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Think big act small

30 November, 1999

This book by Johnny Doherty, Oliver Crilly, Frank Dolaghan and Paddi Curran records the induction and formation process associated with the development of the pastoral council, the effort to extend the collaborative dynamic to more and more people within the parish community and the thinking which inspires them.

173 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .


About the Authors
About the Book

Part One: It is wonderful for us to be here


1. Shared Leadership and Responsibility
2. Strategic Planning
3. Summary of Process


4. Calling the Community
5. Consulting the Community
6. Gathering the Community
7. Empowered by the Community


8. Seven habits of highly effective partnerships
9. Partnership with the Pastoral Council
10. Partnership through the Pastoral Council


11. Is it all Worthwhile?


12. Starting up
13. Pastoral Council
14. Books and Media
15. Other Useful Materials

Part Two: That the world may believe


16. Rooted in the Scriptures
17. The Disciples on the Road to Emmaus
18. The Person of Christ


19. The Wedding Feast at Cana
20. The Transfiguration


21. The Prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper
22. The Commissioning of the Disciples



This book by Johnny Doherty, Oliver Crilly, Frank Dolaghan and Paddi Curran records the induction and formation process associated with the development of the pastoral council, the effort to extend the collaborative dynamic to more and more people within the parish community, and the thinking which inspires this process.

For any parish wishing to move forward could lead parish and community leaders beyond the present limiting parish boundary system to future parish possibilities and to the overall mission of the Church.


Chapter One: It is wonderful for us to be here


Parish Pastoral Councils should by now be taken for granted as the normal infrastructure of any parish where there is an effort to involve people in the development of parish life. The theory has been widely explored and written up. Collaborative ministry is not just an emergency measure to deal with the growing shortage of priests. It is of the nature of the Church. It is a spirituality, as the Abbe Micheneau pointed out in France in the 1940s, and as Pope John Paul II underlined in Novo Millennia Ineunte in 2001:

The spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul (par. 45).

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 (par.46).

The underlying theology is clear: the Holy Spirit works in the world through the hearts of all who believe. The challenge is to provide the Holy Spirit with a forum, to create basic structures which will enable the Holy Spirit to work in our parish through the hearts of those who believe. That includes the priest or priests, but it also includes the ‘lay faithful’, the Christifideles Laici.

The parish is, first, a people. It can be called an expression of the communal, ecclesial character of Catholic Christian life. But, simply stated, it is a people, a people called
together by God. It is a people empowered by the Spirit to make increasingly true and obvious their response to God through Christ. The Parish tries to take shape in this context of faith and prayer, always with openness to the Spirit. (United States Catholic Conference: Committee on the Parish, 1980, paragraph 9.)

The experience of life in a parish is about spiritual and pastoral growth and development. A parish is a people, part of the community we call Church, living and working together, celebrating Mass and the sacraments, welcoming new members, rejoicing with those celebrating Baptism and Confirmation and  with those getting married, and standing in solidarity with those who suffer from illness, accident or bereavement.

Bounded by routine
Yet the life of a parish can often be bounded by routine. It can seem to be enough to manage the morning Mass, the weekly Confessions, the hospitals, the needs of schools and traditional adult groups and devotions. Peripheral activities for the priest, like signing passport forms or driving licence applications, can even seem to justify structures and support systems, so that the first priority is maintenance: keeping things as they are, as they always have been in our time.

Of course there is also the routine of parishioners’ lives: the demands of rearing a young family, the pressures of work, the competing interests of sport and many voluntary community activities. Parishioners also have fixed routines in the way they have lived their faith over many years.

One of the things which prevents development and renewal in parish life is fear of change. Fear of change affects both priest and people. It takes courage and creativity to move forward, to initiate change and development. The best-selling book Who Moved my Cheese? includes the pertinent question: ‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’

Learning from others
However, it is no longer a question of setting out into the unknown. There are many examples of work in progress in parishes and dioceses. We can learn from each other, from the experience of success and from the experience of failure. Parish development is a long-term project. The Archdiocese of Dublin has been working on a process of parish renewal and development since 1985; when Archbishop Kevin McNamara set up a committee to explore possibilities, the first survey came up with four priorities: lay participation, adult faith formation, renewal of priests, and youth ministry.

