the right of participation: first to men, then to women, then the voting age was lowered to include youth and, finally in recent years in Europe, to include residents regardless of citizenship.
  • The second trend is the gradual expansion of the right to participate from the public dominion to all other dimensions of society. Today we expect to participate in decision-making, planning, etc., in our community groups, organisations and even in the work place. Patricia McLagan and Christo Nel write in The Age of Participation: ‘Participation is the great governance trend. The strength of this trend is accelerating as we near the end of the twentieth century.’

The implication of this for the Church is obvious. People are less and less willing to simply do what they are told. They expect to be part of the decision-making processes that determine the future of their communities and the institutions in those communities. They are less and less willing to invest time, energy and resources into an institution in which they do not feel consulted by or included in the processes used to determine its future. Further, the insistence on the place and contribution of women being equal to men in all ways profoundly challenges the Church’s traditional structures, viewed by some as overly patriarchal. The expectation that people will acquiesce to the Church’s decisions and plans is very much of the old paradigm of governance. Rather than acquiescence, the right of participation in governance is the common sense of our age.

A second implication of this new governance paradigm is around the question of authority. In the old paradigm, authority was invested in the institution and the various offices that governed that institution. The image of the Pope being invested with supreme authority as a holder of an office that reaches back through time to St Peter is an example of this. However, in the new paradigm, the understanding of authority is that it is given to an institution and its office holders by those who are sovereign – the people. Further, when the sovereign people lose confidence in the office holders and/or institution, it is their right – some would even say duty – to change the institution and/or office holders. Fundamentally, this is a question of trust. Authority in the new
paradigm requires respect and trust between the governed and the governing. When that respect is lost, the governed, who are sovereign, withdraw their trust of the institution and its office holders. When this happens the institution’s authority collapses. People no longer look to the institution or its office holders as leaders competent to chart a future course on behalf of themselves and their communities. For better or worse the Church has experienced this collapse of trust and the resulting withdrawal of authority.

The New Paradigm of Sustenance
In the mid-nineteenth century, the second crucial paradigm shift occurred. In retrospect we talk about this paradigm shift as the Economic Revolution. Essentially, it was occasioned by the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class in society. In the old paradigm the assumption was that there was a group of people who controlled great wealth (usually land and its products) and everyone else lived by serving and working for this group. Some members of the controlling group understood themselves to have an obligation to those who worked for and served them. However, the more common understanding was that these people had no rights and that their sustenance depended upon the largesse of the wealthy. In the eighteenth century, the land clearances (which occurred when the landowners decided they could make more money from their land by pasturing sheep and, therefore, did not need large labour forces) are an example of this attitude. People were simply driven off the land and left to fend for themselves. The nineteenth-century Irish Famine provides another unfortunate example, where landowners actually built walls to keep the starving families out of their land.

However, about the same time as the Irish Famine, men like Marx and Engles were articulating the new paradigm of economic relations. The shift from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial economy was the trigger for this paradigm shift. The reality of working in a factory for a given number of hours for a wage, rather than taking a share of the product you had produced on the land in payment for your labour, clarified the need to understand the nature of labour and how we determine the value of that labour. In addition, it transformed the relation between employer and employee.

The New Paradigm of Meaning
Since the middle of the twentieth century we have been experiencing what is today called a Cultural Revolution. We are still in the midst of this paradigm shift and there are many dimensions of it that we are still working through. However, its impact on the life and work of the Church has been profound and the root of much that has happened in the Church in the last sixty years.

One of the fundamental shifts that are driving this Cultural Revolution is the shift from a rural lifestyle to an urban lifestyle. For the first time in history, the vast majority of the world’s population live in urban areas. This, accompanied with the technology that has transformed our communication and travel possibilities, means that even if you still live in a rural setting, your mindset is urban.

A second fundamental shift is the shift in what could be called the ‘common sense of our age’. This has to do with the scientific revolution that occurred in the twentieth century. It is symbolised by the shift from the Newtonian worldview to the Einsteinian worldview. When Einstein published his first paper on relativity in 1912, it transformed our understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. Rather than living in a universe of matter that worked like some giant clock moving in a pre-determined path, we find ourselves in a relativistic universe where probability rules. Matter – indeed, we ourselves – is not a substance, but rather a network of sub-atomic particles which are themselves bundles of energy. Space and time are a continuum, so rather than living in a dualistic universe we find ourselves living in a unified universe.

