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The Life and Evolution of a Parish Council

“…that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)

Though typically the governing body of a parish is termed a parish council, one does find some parish councils that are called the board of trustees or the directors. In church organizations that are not parishes, one more often finds the terms “board” or “directors” utilized, such as the board of trustees of a seminary, service agency, or the members of a diocesan council.

The author of this article, who has worked in well over 100 Orthodox parishes and organizations in all jurisdictions as a consultant, often heard priests lament that their parish councils were more of a burden than a help, that they were characterized by intransigence, secularism, apathy, shortsightedness or a watchdog mentality. In parishes that are chronically challenged to find sufficient funds for operations or the annual budget, the parish council often becomes overly preoccupied with finance, cost-cutting and fundraising.

It is the conviction of the author that it is the priest who must bear the primary responsibility for developing his parish council and facilitating evolution to more enlightened models of parish council performance. Unfortunately, the rigorous curriculum of a seminary education does not allow time for training in professional nonprofit institutional development, which includes board or parish council development. The nonprofit community has developed an enormous body of materials on board development. Through experience the author offers the thoughts below on the subject according to Orthodox ecclesiology and contextuality.

A vibrant, developed, governing and activistic parish council is a joy to behold and has the potential to be an indispensable ally to the priest in the spiritual development of the parish and a source of significant emotional support for the priest in the often lonely task of parish ministry. George Washington said, “Discipline is the soul of an army; it makes small numbers formidable.” A well led and highly developed parish council has the ability to transform a parish for the same reason – though few in number, they are formidable.

The collection of materials on parish council development in this category of the Library is offered to the dedicated leaders of Orthodox parishes and institutions in an effort to assist them in their essential task of leading their organizations.

Three classic phases of parish council evolution will be described. These are:

1) The organizing parish council that can assume the form of either a leading parish council or a following parish council

2) The institutional parish council

3) The governing parish council

The general evolution of a parish council, when the principles of professional nonprofit board development are applied may be illustrated in the following graphic.

The three parish councils modalities that will be described are typical of those that occur in Orthodox church life, but they are not universal. Nor is the evolution from one form to the next inevitable. There are significant variations – especially in church life. These differences present their own unique challenges for successful parish council development. Six of these are:

1) The parish council that is appointed, not elected; this may occur at the inception of a new parish or when conflict arises to such a point within a parish that the bishop dismisses the seated council and appoints a new one;

2) The parish council whose members are elected by constituents and therefore view themselves as representatives of the interests of constituents; this may occur when parish communities view themselves more as an assembly of clans or those composed of different ethnic heritages;

3) The organizing, leading parish council that already assumes fundamental leadership responsibilities that typically belong to the priest; these typically come into existence in the formative stages of a new parish before a priest is assigned;

4) The council of professionals – rarely found in parish life, these are more typically found in Orthodox service organizations such as schools; the council is primarily composed of professional educators, whose education, training and experience are closely aligned with the mission of the organization;

5) The corporate council – comprised of staff and internal members of the organization, e.g., a monastery.

6) The complex parish council – one that may have any combination of appointed members, members elected

by a general assembly, corporate members, members elected by constituents and “professional” members.

Stage One: the Leading Group of Volunteers

Leading or controlling parish councils are usually formed by volunteers who gather together to begin work on establishing a parish. However, this manifestation of parish council may also come into existence as the result of a succession of poorly performing priests. The parish council must begin to manage the parish due to the erratic or undependable behavior of a priest. They often share the following characteristics:

  • Determined band of warriors who give time and energy to a cause to which they share a passionate commitment;

  • May be small at the beginning and usually quite homogeneous and made up of like- minded souls who are explicitly willing to do the tasks, however mundane, needed to get the parish up and running;

  • As task-oriented parish councils, they quickly develop a strong sense of ownership;

  • Usually play a leading role in raising funds or damage control, which increases their sense of ownership of the parish;

  • Even when the parish is established or the community turbulence subsides, leading parish councils may have some difficulty accepting the parish leadership of their first priest or a new priest;

  • Parish council members are attached to volunteer work;

  • Apprehensive about delegating to staff tasks that they enjoy;

  • May be reluctant to share the power and authority that has been theirs alone;

  • Sometimes founding parish council members would like to be the community leaders;

  • When a priest is assigned, it may be clear from the outset that this person is an employee, someone who is expected to follow the parish council’s lead and implement its mandates;

  • Parish council members may become ambivalent about whether they want the priest to take charge so that they can perform fewer tasks or whether they want to maintain control over the parish;

  • New priests often have to wait for some time before they are trusted and can become effective in a leadership role;

  • Founding or damage control oriented parish council members may have difficulty transitioning to other models of parish council performance.