Development and renewal in parishes involves:

  1. The renewal of the priesthood as a vocation to leadership
  2. The gathering of the people of the Church into being a family for the Father, and not just people who have religion;
  3. The choosing and commissioning of leadership among this family for the building up of the whole Body;
  4. The training of this leadership among the people in such a way that new leadership is always being created.

The emphasis on leadership is a key part of the picture. It is no longer about the leadership of the priest in isolation. It is about
shared leadership. It is about the identification and formation of women and men who will take on a shared responsibility for the future of the parish.

Official Policies
Not only can we learn from situations where this kind of leadership is already happening. It is also supported by the official policies of the Catholic Church at the highest level. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests describes the leadership of the priest in these terms:

‘In the name of the bishop they gather the family of God as a community enthusiastically striving towards unity, and lead it in Christ through the Spirit to God the Father.’ (Par 6.)

The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states:
The lay faithful should accustom themselves to working in the parish in close union with their priests, bringing to the Church community their own and the world’s problems as
well as questions concerning human salvation, all of which need to be examined together and solved through general discussion. As far as possible the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by their own ecclesial family. (Vatican II: Decree on the Apostalate afthe Laity)

Pope John Paul II, in Christifideles Laici, comments:

The Council’s mention of examining and solving pastoral problems ‘by general discussion’ ought to find its adequate and structured development through a more convinced, extensive and decided appreciation for ‘Parish Pastoral Councils’ on which the Synod Fathers have rightly insisted.

That is not a vague or ambivalent statement. Pope John Paul II called for a more convinced, extensive and decided appreciation for Parish Pastoral Councils. He linked his call to the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Vatican II, 1965). In 1983 the new Code of Canon Law included provision for diocesan and parish pastoral councils. More recently, in 2001, at the beginning of the new millennium, Pope John Paul again emphasised that ‘the Church will need to encourage all the baptised and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church’s life’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte, par 46). Against that background, how is it that there is not a pastoral council in every diocese and in every parish throughout the country?

Following Vatican II, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Ireland established a number of commissions and advisory bodies at national level (1969 and early 1970s), including the Council for the Laity. The Council for the Laity produced guidelines for setting up parish councils, and a booklet was published by Veritas and distributed widely. Many parishes took up the challenge and established parish councils.

There was an energy around, in the aftermath of Vatican II, for doing new things. Parish priests saw in parish councils a genuine opportunity for involving lay people in the life of the Church. Committed lay people enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to be involved. Quite a number of parish councils made a significant contribution to the organisation and development of their parishes.

But something went wrong. Just a few years after the initial launch of parish councils, and poignantly by the time the new Code of Canon Law was recommending them in 1983, many of the early parish councils had ceased to exist, or had ceased to function effectively.

The initial enthusiasm had not been matched by training and experience. In the absence of an appropriate church model for interaction and management, parish council members, including the parish priest, borrowed heavily from the procedures of business meetings or local political groups. These procedures were based on an adversarial model: I had my agenda, I argued my case against yours, I formed alliances, and when there was not agreement on the way forward, I appealed to a majority vote. This model may have worked in many instances, because of genuine good will and friendship. But in many parishes the time came when a majority vote of parish council members came into conflict with the parish priest’s responsibility under Canon Law and diocesan policy. If the parish priest yielded, he would be in trouble for not carrying out the role to which he had been appointed. Many areas of Church life and discipline in any case fell outside the remit of his or the parish council’s powers. From the perspective of the new parish council, the members didn’t appreciate being told that their vote and their voice was merely consultative, and the parish priest was under no obligation to act on it. The fact that this was clearly stated in the Code of Canon Law (Canon 536, paragraph 2) was little comfort to them. They may have suspected, sometimes rightly, that the parish priest was extending the protection afforded to him by the Code of Canon Law to cover matters of his own personal preference, rather than of any higher authority.

