NEWARK, New Jersey — Parish pastoral council members are quietly at work in parishes across the Archdiocese of Newark.
“Councils are trying to read the pulse of the parish and improve the life of the parish,” said Dominican Donna Ciangio, archdiocesan chancellor. “It’s an opportunity for collaboration between the parishioners and pastor and staff so that the pastor hears from people on the ground what’s going on.”
Before coming to Newark at the urging of Newark’s Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin in 2018, Sister Donna spent over 20 years building small faith communities with Renew International, based in New Jersey, and the now-closed National Pastoral Life, which was in New York.
Now she is on a mission to do the same in the Archdiocese of Newark.
Ciangio and her team have connected with over 100 parish pastoral councils. They plan to continue training in the fall and next year so that all 212 parishes in the archdiocese can get started or continue to develop and orient new members.
“Every parish should have a parish pastoral council,” she said, noting that Tobin has prioritized the formation of these councils as part of his “Forward in Faith Together” vision for the archdiocese.
To this end, Ciangio has been presenting workshops to help parishes form new councils or improve already existing teams. Workshops also focus on strategic planning and parish vitality.
At St. Raphael Parish in Livingston, New Jersey, a new social concerns ministry sprung up when parishioners saw a need and acted.
“A group of people came to us and said we’d like to form a social concerns ministry,” said Karen Kundla, president of St. Raphael’s parish pastoral council. “We talked to them about what they wanted to do and gave input. They felt very strongly about doing it, and so they chose some activities that they could start with.”
During the pandemic, parish volunteers fixed up an unused room in the parish and put the call out for essential food items.
“We filled an entire room with food. Then, the ministry said if you just call the office, we’ll deliver food to your porch contact-free,” Kundla told Jersey Catholic, the archdiocesan news outlet. “Our parish is incredibly good at supporting people in need.”
Last year the ministry also collected backpacks for needy schoolchildren, gave away Easter baskets and Mother’s Day gifts for mothers in a women’s shelter.
Kundla, who taught mathematics and was an engineering director before retiring, said her expertise and gifts are helping the parish pastoral council. The same is true for the others on the team.
Recently the council came together to review contractor bids for church repairs. They carefully ranked each one and analyzed the pros and cons.
“The council had an incredibly broad and deep base in how to do a review of contracts,” Kundla said. “I felt like I was back at work doing reviews of contractors. We did a fantastic analysis. I was so proud of the people there. It’s an incredibly rich team.”
The group also works closely with the parish finance council.
Over its 62 years, St. Raphael has had a large influx of people with diverse backgrounds and interests, all of whom make for a vibrant family, she said. The parish pastoral council was recently restructured to better represent this diversity.
“It’s become a point of pride that we have gone from a very tight-knit group to a tight-knit and diverse group,” Kundla said.
There are currently 27 ministries in the parish and the parish council stays connected with all of them, offering help and support and relying on them for ideas to further the parish’s mission.
The council also advises the pastor, Father Jose Erlito Ebron, from a broad base of personal experience and helps him make critical decisions.
“He is very good at making decisions, but in a corporation, you need somebody to talk to, and we’ve been that somebody for Father Erlito when needed,” Kundla said. “One of the things I first noticed when I became more active in this parish was that we Catholics expect our priests to be CEOs and CFOs that know everything about how to run a corporation.
“But, in a corporation, you have a base of people who can give you help and can give you advice, and this council became more of that.”
Kundla said that when she and other council members attended Sister Donna’s workshop in 2019, a key takeaway was learning about the council’s role in supporting the pastor.
It is vital for pastors to hear what parishioners have to say and what the needs are in the parish, said Ciangio.
She also stressed that pastoral activity should focus on helping people encounter Christ, noting in one of her presentations: “A personal encounter with Christ, especially in the sacraments, compels us to a greater participation in mission.”
Successful pastoral planning also should include evaluating the effectiveness of existing parish ministries and recommending changes when needed.
One of the things Ciangio advises new councils to do is conduct surveys with parishioners. She uses simple questions such as “What do you like about the parish?” or “What would you like to see happen at the parish?”
She recalled that at one of the parishes she worked in, there were hundreds of responses about the quality of the music.
“So, they had to take an analytical look at how they handle liturgy,” she said.
Sometimes a parish will discover a whole demographic they weren’t even aware of. For example, St. Aloysius Parish in Caldwell, New Jersey, started a Spanish-language Mass a few years ago after realizing there was a substantial Hispanic population in town.
“It’s not the kind of things that you think about necessarily,” Ciangio said. “You might realize there is a growing population of younger people that requires the formation of a baptism ministry.”
Such a ministry would welcome parents from pregnancy and beyond to keep them connected to their parish, she said.
“We need to do that for people who get married in our parishes,” Ciangio said. “How do we stay connected with them?”
She said that in one parish, thousands of apartment units were recently built next door to the church. This presents a possible evangelization opportunity, she noted.
“When you look at these new apartments, you have to ask yourself, what do we do about that?” Ciangio said.
“Are there people there that are Catholic? How do we reach out to them? Are there people there who are unchurched? Can we leave them a card? So that’s part of what planning would do. And that’s what the pastoral council has to think about.”
Ciangio said it is crucial right now for parishes to figure out how to welcome people back to Mass as the country comes out of the pandemic. Parishes may need to form welcome committees that utilize digital media and other tools to connect with their community.
“Creating relationships is a huge thing,” she said, adding that ultimately, the goal is to develop a sense of mission for parish life centered around Jesus’ life-giving mission and the call to spread the Gospel.
Agnish is communications manager for the Archdiocese of Newark.