Research and Resources on Pastoral Councils and Consultative Bodies

Diocesan/Eparchial Pastoral Councils "Best Practices"

2004 – 2005
NOTE:  In late 2004 and early 2005 the USCCB Committee on the Laity wrote to every diocesan bishop requesting that he ask the president of his diocesan pastoral council to participate in a short survey.  This survey asked two questions.  First, what is your DPC doing well and why?  Second, what practices are not working well and how could they be improved?
25 Arch/Dioceses w/ DPCs responded:

La Crosse
Lafayette, LA
Rapid City
St. Louis

Things the DPC is Doing Well:
Presidents of DPCs were asked to identify up to three “best practices” and to explain how/why they consider those practices something their council is doing well.

  1. DPC Membership
    15 of 25 noted effective practices regarding DPC membership.
    • 8 DPCs stressed the broad and diverse representation their members provided. 4 of these DPCs discussed ethnic, economic, ecclesiological, gender diversity, etc.  Others focused more on the broad representation they have from all over the diocese and how they achieve this representation.  For example:
      1. 1 diocese has a convocation model for its DPC, which means that all parish council chairpersons serve as members of the DPC.
      2. 1 diocese described the make-up of the DPC as a way of showing that all populations were represented well. The members are ex-officio, nominated, and appointed. Ex officio – bishop, vicar general, chancellor, president of the presbyteral council, general secretary of DPC.  One rep. from each deanery also sits on the council, as well as reps from religious sisters, religious priests, and deacons.
      3. Another diocese described the make-up of its broadly representative DPC.  There are 2 lay delegates from 25 deaneries (clusters of parishes).  There is representation from other groups, including religious men and women, deacons, pastoral associates, the Women’s Commission, the Consejo Pastoral, young adults, and youth. There are about 70 voting voices; 50 are from deaneries.
    • 3 DPCs discussed effective ways members are selected. One said members are selected by the bishop and/or director of mission effectiveness after they are given recommendations from an existing DPC member.  Another mentioned that the diocese had a yearly workshop to explain to potential members what membership on the DPC would involve.
    • 3 DPCs discussed their practices regarding member terms.  One emphasized the usefulness of staggered terms. Another said its members have a 2-year term, and the entire DPC changes each term. This helps them share a common experience of orientation, formation, and service.  Another DPC emphasizes that the regular rotation of members and officials is important.  In their DPC, members are appointed or elected from each deanery for a 3-year term and cannot serve more than 2 terms. Officers serve a 1-year term.  This ensures fresh input.
    • 2 DPCs discussed lay and clergy roles.  One emphasized the importance of a strong lay voice on the DPC.  Another pointed out that the combination of clergy and laity worked well and praised the knowledge and dedication of the clergy who add a lot to the DPC.
  2. DPC Meetings
    13 of 25 dioceses noted effective practices regarding DPC meetings.
    • Several emphasized the importance of regular meetings, whether they meet for only 1 day or over a weekend and whether they meet twice a year or five times a year.
    • 3 emphasized the importance of good facilitation by the chair. 
    • 3 said their meetings were held at different locations in the diocese so members could get a sense for the whole diocese and parishes within it.
    • 1 discussed the importance of a variety of activities at meetings, including large and small groups, social interaction, and prayers
    • 1 explained how representatives of vicariates provide an oral and written report to the DPC about issues concerning their vicariate. If a particular issue is on agenda, reps. are encouraged to provide feedback on it. 
    • 1 DPC tries to find “best practices” at parishes in its diocese.  Parish representatives make a brief presentation of things that are working at their parishes. A pamphlet about each of these is being compiled so everyone can access this info.
    • 1 DPC has an extremely focused agenda for its 5 meetings. At the 1st meeting, the agenda is set when the bishop identifies 3 issues he would like to discuss through the year w/ the DPC. One of these questions is discussed at each of the next 3 meetings.  During the last meeting concerns originating at deanery level are brought to the bishop.
    • Several commented on the importance of an open forum with the bishop at meetings (see “Bishop’s Role”).
    • 1 discussed the centrality of spirituality and prayer to their meetings (others did mention prayer as an item on agenda).
  3. Bishop’s Role
    13 of 25 dioceses emphasized the bishop’s essential role on the DPC.
    • These 13 DPCs made clear the vital importance of a bishop who is involved, accessible, and open to listening to his DPC. Here are some of the practices they emphasized:
      1. At least 7 DPCs stressed the necessity of an open forum with the bishop at meetings. His personal presence at the meeting is key. One DPC has a practice in which the bishop takes anonymous questions from the DPC.