In this kind of conflict, the outcome was often that the parish council was discontinued, or that while it remained in existence in theory, in practice no further meetings were called. The Code of Canon Law stated that the parish council, being advisory to the parish priest, ceased to exist when the parish priest died or was transferred. If difficulties, or even the rumour of difficulties had existed, the new parish priest didn’t have to take any positive action; all he had to do was not to set up a new parish council.

The Code of Canon Law in 1983 used the term ‘pastoral council’ both for diocese and for parish. This term ‘pastoral’ has provided the basis for re-thinking and for re-visioning the parish ‘pastoral’ council, and for distancing the new generation of pastoral councils from the sometimes difficult experiences of the past. Some parishes have tried to achieve this distance by using terms like ‘core group’, or by creating a composite parish assembly structure with a ‘committee’. While this is understandable, there s a lot to be said for adopting the official terminology of the Code of Canon Law, and clarifying the parameters and functions )f a pastoral council, and in particular, establishing a different model from the business/ political adversarial model. The new model which has achieved widespread acceptance is a consensus model, where decision-making is based on a shared seeking of God’s will and the guidance of the Spirit. Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council (Paulist Press, 2001) gives this useful, if somewhat oversimplified table of comparisons between the older ‘parish council’ and the newer ‘parish pastoral council’:

From Parish Council                  To Parish Pastoral Council
From A Body of Leaders            To Parish Pastoral Council
From Co-ordinating Ministries    To Articulating the Mission
From Crisis Management           To Pastoral Planning
From Doing Activities                To Empowerment and Oversight
From Business and Politics        To Prayer and Discernment
From Competition                     To Collaboration
From Voting                             To Consensus

Using the term ‘pastoral’ also underlines that the pastoral council’s responsibility is for the overall spiritual and pastoral development of the parish. When a parish priest is appointed by the bishop of the diocese, he is given responsibility for both the administrative and pastoral care of the parish. Usually he will involve lay people in both of these areas: people with relevant management and financial skills to support him and work with him in administration, especially in the finance committee, and people with other skills and commitment to participate in reflection and planning for the spiritual and pastoral needs. It is unhelpful to confuse these two areas. It is also unhelpful to separate them totally: it is tempting to say that lay people with particular skills will look after the administration, leaving the priest free to look after the spiritual needs like Mass and the Sacraments, prayer, personal support and counselling. In fact, all these areas are interconnected: financial budgeting, for example, is simply quantifying in pounds or Euro what pastoral action will cost. The cheque book will reflect the priorities of parish life. What is needed is not separate spheres of leadership, but learning a process of shared leadership in which priest and people together can collaborate in building the kingdom of God in this local faith community.

Over the last twenty-five years, the most successful efforts at development and renewal in Irish parishes happened when the programmes were ‘faith led’ – that is, when it wasn’t just a matter of organising people in a tidy and efficient way, but there was a real openness to the Spirit, and people worked together in the context of prayer and Scripture to discern where the Holy Spirit was leading their parish community.

Where people are genuinely led by the Spirit, they will not seek their own fulfilment, rather they will seek what is best for others, for their parish, for the Church and for the world.

There’s a fifteenth century Russian icon of The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. It shows the apostles gathered in a kind of horseshoe formation, leaving a space at the bottom centre of the picture. At the top the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of flame. The apostles hold scrolls representing the Word of God. There is a solemn atmosphere, a sense of expectation. In the space at the bottom centre there is a dark doorway, framing a little man who waits with hands held out. It is this small figure who gives meaning to the whole scene. He is Cosmos, the hungry world waiting to be nourished by the Word of God and by the Body of Christ. The apostles receive the Holy Spirit not for themselves, but for the world which waits for salvation. Everything we do in trying to build up the life of the Church has to be driven by that awareness of a world which waits, a world hungry for God, hungry for the good news.

Being a vibrant parish is not an end in itself. There is no Tidy Towns Competition for parishes. We need to be the best we can, not for our own satisfaction, but for the sake of other people, ‘so that the world may believe’. There is a wonderful little paragraph in Pope John Paul’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio. It is in section 43 and it describes the essential Christian attitude, not just for the family, but for the Church and for all our relationships. The phrase used is ‘disinterested availability’ – not that we should be uninterested, but that we should not relate to other people out of self-interest. We are meant to risk our own interest for the sake of others. That service of others is at the heart of all our pastoral development, both in building up relationships within the local Church community and in reaching out to others wherever we find them. It is beautifully symbolised in the liturgy of Holy Week and Easter by the washing of the feet, the symbolic act used by Jesus himself at the Last Supper On 13).