Stage Two: the Following Group of Volunteers

Following parish councils are selected by a leader who wants to start a parish or organization and who wants to create a supportive parish council. They often share the following characteristics:

  • They are usually small;

  • They are usually homogeneous;

  • Typically the leader knows them well;

  • Parish council members’ interests closely akin to the leader’s interests;

  • Parish council meetings are informal with members content to hear reports, to advise and to offer encouragement;

  • The tasks of parish council members are often unclear and assume the form of tasks normally done by staff;

  • Parish council members share a common commitment to the founding purpose of the parish or organization and more importantly, to the vision of the leader;

  • Following parish councils are usually not working parish councils;

  • Following parish councils commonly do not develop as intense of a healthy sense ofresponsibility for the good estate of the parish as other models of parish councils;

  • They usually do not play a significant role in fundraising – they expect the leader to dothat job because he or she’s done pretty much everything up to this point.

Stage Three: The Institutional Parish Council

Most parishes arrive at the institutional parish council stage by the natural evolution that occurs with a growing parish or organization. Parish management becomes more complex and more demanding and volunteers are not equipped with time or experience to bear the burden of parish leadership and management so more of this is handed over to the priest and to the staff. Some characteristics of the Institutional Parish Council:

  • Fundraising begins to assume a familiar pattern with many volunteers involved;

  • The parish council begins to move from staff-like tasks associated with the leading parish council or from the cheer leading nature of the following parish council to assuming responsibility for the parish’s wellbeing and development;

  • Parish council members begin to help plan and execute the parish’s ministries, oversee its finances, and ensure managerial integrity;

  • New and more balanced relationships with the priest and staff develop in terms of sharing power and authority; parish councils begin to trust the priest and defer to his leadership in important areas of church life;

  • The parish council chair and the priest emerge as the principal leaders – the parish council chair leads the parish council and the priest manages and leads the staff and the community;

  • As parish councils become larger and more diversified, committees become more important; they engage in planning, financial oversight, and development of job descriptions; the nominating committee becomes influential; a development committee is formed to accept an increasingly significant role in fundraising;

  • The staff accepts its accountability to the parish council and the parish council accepts both the responsibility of self-accountability and a shared accountability with the priest;

  • If it is a following parish council, it begins to accept responsibility for ensuring that the parish has the resources it needs to operate; a leading parish council may for the first time begin to trust the staff and its leader to manage the parish’s affairs;

  • Parish councils at this stage generally become larger, although the growth is not very carefully planned; parish council recruitment, selection and training are unfocused. Sometimes there is a rush to find “good people” or the “right names”;

  • The transition to the institutional parish council requires large amounts of the time from the priest and staff as committees require staff support and new parish council members are integrated into the parish council;

  • If staff and parish council leadership is strong and is intent on making change occur, the transition to the institutional parish council can be accomplished in three years, but not often faster.

Stage Four: The Governing Parish Council

As the institutional parish council dynamic takes hold, the parish council itself becomes more self-aware. It may begin to accept the need for additional subsequent transitions. As the parish grows and becomes more successful, the parish council’s importance increases and the demands placed upon it increase. To move from the institutional mode to the governing mode requires a deliberate and conscious effort accompanied by significant change, which may be met with resistance. As is well documented in the scriptures, most people are uncomfortable with meaningful change.

As stated at the beginning of this document, it is the priest, together with the parish council chair and perhaps a governance committee that must accept primary responsibility for facilitating evolution from an institutional parish council to a governing parish council. It will not happen naturally, or by an impetus of the parish council itself.

The six primary attributes of the governing parish council are the following:

  • Fidelity to the Orthodox faith

  • Fiduciary oversight

  • Policy formulation

  • Advocacy for the mission of the parish

  • Strategic intent

  • Development of sufficient resources (time, talent and treasure)

Parish councils govern, led by the parish council chair. The priest leads the parish and manages the office and the staff. The parish council and the priest achieve these objectives with cooperation, trust, good communication and mercy, all the while “bearing one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Governance does not mean management. Governance means the judicious exercise of authority. It means guiding influence. To govern implies the aim of keeping a wise and straight course for the good of the whole. To govern responsibly means being the first to accept accountability for performance. Good governance describes the primary purpose of a parish council or board of trustees.