The last dimension of the shift in meaning goes to the very essence of the challenge facing the Church as it struggles with the implications of the twentieth-century Cultural Revolution. It is what is sometimes called the shift in common mood or the Secular Revolution. This shift has to do with how people experience their encounter with the ultimate reality of their lives and how they respond to that encounter. In addition, it has to do with how we experience the very nature of our interior struggle, and our search for certainty in the midst of utter ambiguity. This shift is not about people becoming less spiritual, but rather that people are spiritual in a completely different way. The traditional categories and ways we use to talk about the spiritual life are no longer meaningful to people living in this time.

This is a ‘how-to-do-it’ workbook. It is about the creation and sustainment of a parish pastoral council composed of a group of lay people in a local parish. All that has preceded this section has been in the way of context for why a new approach to the creation of a group in the local parish is required. In particular, the section on governance made clear that the traditional hierarchical command and control mode of operation is simply not going to work, whether it is in a corporation, a community organisation or the local parish. The authority that once allowed the local parish priest to command people’s loyalty, commitment and involvement in parish life is largely gone. So what are we to do if we want to form and sustain a group of people who will work with the parish priest in transforming the ministry of the parish?

Ownership and Care, Motivation and Commitment
What we own, or perceive as our own, we see ourselves as responsible for. This is hardly a secret. Whether it is ‘our’ family or that special car we have worked long and hard for, care happens when we own something. When we own something, we are motivated to care for it and this is the heart of taking responsibility for and being committed to something. If we have no sense of involvement in something – of owning it – we are not motivated to care about it and will not take responsibility for or be committed to it.

The implication of this is that, if we want people to take responsibility for the work of a parish pastoral council, we have to instill a sense of ownership in the people who make up the council. If people feel that this is ‘their council’ working on behalf of ‘their parish’, then they will take responsibility for it and be committed to supporting its work. Instilling this sense of ownership is possible by engaging the members of the council in the process of creating the council and in planning and carrying out its work. When we invest our time and energy in something we take a form of ownership of it. This sense of ownership is the key to releasing people’s motivation and sustaining their commitment to the council and its work.

From the very first meeting, people must be engaged in such a way that they experience themselves as shaping and giving form to the parish pastoral council and its work. This engagement will engender a sense of ownership of the parish pastoral council, it will become their parish pastoral council. They will know that the parish pastoral council’s success or failure is their responsibility and will be motivated to ensure its success. This sort of engagement happens because of the type of processes that are used in the meetings people attend.

In any meeting there are two fundamental considerations:

  • One is the content of the meeting. This is the ‘what’ of the meeting.
  • The second is the process or method you use to deal with the content. This is the ‘how’ of the meeting. It is the process that ensures the engagement, which in turn engenders ownership. They are processes that engage people and require of them that they invest their own ideas and wisdom in the content, the ‘what’ of the meeting.

Participatory processes engender ownership by ensuring that people are engaged in the meeting at a very personal and even profound level. Nothing is imposed or presupposed in such a process. The result of a participatory process is completely dependent on what the members of the group share and give to the process. People experience themselves as responsible for creating the outcome of the meeting and see it as reflective of their concerns, wisdom, insights and knowledge. This responsibility or ownership is what motivates people and ensures their commitment to the life and work of the group.

Unfortunately, most people who lead meetings and take responsibility for the work of a group have little or no knowledge of group processes, especially of participatory processes. If you listen to the complaints people have about meetings they attend, it is always about the processes that are used in the meetings. Statements like, ‘We never decide anything!’ ‘All we do is talk!’ ‘The same people talk all the time!’ ‘We just go over the same stuff in every meeting!’ are all about the processes being used in meetings, not about the content. Leading effective meetings that engage people, ensuring their ownership of the outcomes, requires a knowledge of and skill in the use of participatory processes.