One thing we seem to forget in recent years is that we have to put this attitude of service into effect consciously. We have to do it on purpose. It is never easy, and the world around us tries to lower our morale by suggesting that to do good on purpose is somehow hypocritical, as if good actions could only be respected when they are either unconscious or we feel so good about doing them that they come easy. In fact, it takes real goodness to do the positive thing when you don’t feel like it. Planning to do good is an essential part of moral development, whether for an individual or for a community, and we need the conscious support of each other if we are to progress as a faith community and a community of service.


‘If you do not know where you are going, you are sure to end up somewhere else’ (Mark Twain)

When those involved in parish leadership embark on a process of parish development and renewal, it is vital that they trust in the process upon which they are embarking. In other words, if they believe in the value of what they are doing, it is essential that they trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the process and bring it to fruition.

It is also essential that they use the tools that God puts at their disposal for the task: the ordinary human resources and skills which are relevant to what they wish to achieve. Since they will be dealing with a parish community, and individuals and groups within that community, they should look to people and processes which relate to communication and interaction within groups. Since they are also specifically addressing the development of this parish community into the future (‘going forward’, as the business people say), they will find the skills and processes of
strategic planning particularly relevant. Business and community consultants who deal with strategic planning tend to have their own jargon and slogans, but they often express a truth which demands our attention. ‘To fail to plan is to plan to fail’ is an obvious example. Just because it is a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is as true for a parish as it is for a small business or for any local community initiative.

We have choices of course; we can be like the cork tossed around by the tide without direction and control or we can be like the ship, battling against the same tide but with a course set and a compass and tiller to help steer that course. In other words, we drift or we take control.

Planning can bring considerable benefits:

  • It is an opportunity to take stock of where we are;
  • It can help get things done and usually with better use of what are often scarce resources;
  • It can give a focus to our efforts;
  • It makes it easier for us to communicate what we do;
  • It reduces the risk of mistakes or surprises;
  • It provides opportunities for people to become involved;
  • It allows us to monitor progress.

A planning process within a parish brings the added benefits of revitalising parishes, re-kindling enthusiasm and renewing hope.

As in every aspect of life there are those who will be in favour of a planning process and those who are not convinced of its value; in fact some people will try to block a planning process, often
using the reason that a plan will only raise expectations which cannot be fulfilled. These are spurious arguments and do not do justice to our people. People are not fools and have a very realistic understanding of what is possible. The question can also be asked: what is wrong with raising expectations? There are many examples in Ireland today of developments which would never have happened if people of vision and energy had not raised expectations. Very often today, people need to have their expectations raised. For many reasons people have almost learnt not to have expectations; don’t look for something and then if you don’t get it you won’t be disappointed. What a negative attitude to life. Are we not the people of hope?

There are of course, all types of plans: business plans, financial plans and development plans, to name but a few. Strategic planning is a process which is used extensively by organisations to plot a course of action for the future. The process asks some very basic questions:

  • What is happening within our organisation and what is happening outside our organisation which might impact on what we want to do?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses within our organisation?
  • What are the opportunities and threats we may face?
  • What changes do we want to effect? In other words, what is our vision for the future?
  • What is our mission, why do we exist, what is our purpose?
  • What aims or goals might we set ourselves as we try to achieve our vision?
  • What tasks need to be accomplished if we are to realise those aims or goals?
  • What targets can we set so we will know we have achieved our aims or goals?
  • What resources will we need to enable us to carry out the tasks we have set for ourselves? Where and how might we access these resources?
  • When will we carry out our tasks? What is our programme of work?
  • How will we monitor and evaluate our progress?