      2. DPC pointed out how important it is that the bishop investigates and/or implements the recommendations of the DPC.
      3. 1 bishop invites the DPC for a thank-you celebration each year. 
  4. DPC Role in Diocese
    12 of 25 dioceses discussed some of the positive roles the DPC plays in the diocese. (Though not specifically noted below, many more than 12 stressed the essential nature of their role as a consultative body for the bishop and an information-sharing tool for the diocese.)
    • 9 DPCs discussed the importance of their work on pastoral/strategic planning for the diocese.
    • 1 DPC said its members are doing a good job as the “eyes and ears of the bishop” in their own parishes.
    • 1 DPC assists the bishop in the development of positions on special topics by providing a wide view of perspectives.
    • 1 DPC provides training and training materials to parishes on the role of Parish Councils.
    • 1 DPC has fulfilled its role as an assessment body by surveying parish-level implementation of pastoral programs.
    • 1 explains how the DPC has enjoyed a good relationship with other councils, with members of the DPC taking part in some of the meetings of the Presbyteral Council and Priestly Life and Ministry Committee.
    • 1 DPC explains how it handles grant allocations from the Archdiocesan Endowment to parishes in “transition areas” and “high growth areas” each year.
  5. DPC’s Relation to Parishes
    10 of 25 dioceses commented on the importance of good practices to connect the DPC and parishes. Below are a few examples of best practices.
    • In one diocese, the bishop meets with Parish Council leaders twice a year. Also, the DPC has established a website to support better communication w/ parishes. Work is underway to pilot and develop local district meetings of Parish Council members and their district rep. on the DPC.
    • One diocese hosts a “Convention of Councils” during which Parish Council leaders speak about their concerns. These concerns are then discussed at a DPC meeting and presented to the bishop. 
    • In an attempt to improve communication between bishop and Parish Councils in one diocese, each of 167 parishes sends a rep to the four-yearly plenary sessions of the DPC.  Info goes directly from Bishop to Parish Councils now.  This DPC also aids the diocese in publishing a booklet to guide Parish Councils in their work.
  6. Meeting Agenda
    8 of 25 dioceses commented on different aspects of agenda preparation and content.  (See also “DPC Meetings” and “Bishop’s Role” for items on agenda.)
    • 3 DPCs point out the importance of having the agenda well in advance of the meeting.
    • 1 DPC receives the agenda in advance along with an article from Church, which they discuss at the meeting.  This gets them all on the same page.
    • 1 DPC describes its agenda: the meeting includes mass/prayer, presentation on diocesan projects, interactive workshops, reports from vicariates, anonymous questions to the bishop, bishop’s remarks.
    • Several DPCs mention that the executive committee and bishop develop the agenda together.
    • 1 DPC has a very focused agenda. They discuss only one topic per meeting and avoid anything that “gets in the way of the discussion between the Cardinal and a group of committed lay people.”
  7. Member Formation
    6 of 25 dioceses commented on the importance of good member formation. 
    • 1 DPC explains how members are oriented together. They have a formation weekend during which the bishop shares his expectations and encourages dialogue.  They have another retreat in the middle of the term.  At each one, the emphasis is given to prayer and community building.
    • 1 DPC has 2-hour in-services for education/training at each meeting.
    • 1 DPC commented that their handbook is full of practical information for new members.
    • 1 DPC emphasized the importance of a yearly weekend retreat.
    • 1 DPC said its members spend a year in training, study, prayer, and formation prior to beginning their duties.
Things About the DPC that Need Improvement:
Council Presidents were asked to identify areas of their Council’s operation that were not working well and that could become more effective.
  1. Coordination with Parishes / Deaneries
    12 of the 25 dioceses indicated that there were communication and cooperation problems between the Diocesan Pastoral Councils and Deaneries and/or Parish Councils.
    • 4 dioceses spoke generally of the need to coordinate the DPC and Parish Councils and/or Deaneries. One of these said that pastors and parish leaders were resistant to working with the DPC.
    • 1 pointed out that their former model of regional representation (presumably representation from the deaneries) did not work well.  Each Parish Council leader now has a place on the DPC, and this works much better.
    • 3 dioceses elaborated on specific problems they have with deaneries/vicariates. One commented that vicariate reps on the DPC are disturbed that their vicariates do not have laity meetings.  The vicariates do not understand the role of the DPC and do not utilize it as a means of communication, hence the link from the parishes to the vicariates into the DPC is almost non-existent. Another observed that the Deanery Councils that provide a link between the DPC and Parish Councils often don’t work well. Another DPC added that if a deanery is not active, then their process doesn’t work.  By the time the bishop’s questions get to a local parish council from the DPC, probably only half of the Parish Councils are participating b/c the questions get stalled by a non-functioning deanery.  A deanery is only as strong as its dean.
