Real Basics for Vestries
The Canons of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon provide the option of an all-church vestry. It’s a good fit for our rural diocese, which covers 69,000 square miles of agricultural and timber land and has its own registered cattle brand. Over 2,600 Episcopalians in 22 parishes call this place home. Most of our parishes are small and far-flung. The vast, wide-open space speaks to our souls in quiet and profound ways. I suspect it’s the same for those living in other rural dioceses.
Our parish of St. James, Milton-Freewater is small and includes mostly older members who share the numerous ministries necessary to parish life. About ten years ago, it became increasingly difficult to find members who would commit to serve on the vestry. We fit the requirements of our diocesan Canon XV, Section 5 regarding vestries:
(a) Congregations with fewer than forty (40) adult members and wishing to dispense with the organization of a vestry may elect to conduct its affairs at meetings of the congregation. Such meetings shall exercise the full responsibility and authority of a vestry as set forth in Section 1 and 4 of this Canon and as hereinafter provided. (The full text may be viewed on our diocesan website at www.episdioeo.org.)
We decided that an all-church vestry would be worth a try. The results were amazing and we’ve never looked back!
The structure we use for our all-church vestry is similar to a regular vestry. We usually meet monthly as needed. We find it best for us to meet right after Sunday worship for no longer than an hour. Of course, we all bring refreshments! The agenda, meeting minutes, and financial reports are now provided to parishioners by email prior to the meetings, with hard copies available. We have an active group of committees that report to the larger group.
The biggest difference we’ve noticed with an all-church vestry is the involvement of each parishioner. Everyone is invited to participate, and we include guests or visitors, as well as members. Our attendance is excellent. Each person has the opportunity to speak and each opinion is valued. Even though we may have varying perspectives, differences are respected and we are able to reach consensus. This is reflective of the Benedictine model of shared wisdom. After adopting an all-church vestry, we no longer hear complaints from members that they aren’t informed of issues or their opinions aren’t solicited. Instead, we see a high degree of ownership in the parish and a strong sense of belonging to the Body of Christ.
Several other parishes in our diocese are using an all-church vestry model. Chester Markley of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Enterprise, Oregon reports:
“St. Patrick's had an all member vestry when I started attending in January 2003. I think that having all members serve on the vestry helps each member feel more of a part of the church. They are part of any decision making as well as able to voice their opinion as to how it operates and how they feel. This brings us all closer together as we get to know and understand each other on a more personal basis. This then leads us to being a stronger congregation.”
We also see other options. Beth Spell from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Canyon City, Oregon notes:
“We do not have an all-church vestry. We have a vestry that does not have a junior or senior warden. We have divided up those job responsibilities among the members of the vestry.”
From St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lakeview, Oregon, the Rev. Rich Landrith writes:
“Yes we are one of those all-church vestry parishes. It works quite well for us. We try to meet monthly with a potluck after church services on Sunday. Some months we are too busy or have nothing pertinent to discuss so we are very flexible with these meetings. We find this format a very enjoyable way to do the business of the church and, of course, the food is always great; so good that we sometimes invent reasons to meet!!”
The past several years have been transitional for many parishes including ours. Letting go of old models allows us to stop thinking about what don’t have or can’t do. Our vestry model has changed, and so has our clergy model. We’ve slowly stopped focusing on our need to “grow” which reflected the underlying fear that our parish might disappear altogether. Instead we’ve learned to in God and let the Holy Spirit lead. By focusing on discerning our mission, we continue to find new ways to respond to God’s call to be the Church in our local and global community. And gradually, new members are joining us.
The Rev. Rebecca Hendricks is rector at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Milton-Freewater, Oregon.
- Anglican/Episcopal Rural Churches, a Facebook group open to all members of rural or small congregations within the Anglican who wish to share common concerns and ideas: https://www.facebook.com/groups/241592609198266/
- Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon: http://www.episdioeo.org/index.htm
- Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon Constitutions and Canons; click on Canons 2010 and scroll to Canon XV, Section 5, page 26: http://www.episdioeo.org/G/g-constitution_canons.html
- Small Churches – Big Ideas: http://www.vts.edu/podium/default.aspx?t=139979
- St. James, Milton-Freewater, Oregon: http://www.episdioeo.org/A/C/au-findParish_St_James_Milton-Freewater.html
- Total Ministry – A different way of “doing church:” http://totalministry.org/extlink.html