This is a long list of questions and so straightaway it needs to be recognised that producing a parish strategic plan is not a quick fix. From start to finish it could take between one and two years to produce a plan. However, remember the Chinese bamboo seed; if you plant it and water it nothing will appear above ground for four years but in the fifth year the seed will sprout up to 80 feet and all because it has been tended for four years. Remember also the law of the farm; it is not possible to reap what you have not sown and if the seeds are not tended or watered there will be a very poor crop. Embarking on a strategic planning process within a parish will need time; time to gather a group to manage the process, time to train and develop that group, time to consult parishioners, time to discuss the outcome from the consultation and time to develop the response to the feedback.

The strategic planning process makes new demands on all involved. It is unfamiliar territory for both priest and people: they have not been trained for this process and may understandably be nervous. That is one reason for starting the process with a special novena or mission or time of prayer in the parish. Another reason, of course, is to ask God’s blessing on the work and yet another is to prepare people for the process.

This chapter suggests a structured approach to strategic planning at parish level which has been tried and tested in a number of parishes, including Ardmore.

Step one: decide on who will do the work
There are a number of options; some parishes have established pastoral councils or core groups and tasked these groups with the preparation of the plan, often with some external help. Other parishes have gone for external help to lead a parish planning process from which a pastoral councilor core group emerges and then takes on responsibility for the implementation of the plan.

Local circumstances will often influence the final decision but our preference would be for a group to be established at an early stage – this can be a steering group until the planning process itself is complete – and that this group has access to some external expertise from the beginning of the process. This approach can help engender the maximum ownership of the process.

Whatever option is chosen it is essential that the whole parish is fully aware of what is happening and why. It is particularly essential that existing parish organisations are kept fully informed as sometimes there can be the perception that a new group is taking over and they will no longer be required. Of course, the opposite is the truth. The key task of any core group or pastoral council in this process is to maximise the contributions of others.

Step two: examine where we are now
Every planning process starts with an assessment of the current position. In the case of parishes this can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Desk research; this entails firstly consulting parish records as from these we can see trends, for example, in numbers being baptised, numbers dying, numbers marrying and so on. We can consult statutory sources of information such as the census returns. (In the Republic, www.cso.ie and in Northern Ireland www.nisra.gov.org)
  • Meeting with and listening to parish organisations; one spinoff output from the process can be a directory of parish organisations, especially in long established parishes where many organisations are taken for granted and newcomers may never actually find out about them.
  • Holding special listening exercises open to everyone in the parish; included in this might be special events for young people. These could be focus groups to which small numbers of people are invited and which are facilitated by someone who ideally has experience in leading small groups. There is usually a set agenda and someone apart from the facilitator records the discussion.
  • Inviting direct feedback to the parish office or to the parish website if one exists.
  • Designing and distributing a special questionnaire for completion at all Masses on a particular weekend. A sample questionnaire is included in Section E: Resource Materials, but a word of advice; questionnaire design is a specialist task so it can be worth getting professional help. The questions you ask determine the answers and hence the feedback you will get. Remember also that the completed questionnaires need to be analysed; not such an issue if you only have a few dozen but when you have hundreds or more it is quite a piece of work. Questionnaire analysis is a specialist process as dedicated computer programmes are used to carry out the work efficiently and to enable the data to be presented in a way we can all understand.
  • Have the core group/pastoral council undertake a Strengths/ Weaknesses/ Opportunities/Threats analysis of the parish. Remember that Strengths and Weaknesses are internal:, they are within the parish itself. Opportunities and Threats are generally outside the parish. An example is set out below of some of the things which might emerge from such an exercise:

Proactive Parish Clergy
Good range of parish organizations,
Modernised parish Hall
Good School

Lack of volunteers in many organizations
Declining Church attendances
Declining parish collections

Make more use of the parish hall
Develop special liturgies for young people
Build ecumenical linkages
Celebrate good marriages

Loss of curate
Continuing failure to attract volunteers
Continuing scandals in the church

  • Again with the core group/pastoral council discuss the needs the parish could or should be meeting and the things which are driving the parish forward or holding it back.

