January 2008
Vestry Meetings

How to lead effective vestry meetings

Ugh. How many vestry meetings have you attended that went late into the night? The later the time the longer the meeting drags on. I inherited the “Approval of the Past Minutes — Treasurer’s Report — Old Business — New Business” approach to agenda making. If you want to have really long meetings, use this tried and tired method. Oh, and don’t send out an agenda beforehand, either. Instead, hand out the agenda at the beginning of the vestry meeting. Better yet, ask the vestry at the beginning of the evening what should be on the agenda for that particular meeting. This approach will guarantee a long and drawn out meeting where much is discussed and probably very little accomplished. There is a better way!

Planning around these four areas is the way to both a shorter and a more effective vestry meeting.

Formation in the Christian community is the first priority for the vestry. When does the vestry learn the skills necessary to be an effective vestry? When and how are members formed as a community? When do they learn the best practices of effective churches? A helpful acronym for what to do during vestry formation is VHS – Vision, Huddle, and Skill

Vision concerns the “big picture” of what the church is about. Huddle is the time for sharing, either personal sharing, or “good news” stories of what God is doing in the parish through Evening Prayer, devotions, or Eucharist. Skill is the time for learning best practices, how to read a financial report, balance sheet, and so on. Then, the business part of the meeting can begin. As formation is job one of the vestry, thirty to forty-five minutes at the top of each meeting for this task is key.

Information needs no discussion or decision by the vestry: it is keeping people in the loop. This section includes items such as: new members, upcoming events of note, announcement of new staff members or administrative issues.

Discussion covers those things where feedback is needed to do some brainstorming, but about which the vestry is not ready to decide. I strongly recommend that nothing be presented to the vestry for an immediate decision without having been discussed for the month prior. To engage in discussion without pressing for a decision allows for a much freer exchange of ideas and without feeling the pressure of having to convince others right on the spot. 

Decisions should be made by the vestry only after an issue has been discussed for the prior month(s) — unless it is a “slam dunk,” and there are very few of those. Using this approach to setting the agenda results in the decision-making items taking up the least amount of time, because all of the discussion will already have taken place. The wise pastor will know not to put anything on the decision agenda unless he or she already knows the outcome.

Another point should be made about the month (at least) between the time that an item is put on the discussion part of the agenda and the time for making a decision: the pastor should spend that month talking to vestry members, listening and addressing concerns, and convincing where appropriate. Again, the wise pastor will not put anything on the decision agenda unless he or she already knows the outcome.

Finally comes the treasurer’s report. Placing the treasurer’s report at the end of the meeting does two things. First, it emphasizes that finances follow mission and vision rather than determine mission and vision. Second, after spending all that time and energy on these other issues, vestry members are usually too tired to fuss much about finances (grin).

The Rev. Canon Neal O. Michell is the canon missioner for the Diocese of Dallas, which has shown consistent growth in attendance, membership, and income over the past ten years. He is a recognized leader in congregational development throughout the Episcopal Church.

This article is part of the January 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Meetings