    • 1 diocese explains that 20% of parishes do not have a Parish Council, so they do not have a rep on DPC. Some priests seem not to find consultation necessary.
    • 1 diocese says that their DPC doesn’t effectively elicit comments about concerns at the parish level and make them known diocese-wide. Also, the DPC doesn’t speak to the diocese about the needs of the parishes in general.
    • 1 diocese suggested that programs from DPC need to be tailored to the small parishes in the diocese.
  2. DPC’s desire to be an integral, cooperative, and active part of diocesan life
    9 of the 25 dioceses touched on the issue of the DPC’s place in diocesan life.
    • 3 DPCs explained how members wanted to do more for the diocese.  One expressed a desire for more impact on a wider range of diocesan issues through a more interactive relationship with Diocesan Senior Staff. Another diocese explained that members had a difficult time understanding their main role was consultative; they want tasks, projects, and a sense of accomplishment.  Another wants to undertake more activities besides their consultative role.
    • 2 DPCs emphasized that they wanted to be told more about what was going on in the diocese and they wanted follow-up reports on the recommendations they make.
    • 1 DPC emphasized the clergy’s need to listen to the voice of laity.
    • 1 DPC wanted to be kept informed and to help with issues involving magisterial documents, adult formation on the parish level, practical teaching on evangelization.
    • 1 DPC said it is difficult to get the people involved in the DPC process not to see it is not a bureaucratic waste of time.
    • 1 DPC said diocesan offices need a better understanding of the DPC role. Some are threatened by the DPC agenda; others always want to be on it.  
    • 1 DPC said it would be helpful to have a written articulation and clarification of the role the DPC has with all other councils and diocesan staff, for distribution to all councils and staff.
    • 1 DPC said it would be helpful if the bishop provided an articulation of pastoral issues each year so the DPC could effectively focus on pressing areas for reflection and consultation.
  3. Meetings / Manner of Operation
    5 of the 25 said that their DPC’s had problems with some aspect of their meetings /manner of operation.
    • 1 diocese said council members sometimes chat or lament in their small group discussions. They need small group moderators because right now the chairperson floats around and tries to keep them on topic.
    • 1 DPC needs more time for prayer and discernment.
    • 1 DPC wants to strive for 100% attendance at meetings.
    • 1 DPC said there was never enough time to accomplish everything. (This DPC meets 4 times a year for one or two days.)
    • 1 DPC wants to make better use of video-conferencing b/c members have to come from very far distances.
    • 1 DPC said that they need to avoid the idea that DPC works like a larger Parish Council. Not an effective model.
  4. Membership
    5 of 25 dioceses discussed various issues regarding the membership of the DPCs.
    • 1 DPC said sometimes lay members defer to clergy, but the clergy make clear the process is cooperative.
    • 1 DPC said members have tended to be church employees. They are knowledgeable, but there is a risk that they will view themselves as speaking for a constituency like lay pastoral ministers or DREs. Appointing/electing bodies need to be aware of the risk.
    • 1 DPC said member roles and responsibilities could be more clearly defined.
    • 1 DPC said there are supposed to be 2 reps from each deanery and some only have 1 rep.
    • 1 DPC said it must avoid getting bogged down in personal agendas of members
    • 1 DPC said the selection of deanery representatives to the DPC is problematic. The rep usually ends up as someone from the Dean’s parish.
  5. Membership Formation
    4 of 25 dioceses said that their DPC needed to improve or establish a good orientation process for new members.
    • 1 DPC writes that it is developing a precise written description of what is expected of members. This DPC notes that it would be helpful if there were useful orientation tools provided by the USCCB, to which the DPCs could add their local information.
  6. Agenda
    2 of 25 dioceses brought up issues with the meeting agenda.
    • 1 DPC said that the agenda tends to be ad hoc. They are not sure the DPC is always directing attention to what is needed. 
    • 1 DPC said that the agenda could be enhanced by advance notice from the bishop.  They need earlier planning.
  7. Other
    • 1 DPC said they need to address the changing needs of cultural and ethnic communities in diocese more effectively.
    • 1 DPC said email should become a means of communication for greater efficiency.
    • 1 DPC said that there is sometimes a reluctance to tackle the difficult issues; the truth is sometimes sacrificed to pastoral compassion.