In an ideal world all of the above should be used but resources may put constraints on the scope of the consultation. Our advice is to do the most widespread consultation you can. It is absolutely critical that any plan which emerges from this process is owned by the parishioners; if it is seen as the parish priest’s plan or the core group/pastoral council’s plan, people will be much more reluctant to invest in its implementation.

Whichever process you use, the end result should be a report which summarises all the findings and sets out any assumptions you think should guide the development of any plan. For example, you might assume:

  • Numerically, the parish will grow but numbers practising their religion will continue to decline
  • The parish is likely to lose a curate within the next two years given the shortage of priests within the diocese
  • Parish organisations will continue to find it difficult to recruit and retain volunteers
  • Marriage break-ups will increase
  • Co-habiting will increase
  • Drug and alcohol dependencies will increase
  • Many young people may not practise but will want to be challenged spiritually and to be active socially and so on.

This report then needs to be brought to the attention of the parishioners. Again, there are a variety of ways of doing this but we consider that all of these should be done. A leaflet should be produced and sent to every household in the parish; members of the core group/pastoral council should present the report at Masses over a weekend; there should be a special Parish Assembly at which the report should be presented and discussed. A draft agenda for a Parish Assembly is included in Section E: Resources.

Step three: prepare your vision for the parish
This is in many ways one of the most critical steps in the process. Vision is the most powerful tool which motivates and energises people, especially if they understand and own the vision and have had an opportunity to contribute to it. Forming the vision should be an integral part of the work of the Parish Assembly. Parishioners should have the chance, having heard of the issues, to indicate the kind of parish they want in 5 or 10 years time. The ideas can be grouped under various headings to be worked on after the Assembly. Ideas for development can also be found in official Church sources.

Here are six key areas following the themes of Vatican II and official Church teaching since then. (In Ardmore, we introduced these by a Scripture reflection on the Marriage Feast of Cana. We saw each area as a water jar which we could fill to the brim.)

  • Building community
  • Ecumenism
  • Social issues
  • Empowerment of the laity
  • Involvement of children and young people
  • Marriage and family life

Taking each of these areas for development, ask people to say what changes they would like to see. This process will result in many ideas, some of which will be more useful and practical than others, but the core group/pastoral council will need to take all the ideas and consider them in depth after the Assembly.

Step four: decide your purpose or mission
At a meeting after the Assembly the core group/pastoral council needs to think about the suggestions which were made, and agree the parish Mission Statement. The Mission Statement should be as concise as possible and should pass the elevator test: you are delivering an application for funding for your organisation to a major Government Body and you are in the lift on your own going up five floors to deliver the application. Just as the doors are about to close the Chief Executive of the Department comes into the lift to join you; you have about one minute to tell him/her what your organisation does and why. A Mission Statement can and should be brief, e.g. ‘The Catholic parish of Newry is a Christian faith community which is based on our love for God and for all our people and which is committed to serve all in our parish’.

Step five: decide the aims or goals you want to pursue
This is primarily a task for the core group/pastoral council. Taking each ‘water jar’ theme and considering the ideas which emerged from the vision-building process at the Parish Assembly, the group needs to decide what are the objectives we can set for ourselves under each theme. An example is given below:

Marriage and Family Life:

: celebrate the marriages we have in our parish

: prepare our young people for marriage

: support families, including lone parents, in difficulties

Step six: agree the tasks which need to be undertaken for each objective
Again, this is a task for the core group/ pastoral council. Taking each objective in turn the group agrees the actions needed to achieve the objective. An example is given below:

Objective: celebrate marriage

: Hold special Masses each year for those celebrating 25 years, 50 years of marriage that year; present each couple with a small gift from the parish

: Have a special liturgy on a day such as the Feast of the Holy Family; make part of this an opportunity for couples to renew their marriage vows

: Hold a parish dance or social function for married couples This exercise is repeated for each objective.

