May 2008
Vestry Orientation

Good vestry members: born or grown?

I’ve often wondered — are good vestry members just born that way, or are they people who take on the job and grow into it? I think I could make a case for either one. I’ve known, and I bet you have, too, people who serve all their life in their church’s leadership cadre — part time on the vestry, other times just “on call” for whatever leadership is needed.

Then there are the others — cajoled, nominated, and then elected against their own considerable hesitation, but who grab on, learn the job, and become outstanding leaders, sometimes serving again and again.

Either way, I’ve seen how much difference just two or three good vestry members can make in the life of a parish. I hope you have a full dozen on your vestry. If you DON’T, part of your job is to BE the kind of vestry person who makes the others move from wherever they are to “outstanding.”

I’m telegraphing my message. Whatever kind of a vestry person you are now — you can grow in the job. Lots of experience and born to the job? Get better. Just starting and uncertain how to go about it? Get better. Here are a few tips:

Growing. Nobody’s got it made. Everybody is called to be more than they’ve been before. Each of us can learn from one another, because ultimately we are being called by God, not simply by the nominating committee. God is calling us to give ourselves to helping this parish community BE a place where all of us are being led from where we’ve been, to where God needs us to be.

Attentiveness. We need to be ATTENTIVE to what’s going on in ourselves and in others. I recommend what I call the “index card” method of spirituality (pardon my being so prosaic, but it’s how I think and what I do). Take an index card and jot on it the people, the groups, the issues you want yourself and God to be attentive to. Stick the card in your pocket or in a book you’re working on — a place where it can be inconspicuous, but accessible. Be sure to put on the list SOME people you’re at odds with or issues that bug you. Then, whenever you have a couple of minutes, pull it out and review the names and issues (don’t worry about what to ask or say about them — just run them through your mind. The rest will take care of itself). And you might want to put all the other vestry names on it, too. One card. Not a bunch of them.

Money. This is a bear cat. On a vestry, money is more than it is in the rest of your life. You have to pay attention to the budget — to what money can help the parish deal with and what you can’t do because of shortages. You have a responsibility about it. However your calling from God is for more than that — it is not to balance the budget, but to learn to be generous! That’s where your personal growth as a disciple diverges from the vestry job. 

The vestry job is management, planning, decision-making; your personal job is to move yourself from self-centeredness to becoming a giving person. Your job is to be a responsible leader of the parish institution, to gather and use its resources to do its job. Simultaneously, you have the call to become a better user of the resources with which God entrusted you.Getting clear about your role doesn’t solve the “bear cat” issue, but it will help you lead the vestry in its fiscal responsibility while also helping your fellow vestry members become increasingly generous.

Being there. To be a winner, they say the most important thing is just BEING THERE. I want to say the same thing about being a good vestry person. Being there is what needs to count most. You need to be there. EVERY SUNDAY, not just now and then. You need to be there for the special vestry events — retreats, meetings, whatever. Your PRESENCE is important — as a reminder to yourself of your calling, as a reminder to others that this is God’s church and you are on the team, as a reminder to all those others who may need to feel support in their ministries, some of whom may feel uncertain or unsupported.

As a vestry person, you have a chance to make a difference in your own life and in your parish. Being on the vestry is a job. Sometimes a hard job. But the opportunity and the calling is much broader and deeper. You are being invited to grow in grace as Jesus’ disciple.

A friend of many Episcopal congregations and the author of numerous articles and books, the Rev. Loren B. Mead served from 1974 to 1994 as founding president of the Alban Institute in
Washington, D.C.

This article is part of the May 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Orientation