May 2008
Vestry Orientation

And when the bishop comes...

It’s a standard joke. The bishop and the parish priest are in the sacristy just before the start of the service marking the bishop’s visitation to the congregation. The bishop peeks out of the doorway and notices that very few of the faithful are in attendance. Turning to the priest the bishop exclaims, “Did you tell the people I would be here today?” To which the priest replies, “I’m afraid word did indeed get out!”

Diocesan bishops are required to visit congregations in their diocese at least once every three years. In my experience these visits have been a mixed blessing for all concerned. Congregations and clergy tend to become anxious over these visits and spend a good deal of time getting ready for the event.

In the best of times
In the best of times, this means that the confirmation groups finish their classes. The vestry talks about parish life with the bishop, and the liturgy committee plans the service with the help of the documents provided by the bishop’s office. Often, however, just the opposite occurs: a quick confirmation class is pulled together, the faithful are cajoled to attend the special day’s celebration, and the silver service is brought out for a grand reception so all can “meet and greet” the bishop.

The experiences of bishops during these visitations are similarly diverse. In the best of situations, bishops and their staffs spend considerable time and energy getting ready for visitations and have high expectations for these events. But like many congregations, bishops, too, report frustration over the process of doing parish visitations. The key: If vestries set a congregational development agenda rather than waiting for the bishop to offer his or her own agenda, they will have a stronger voice in the conversation than is typical. Take a risk.

One potential model for planning an episcopal visit is to invite vestry members to gather demographic data and the parish’s vision and mission statement. Give this information, as well as any yearly goals currently being pursued, to the bishop at least two moths prior to the visitation date. Then, one month before the visit the vestry meets to discuss the data. The vestry sends the bishop a copy of the relevant data at least one week prior to the visit and invites the bishop to use the data as a starting place for their discussions during the visitation.

Advantages for both
Discussions of congregational development issues during Episcopal visitations have many advantages for both bishops and the congregations they visit.

First, such discussions tends to shorten the time it takes for new bishops to get to know their churches. Congregations who know and trust their bishop are more likely to ask for help in difficult times.

Second, discussions will improve accountability for planning and growth.

Third, if done yearly, such interaction will maintain a higher level of commitment to the goals that are set; leadership will have a clearer sense of the challenges they face.
Fourth, vestries and bishops will find that the time spent during a visit is creative and enables everyone to work on the adaptive changes we all need to consider especially during this time of deep change in congregational life.
Finally, by engaging in these such discussions we might change: “Oh, it’s you again,” to “Oh, it’s good to see you again” for all concerned.

Rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Roseville, Minnesota, the Rev. Michael Hanley explored the subject of episcopal visitations for his doctoral work at Seabury-Western. 

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