The following developments are often associated with the transition to and the activity of a governing parish council.

  • Raising funds from individuals often becomes one of the most important components of a mature parish council’s resource development; more and more, it becomes the parish council’s responsibility, supported by staff to do the fundraising;

  • As the parish grows and expands its service, the need appears to have a carefully designed program of thoughtfully identifying, cultivating, recruiting, orienting, training and integrating new parish council members into their roles;

  • The parish council finds it necessary to delegate to stronger and more independent committees many of the tasks for which it had previously assumed corporate responsibility;

  • New and important staff positions become necessary, causing the parish council to re- think the organizational structure (parish manager, second priest, full time fundraiser, director of outreach and evangelization, etc.);

  • The transition to the governing parish council is less painful than the transition from the leading or following parish council to the institutional parish council because the parish council understands both the needs of the parish and its own particular responsibilities; parish council and staff leadership share a common vision for the development of the parish council;

  • The parish council is principally adding new functions while delegating some old ones;

  • This transition however, may be marked by some members of the parish council, who having experienced the leading parish council, may be apprehensive about losing an intense sense of ownership, continuing contact and feeling of direct participation;

  • Some members may also experience considerable ambivalence about delegating to major committees the responsibility and authority for significant tasks;

  • Parish council members accept the role of advocate for the mission of the church and the role as advocate of the mission of the local parish within the church;

  • Parish councils deliberate more on policy objectives than on policy language;

  • Parish councils think and act strategically always bearing in mind the essential question of strategic planning: “What do we wish to become?”;

  • Decisions and actions are mission and information based, rather than personality based;

  • An advisory committee may form to expand the influence of the parish council;

  • Serving on the parish council becomes a prestigious opportunity rather than a boring,onerous task;

  • Individual parish council members accept the need for accountability – they often set goals, targets and expectations for themselves;

  • The parish council works primarily at the pre-operational and post-operational stages of planning, providing overall guidance at the beginning of initiatives and evaluations of achievements and audits of performance at the completion of work.

In the natural dynamism that always exists between leadership and management, clergy and laity, oversight and governance it may prove useful to always remember and apply this famous Latin dictum: ” In necessary is unit as, in dubiis libertas, in omnibuscaritas (commonly translated as “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things” or more literally as “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in everything compassion”). It is often incorrectly attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, but seems to have been first used in the 17th century by the Archbishop of Split – Marco Antonio de Dominis.

Though most universities, hospitals, and service agencies have learned the value of a deliberate program of board development, the Orthodox church continues to lag in this area. The difference between governance and management is not always easy to discern. Yet it is precisely this blurring that causes so much misunderstanding in a parish. Priests try to govern or parish councils try to lead or manage.

Board development brings the best of leadership to the fore, maximizing the talents, gifts and strengths of the governing body.

One of the most important assets of any church institution is a fully developed governing board or parish council. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. An undeveloped board can easily become an adversarial or intrusive board. For a board to be active and effective the staff must understand the theory and methodology of board development. Governing boards constantly evolve and devolve. Therefore, a conscientious, ongoing program of board development is required.

Parish councils are complex organisms. Beyond the full parish council assembly there are committees that may also benefit from the involvement in a board development program. It is difficult to disassociate board development from the tasks of board work. These include governance, strategic planning, the recruitment and nomination of future board members, board self-assessment, determining mission and purposes, providing appropriate feedback to the work of the priest, preserving and expanding capital assets, fiduciary oversight, ensuring legal and ethical integrity, and the embodiment of the holy Orthodox faith.

A board development process might include an independent review of board documentation, a board self-assessment (sometimes called a “self-evaluation”), observation of board meetings by a governance expert followed by a written report to the priest and parish council chairman or the CEO and the board chair. Other strategies may include teaching seminars on board development, service and organization; a study of how information is presented to the board, at what level, and in how much detail; the compilation of key strategic indicators for board reporting; leadership retreats and the distribution of board development materials.

Serious board development requires a meaningful commitment of time and energy but serious board development results in a seriously performing governing council.


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