Participatory processes have certain foundational values, which make them different from other processes that can be used in working with a group.

  • Invite and sustain inclusive participation. Participatory methods invite and sustain participation by all members of the group. They recognise the importance of each member of the group and understand each member holds an important piece of the puzzle and each person’s insights help to create a whole picture.
  • Affirmation of the group. Participatory processes require that the group that shows up to do the work be regarded as exactly the group to do the task; that they have all the knowledge, wisdom and skill required to get the job done. This group is the right group at the right time to do the work that is before them.
  • Promote teamwork and collaboration. Participatory processes assume teamwork and collaboration are necessary to get a task done in the most effective, efficient and economical way. They create a deep sense of collegiality among members of the group.
  • Ensure individual and group creativity. Participatory processes bring out the best of each person’s rational and intuitive capacities. By encouraging a dialogue between head and heart, people experience ‘the magic of group creativity’ breaking loose.
  • Leading to action and ownership. Participatory processes position the group to take action on decisions owned and supported by members of the group. Group ownership of decisions move the group towards action.
  • Enabling reflection and learning. Participatory processes confirm individual and group resolve and allow for full appreciation of the value and importance of consensus and collective action. Learning and transformation occur with depth reflection.


(C) Institute of Cultural Affairs

The proceses detailed in this workbook are derived from the set of group processes known collectively as The Technology of Participation or ToP. The ToP processes were developed by the international non-governmental organisation, The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA).

Throughout its history, the ICA has been committed to ‘The Human Factor in Global Development’. Concretely this has taken form in the conviction that local people have the wisdom, knowledge and skill to take responsibility for the future of their local community. The challenge was to develop processes that would enable local people to participate in the planning for the future of their community and in the implementation of those plans. In the early 1970s, the Institute received and accepted many invitations to open offices in many parts of the world. In the mid-1970s, they launched a network of community projects that spanned the world. These projects were demonstrations of what could happen in a local community when local people were empowered to take charge of their community’s future. These projects began with involving local people in building a community development plan with the support of the Institute’s staff. This work in local communities was the birthplace of the ToP processes. Because the Institute’s staff was working in many countries and cultures and in both rural and urban settings, it was necessary that the processes be ‘contentless’ and applicable across the world. There was an ongoing process of evaluation and refinement over a period of years that led to the emergence of a set of processes that became known as the ToP in the early 198os.

The ToP consists of four basic processes. They are:

The Focused Discussion Process: this is a structured conversation method enabling a group to discuss any common experience, maintain their focus and to penetrate to the significance of the topic.

The Basic Workshop Process: this is a simple five-step, problem-solving, decision-making workshop that enables a group to articulate their consensus and ensures that everyone’s voice is heard in the discussion.

The Action Planning Process: this is a structured method combining the focused discussion method and the basic workshop method. It is useful for planning short-term, one-of-a-kind projects or programmes.

The Participatory Strategic Planning Process: this process involves four major steps in order to create a longer-term plan for the work of a whole team, group or organisation.

All of these processes are designed to ensure maximum participation by all members of a group. They incorporate the foundational values of participatory processes and have over and over again demonstrated their capacity to create ownership, motivation and commitment. They are structured and provide the group with a logical framework to guide them in moving through their work. The Basic Workshop Process, the Action Planning Process and the Participatory Strategic Planning Process each involve a number of steps which build on the previous steps. The process itself makes the logic of the sequence of steps obvious and enables the group to have a sense of moving towards their goal.

Decision-Making in the ToP
The ToP is designed to enable a group to make decisions by consensus. Consensus is probably the most difficult and the most misunderstood decision-making process that a group can use. The following chart presents a detailed picture of what consensus is in the context of the TOP.

Consensus is not so much …

• Majority rules — winners and losers
• Unanimity — everyone in complete agreement
• Compromise — accepting a ‘lowest common denominator’ result
• Deciding which ideas to accept and which to reject
• A fixed, final and unchallengeable conclusion
• A result of focusing on things that divide a group
• Settling for partial solutions from limited alternatives
• Acceding to the most vocal individuals in the group
• The imposition of the strongest will or wills upon a group
• A logistical contrast that demands people’s compliance
• A logical conclusion from the data
• Focused on old assumptions
• All too familiar formulations (‘Oh that again’)
• A result of persistent advocacy for a particular position
• Getting everyone to ‘buy in’ to a process or product
• Challenging or criticising other people’s ideas
• Harmony dependent on people having similar views
• Conclusions that are popular with the group
• A technique for deciding something in a meeting
• The result of managing the group process so as to arrive at unanticipated outcomes
• A process that leaves people irritated and exhausted by the struggle to reach agreement.

As it is …

• A convergence of the common sense of the total group
• That which allows everyone to say ‘yes’ and move forward
• Finding and creating arenas of shared understanding
• Ensuring that every idea is accepted and honoured
• A working conclusion at a particular point in time
• A result focusing on things that unite a group
• Designing effective solutions from expanding alternatives
• Eliciting the best wisdom that the whole group is capable of
• The emergence of a collective will within the group
• A mutual covenant that elicits people’s commitment
• An intuitive leap from the data
• Focused on new possibilities
• A fresh way of seeing and naming (Aha!’)
• A result of proposals made, then offered to the group
• Ensuring everyone’s ownership of the process and product
• Valuing and utilising the insights in other people’s ideas
• Harmony created from the interchange of diverse ideas
• Conclusions that the group comes to see as necessary
• An overall culture within which decisions get made
• The result of facilitating the group process so as to allow for unanticipated outcomes
• A process that leaves people enlivened and motivated to action.

As is made clear by these distinguishing characteristics for consensus, a consensus is either latent in a group or it is not. If it is not latent, then no amount of talking or processing in a group will engender a consensus. A consensus emerges because it is already present deep in the sensitivities of the group members. An appropriate decision-making process that allows everyone to participate in the task of discerning the consensus is required. Participation is the key to consensus decision-making; every member of the group has to feel that they have authentically helped to shape the final decision of the group.

What makes decision-making by consensus so popular is that when an authentic consensus is reached it is the most powerful decision a group can make; people experience themselves as responsible for the decision in a profound way. They are highly motivated to act on the implications of the decision and to follow through in whatever way that is required.

The Larger Task
The establishment of an effective parish pastoral council is not just the establishment of another group in the parish. It is about transforming the local parish through meeting the three challenges we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter:

  • We must understand the profound changes that have affected our world in the past several centuries and how they have left us with the world we have today. There have been three great paradigm shifts in the last several centuries that have completely shifted the worldview of today’s humanity.
  • To be a person of faith is to be a person in community, a person in covenant. This foundational understanding of the Christian life is at the core of the local parish and we must articulate and demonstrate this in a meaningful and practical way for the world around us.
  • Finally, we must turn our faces towards the future, take the essence of the Christian life and invent the practical form of the local Christian community for our age, just as they did in those long-ago days when Rome ruled the world.

We see the parish pastoral council as a vehicle to meet these challenges in our local parishes.

  • In the first place, the process for the creation of a parish pastoral council outlined in this workbook is designed to deal with the nature of the first challenge. It is a process that reflects and is built on an understanding of today’s worldview.
  • Secondly, it can be a demonstration in the parish of what it means to live and work in covenant. This requires a depth of commitment and motivation that the process of creating and sustaining a pastoral council is designed to elicit from the members of the group.
  • Thirdly, it is a step towards inventing the practical form of the local Christian community in our age. Communities where people take responsibility, not out of duty or tradition, but out of a sense of ownership and commitment to a larger cause and purpose. These are communities where engagement by all in the mission and life of the parish is engendered by the very process of being part of the group; communities where the profound care for the human and spiritual well-being of all in the parish is a given rather than an exception.

The parish pastoral council is a step on the long road of transformation. It is not the final solution but it can be a transformative agent at the very heart of the parish. Done in a creative and responsible fashion, the creation and operation of a parish pastoral council can be that catalytic agent that brings new life and hope to the parish and its people. We should expect nothing less of our colleagues and ourselves in the task of being the local parish – the future of the Church.

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