Step seven: set targets
Again, this is a task for the core group/pastoral council. Taking each task in turn the group agrees the numbers and timescale. An example is given below:

Task: hold a special liturgy on the Feast of the Holy Family

: 30 families attending, begin preparations in October each year, hold event at end of December

Step eight: identify resources
Again, this is a task for the core group/pastoral council. Taking each task in turn the group agrees who will be responsible for implementation, how much the action will cost, if anything, and where the money will come from. An example is given below: I

Task: hold a special liturgy on the feast of the Holy Family

Resources: the liturgy will be organised by the parish Liturgy
Group (or ACCORD or Marriage Encounter, Teams of Our Lady etc) Costs will be special leaflets and teal coffee afterwards in the parish centre; total estimate £100. Costs will be met from parish resources.

Step nine: prepare the draft plan
All of this detail is then assembled into a parish plan. A page, a more if necessary, should be produced for each theme along the lines set out below:

Theme: Marriage and Family Life

Objective: Celebrate Marriage


1. Special Masses for anniversaries 
2. Liturgy on feast of Holy Family 
3. Social function

30 families attending

Start October for celebration in December


Parish Liturgy Group

: Prepare young people for marriage


Objective: support families, including lone parents, in difficulties


Step ten: submit the plan for approval to the parish
This should be done at a second Parish Assembly but copies of the plan should also be sent to every home and members of the core group/pastoral council should present the plan at Masses over a weekend. A month should be allowed for people to submit comments and then the plan should be formally adopted, perhaps at a special Mass or liturgy.

Preparing the plan is in many ways only the beginning; the plan has to be implemented. Be prepared for ‘implementation dip’ as people who have been working very hard and think their job is done realise the work is only starting. Putting the plan into action requires careful management. People can often be put off by the apparent scale of the task and so it is important to remind them that we do not have to complete the plan in a year or two. There is no real rush. The process of working together is actually more important than what we achieve. Break down the work into small chunks and involve as many people as possible in the process. There can be sense in setting up sub-groups for each of the themes; these should be led by members of the core group/pastoral council, but should have members with special interests or expertise also. Pay particular attention to the involvement of existing parish organisations and make sure they are included. Give the sub-groups the power and resources to do the work and trust them to get on with it but remember that responsibility cannot be delegated and should stay with the core group/pastoral council. Reporting back arrangements should be in place but should be simple.

Arrange to meet annually and review progress; such a meeting could be attended by the core group/pastoral council and all the members of the sub-groups.

Remember also the need to continue developing and supporting the members of the groups; it is critical to keep sharpening the saw.


The process described here has been followed very closely in Newry, Co. Down, Ardmore, Derry, Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan and Tempo, Co. Fermanagh, but the elements of it have been found to be effective in the experience of the parish assemblies in Cork, and in Dublin parishes following the PDR programme, for example. The dynamic of people working together in parishes is pretty similar no matter where they are.

1. Parish Mission
The process needs to begin with a motivational experience. A parish mission is very appropriate because it includes reflection and exhortation, and will be based on prayer and Scripture, which are vital to the dynamic of preparing a community to be led by the Spirit. If a mission is involved, the mission team needs to be briefed in advance: the mission should not emphasise a private spirituality, nor should there be an attitude of convening people for a week of mission only to dismiss them at the end of the week ‘back to normal life’ . This mission is going to be the beginning of something that will last. A parish festival or funday on the final Sunday of the mission can emphasise that the mission is not over, and can celebrate the reality of family and parish community.

2. Listening Exercise
As part of the exploration of the present reality of the parish, a questionnaire circulated at Masses on the last weekend of the parish mission can gather a wide cross-section of views, and can further emphasise that the end of the mission is really the beginning of a new phase in the life of the parish. When the responses to the questionnaire have been professionally analysed, a report, or a summary of the report, can be circulated to every home in the parish, with an invitation to attend a Parish Assembly.

3. Parish Assembly
The Parish Assembly is primarily an opportunity for parishioners to meet. It needs to be several hours long, possibly part of Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The extended time will allow parishioners to develop a vision for the parish, produce a draft mission statement and select a number of areas as priorities for development.

The process of the parish assembly should include prayer, Scripture and group interaction (discussion and sharing). An outside facilitator or facilitators can make a huge difference. People respond well when they feel that they are being genuinely listened to.

4. Carrying the Process Forward
As the Parish Assembly moves towards a conclusion, it will be evident that many good ideas will be lost unless some structure is put in place to carry them forward. Those present can delegate a few people to act as a working group on a short-term basis.

