May 2008
Vestry Orientation

Who is responsible for what?

John Coburn, former bishop of Massachusetts and former president of the House of Deputies, once remarked that he liked to keep the canons of the church “behind” him for support but “not in front” of him as an impediment. That same kind of understanding is necessary for an effective relationship between vestry members and rectors. Working together to provide healthy parish leadership, specific canonical responsibilities are as follows:

The vestry’s role:

  • To be agents and legal representatives of the parish in all matters concerning corporate properties; and the relations of the parish to its clergy;
  • To ensure that standard business methods, as outlined in Title I, Canon 14, Section 2, will be observed;
  • When a parish is without a rector, to see that worship continues and to call a new rector;
  • To nominate persons for holy orders and other offices as appropriate.

The rector’s role:

  • Worship and spiritual life;
  • Selection and oversight of assisting clergy;
  • Use and control of all buildings and furnishings
  • Education of all ages in the scriptures...and in the exercise of their ministry as baptized persons;
  • Stewardship education for all ages;
  • Preparation for baptism, confirmation, reception and reaffirmation;
  • Announcing the bishop’s visit with the warden and vestry, and providing information about the congregation’s spiritual and temporal state; 
  • Applying “open plate” offerings from one Eucharist a month to charitable use;
  • Reading communications from the House of Bishops at worship;
  • Recording baptisms, marriages, confirmations and burials in the parish register.

Looking at the two canonical lists, one would think that vestries don’t have much to do with parish program, but that would be a misreading, for no one person can do all the things on the “rector” list. And so, functionally, in most congregations the rector and vestry will operate as a partnership, with committees assisting a rector in determining direction and carrying out the work of stewardship, education, worship, confirmations, building usage, and charitable giving, etc.

It is good to know that a rector is not overstepping his/her bounds when making an executive decision, for canonically he/she is the responsible party for most program areas. But he/she will need, and count on, the help given by vestry members to make it all happen.

Leonard Freeman is the rector of St. Martin’sby- the-Lake in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota. Canonical summary reprinted from The Vestry Resource Guide with permission from The Episcopal Church Foundation.

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