Diocesan/Eparchial Pastoral Councils Research (1997)

In 1997, the Committee on the Laity and the Committee on Pastoral Practices determined in a national study that 102 U.S. dioceses and eparchies (54%) had a Pastoral Council.  Another 27 (14%) were planning to establish one.  Click here for the executive summary of the study.

A Diocesan Pastoral Council is not by definition a "laity council."  It is a council representative of the entire diocese and, therefore, is composed of laity, religious, and clergy.  In actuality, however, the majority of its members are lay men and women.  Consequently, the Diocesan Pastoral Council can be a very effective way for the bishop to consult with laity and to ensure that the lay voice is heard in the pastoral planning and direction he takes within the diocese.

The bishops’ committees commissioned a background paper on Diocesan/Eparchial Pastoral Councils in the hope of promoting more and better lay participation using existing structures within the Church.  We share this background paper on pastoral councils in the spirit expressed so well by the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The Council wrote:

To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the church. Should the occasion arise this should be done through the institutions established by the church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence, and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ (#37).

Diocesan/Eparchial and Parish Pastoral Councils Research (2004)

Following up on the 1997 work described above, the Committee on the Laity surveyed bishops in 2004 about the establishment of diocesan/eparchial pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils in their area.  The Committee determined that increasing numbers of U.S. dioceses and eparchies (60%) had a Pastoral Council, as did the parishes (83%) in their geographic area.  Click here for the Report on Diocesan and Parish Pastoral Councils.

As more and more of the laity come to a deeper understanding of their baptismal call to participate actively in the Church’s life and mission, the work of consultative bodies, often comprised predominantly of lay men and women, can truly flourish.  The committee shares the results of this research on pastoral councils in the spirit expressed by the entire United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their statement Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium. The Bishops wrote:

These various councils, at all levels of church leadership, are opportunities for the Church to listen to the wisdom of the laity.  So, too, are diocesan synods and pastoral planning processes, which bring together all segments of the Church for mature deliberation about what priorities a diocesan Church should pursue.  The challenge is to nurture the growth and development of these various consultative bodies (p. 23).

Resource Papers for Diocesan and Eparchial Pastoral Councils

The articles below are offered as both theological and practical resources for dioceses and eparchies that either have or are considering establishing a pastoral council.  These articles are the result of the contributions of a combination of lay people, religious, and clergy who have reflected on the important role that consultative bodies play in assisting a bishop or eparch in the effective leadership of the local Church.  Links to especially relevant internet resources follow.

* Note: All Resources Have Been Approved by the Committee on the Laity

Additional Resources on the internet: