Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania
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Eight Good Parish Council Practices
Improving Effectiveness & Results

Tired of talking about fixing the church steps? Try this path to reinvigorating your Parish Council. (PC)

1. Decide -- Do You Want to Improve? 
When asked about their effort and results many PCs often opine that they're "doing a decent job". In part because they "do the job" the way its always been done. To stimulate serious introspection ask: "Can this experience be better?" "Can we be more effective?" "Can we have fun doing this?" "Do we make a difference?" "Are we truly pulling the parish into a brighter future?" And: "What are the 2-3 most important things this parish does? How often do we as a council talk about these?"

If your council is truly satisfied with how it operates and the results it generates-- enjoy your rut. However if a reasonable number of members desire to model a sense of excellence and improvement acknowledge that. And get started.   


2. Understand What You (PC) Are NOT

In many cases the assumptions that limit the effectiveness of PCs begin with a poor understanding of its role and purpose. These are often the result of inaccurate and anachronistic influences too numerous to mention.  


So lets be clear. The parish council is NOT the 'business arm' of the parish. Its role is more than bills, budgets and buildings ("B3"). It includes these -- but it is not limited to strictly "material" concerns.  Likewise the PC should not be:

"A church council without a clear sense of its specific role cannot resist the gravitational pull that can drag a community of spiritual leaders back to behaving like a business board."

"Governance and Ministry",  

Dan Hotchkiss 

  • the parish fire department
  • the parish managers -- much less micro-managers  (Express the results you desire --not how to do it.)  
  • the parish worker staff  
  • the finance committee
  • the elected critics
  • a cadre of 'yes persons'  
  • a topic of parish jokes.    

Each of the above may deserve further development -- but we think you get it.  


3. Understand What You ARE: Proper PC Role and Responsibilities

Simply put...


The PC is co-responsible with the rector for the health and vibrancy of the parish. Under his guidance they work together to drive and inspire growth, change and development to help the parish to fulfill its total mission as a Christian community.


In filling this role three key focus areas of the PC are: vision, planning,and oversight.  Much more can be said --but this gets us started.  


4. Name Change? "Board of Trustees" to "Parish Council" 

Chances are good your PC has been long referred to as "The Board" or the "Board of Trustees".

Such names, absorbed from the secular culture, reflect a business mentality and related assumptions that don't fit the church. Try simply: "Parish Council". Some use "Council of Ministries". A new label may help to convey to PC members, and parishioners, a broader, Christ -centered purview to the parish journey.  But realize also that without new attitudes, practices and efforts a name change for your "board" is hollow and hardly worth the effort.  

Possible Annual Council Calendar
Monthly Focus Topic
(Target ~60% of meeting time) 
Review Plan for Annual mtg Annual meeting prep; assignments, reports
Member orientation; review goals; council policy manual; performance objectives 
Planning Retreat: Articulate defined concept of parish future. Priority definition; goal setting; emerging issues   
Focus topic: Review Risk Related Issues: Misconduct; Safety, Facilities; Insurance 
Ministries Planning: start, stop; continue; revise
Ministry area review: e.g. Education; Outreach or Evangelization
3 Yr Vision budget update 
 Miscellaneous topic from annual retreat. 
Stewardship Ministry Review
Policy book review; nominating committee
 PC Self evaluation: How are we doing? 
 Finalize budget for annual mtg 

5. Annual Council Calendar  

With a new name should come new behaviors. One effective change is to adopt an Annual Council Calendar. Most topics need not be covered at every PC meeting. Financial reports, too often the centerpiece of monthly meetings, are probably not needed more than 6-8 times per year. Instead plan various foundational and development topics for exploration in particular months each year. See the table at right for an example schedule.   

(In future issues of Parish Pulse we'll review a variety of other good meeting practices.)    

6. Annual Parish Council Retreat

A critical part of the PC calendar is an annual (or semi-annual) retreat. Setting a 1-3 year vision and planning to get there are backbone jobs of the PC. Rising above the day to day to discern direction, consider the bigger picture and explore emerging parish dynamics occasionally requires a special, well planned, extended session.  

7. Good Practices Document  

This point may be overkill for a small parish of 25 persons, nonetheless the governance job of the PC can be done best if a few basic policies are spelled out. It is good to have a policy for: donor restricted gifts, restricted gift acceptance; transparency and conflict of interest, donor confidentiality, stewardship campaign practices etc.

Good parish councils hold a PC retreat every 1-2 years. Planning and effective facilitation are important to be sure the time is well spent.

Set aside part of one PC meeting to review these annually. Look here for a starter document.  


8. Vote the Mission  

The "owner" of a parish is not its parishioners but rather its "mission". (The basic Christ Centered purpose of this parish in this place.) PC members do not advance or protect personal interests. Rather they act as unbiased guarantors of the whole mission --not a portion of it. As such they work to discern the interests of past parishioners and current members both the "core" and the "marginal". They also are responsible to future parishioners -- who never get a chance to raise their hands -- as well as other stakeholders such as the larger Church, neighbors and local governmental officials.