November 2007
Sharing Mutual Leadership

Beware a Theology of Entitlement

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

A young woman who has asked for a spot on a vestry agenda comes right to the point: “I speak for those of us who don’t like the changes in the worship service.”

A discussion follows, lengthy enough for the woman to become impatient. She then tosses out the zinger that is sure to knot the stomachs of all clergy and vestries. “These people have been here a long time. They are old and some are sick. Don’t they deserve to have the kind of worship they want?”

It is a question that crosses the bounds of mere fear and resistance and longing. It is a question that falls within the embrace of a theology of entitlement.

And before a vestry can begin to address its response — which has, by the very quality of its being spoken aloud, placed the group on the horns of a familiar dilemma — two things are of critical importance:

  • to examine the question itself
  • and to know the role of the vestry.

Look again at the question posed to the vestry. “Don’t they deserve to have the kind of worship they want?”1 Someone(s) in this congregation is entitled to what she wants, how she wants it, and when she wants it. Maybe she’s sick, maybe she’s been here a long time, maybe she’s old, maybe she’s wealthy. Whatever the reason, someone or other is entitled to have things the way she wants.

Spiritual disabling of the community
That is the underlying assumption that challenges our vestries: in our desire to honor age, longevity, fragility, a traditional way of doing things — or even money — can be swayed by the needs and desires of a few. Spiritual disabling of the community is often the result.

When entitlement is operative for the entitled few to have their way, it requires that others be disenfranchised. When entitlement is an active force, the body of Christ is unable to function according to the precepts of Jesus. In short, entitlement is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

Vestries and spiritual welfare
What about the second question, the role of vestries? Picture me, a second year seminarian, attending a session at the former College of Preachers in Washington D.C., and meeting, for the first time, a seminarian from the Diocese of Iowa who, clearly (and with pride) had done his homework in the area of constitution and canons.

“In our diocese,” he told me, “the first and most significant obligation of a vestry, is to attend to the spiritual welfare of the parish.”2 Apparently it impressed me, because in the more than twenty years that have followed, I’ve not forgotten it.

How would our various vestry experiences, for lay and ordained alike, differ from current practice, if the spiritual health of the congregation were our primary obligation? And what bearing might that have on the question of entitlement?

This is worth repeating: Entitlement is antithetical to the Good News of Jesus. Period! Here’s the irony: scratch the surface theology of any congregation anywhere, and you can expect agreement with that assertion, even as the behavior gives lie to it and undermines it.

So how does it happen that so many of our congregational decisions, particularly a small congregation’s decisions, are based on a theology of entitlement, where those entitled are clearly the monied, the ones with longevity, the founding matriarchs and patriarchs, usually Anglo, never the children, never the teenagers, never the educators, never the imaginative, never the newcomers? How does that happen; what does it cost? And how do our vestries collude?

Vestries collude with the best of intentions, the operative criteria being ideals such as honor and respect and a sense of the way things are supposed to be. Add to that list a desire to keep peace, held up as a potential stumbling block to a congregation’s spiritual health.

Keeping peace may be dangerous
Keeping peace can be the better face on “making nice.” And that is always dangerous to the vision and mission of a faith community.

Yet “making nice” as a vestry response to an assertion of entitlement, whether it’s about worship, a food pantry, sanctuary or use of a new building, cannot be said to serve the spiritual well-being of a congregation.

Are the role and duties of most vestries ordered and prioritized in the way of the Diocese of Iowa and those other dioceses which have caught this particular vision? No. Could they be, and ought they to be? Yes.

It would require significant re-imagining and re-visioning of vestry handbooks and the canons of the dioceses of our Church. It would require a different focus for education and formation.

But for better and worse, in this schismatic time of division and litigation and seemingly unabated turmoil, what better role could the vestries of our denomination embrace but that of the spiritual health and well-being of the congregations they serve?

The Rev. Caroline Fairless is an Episcopal priest and director of Children at Worship ~ Congregations in Bloom. She is the author of several books and educational resources. For more information:


  1. For a clear and concise discussion of the emergent church, see The Practicing Congregation by Diana Butler Bass.
  2. See Iowa canon 25, Duty of the Vestry, Section 1 and Section 2, and note that the expected duties regarding legal and fiduciary duties are not named until Section 6.
This article is part of the November 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Sharing Mutual Leadership