Rather than carrying things forward indefinitely themselves, this group’s main purpose will be to arrange for the setting up of a Parish Pastoral Council. The Parish Pastoral Council will then work with the Parish Priest and other parish staff to pursue the ideas and projects from the Parish Assembly, and to guide the pastoral development of the parish.

5. Parish Pastoral Council
The Parish Pastoral Council will usually consist of ex officio members (parish priest, curate, parish sister or other full-time parish staff), elected members (from geographical areas or other constituencies), and co-opted members (usually to ensure gender balance, age balance etc.). As soon as a Pastoral Council is established, there is need for an induction and formation process for all the members. The parish priest should also participate in the training along with the other members, and an experienced facilitator is essential. Formation and training should continue for a number of months before any major projects are undertaken.

After a few months’ experience of working together, members should elect a chairperson and a communications secretary. If there is a parish secretary in place, she/he might act as a nonvoting member of the Pastoral Council and record the minutes. A draft constitution, for eventual approval by the bishop, should address issues like number of members, term of office, and a cycle of renewal of membership (for example, three or four years, with a number of members retiring each year and being replaced). A sample Draft Constitution is included in Section E: Resources.

6. Prayer, Scripture and Decision-making
The collaborative approach to parish leadership involves meeting, spending time together and together addressing what is important for us as a local faith community in this parish. The Greek word which underlies the word ‘Church’ in the New Testament is ‘ekklesia’, in Latin ‘ecclesia’, which became ‘église’ in French and ‘eaglais’ in Irish. It comes from the Greek verb ‘to call’. As Church we are a people called together.

The whole parish community is called together as the pilgrim people of God and as the Body of Christ. This is expressed particularly as we gather for the Eucharist. The Parish Pastoral Council is called together as a more intense expression of the parish faith community. The meetings of the Parish Pastoral Council are not just business meetings. They should be marked by prayer and Scripture and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The process of decision making has to reflect this faith dimension. Secular decision-making, in business or politics, is often a battle of wills, an adversarial process ultimately resolved by a vote. In a Parish Pastoral Council the process is not my will against yours, but each of us prayerfully seeking the will of God, guided by the Holy Spirit. However, it is important to remember that we are not used to this kind of consensus decision making. The world has been training us all our lives through secular values. It will take a lot of time and practice to develop the processes of ecclesial leadership. What we are learning is in contrast to the world’s ways.

It is also, if the truth be told, in contrast with how we have become accustomed to work in our Church organisations, including the running of our parishes and our dioceses. If we are to achieve the necessary levels of change and development, it will require significant investment of time and money. It will require a serious commitment to training. Priests will have to go through the training processes along with their people, as they learn to work together, to pray together, to progress together.

The cost of training may be reduced if a number of parishes group together to bring training opportunities to their locality. Conferences like the Developing Parish conference in All Hallows College, Dublin, and conferences run by the National Conference of Priests, can provide speakers and facilities which would not usually be available locally. These conferences also create a context for networking: people in one place can derive great encouragement and insight from people engaged in the same process in other places.

The Dublin Handbook for Parish Pastoral Councils has substantial material for training. Groups like the Love is for Life Trust (www.loveisforlife.com) and the Armagh Office of Pastoral Renewal and Family Ministry (www.parishandfamilylife.ie) can provide training and facilitation. Individuals like Martin Kennedy (Boora Co. Offaly) bring a wide range of experience and skills to respond to a growing need.

The training which is needed is not a formal academic training in the first instance. Those who become involved in parish pastoral councils need skills training and experience in working in a group process and a partnership model. Relevant skills would include: committee skills; group working; facilitation; communication, including writing, speaking, listening; planning skills; organisational skills; administration; vision building; negotiating; conflict resolution; and networking skills.

It will be of huge benefit to parishes if training and support is provided at diocesan level. We already have a model in the archdiocese of Dublin. The archdiocese not only has a diocesan pastoral resource office, but has also made provision within each parish pastoral council for a diocesan contact person whose role is to keep in touch with the diocesan office.


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