Seven Ways to Steward Leaders’ Time
Congregations run because a core group of a congregation’s membership – frequently estimated to be about 20% - makes the significant gifts of time, talent, and treasure that allow an entire community of faith to move forward. And while we frequently discuss what it means to be good stewards of contributors’ treasure and talent, it’s rare to hear discussions about being effective stewards of that core group of leaders’ time.
Unfortunately, when I speak to current and former vestry members, and other congregational leaders, the issue of time – especially of time spent in poorly managed meetings – is brought up again and again as one of the most difficult aspects of serving on the vestry or other key committees in a congregation. In the spirit of honoring our core leaders’ gifts of time, here are seven (okay, eight) ways we can all be better stewards of this important gift.
1. Make time for meaning: Lest we forget, the main reasons that our congregational leaders make gifts of time, talent, and treasure is that this is faithful, meaningful work. Therefore, it is essential to build in time for faith formation, meaning-making, and check-ins. ECF suggests starting regular meetings with 15-30 minutes of check in and Bible Study. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, has suggested that vestries study the Book of Acts as the story of the early church resonates with many of today’s challenges. Click here to read more about how one Episcopal vestry used regular Bible studies to move from being a regulatory body to becoming, in the Rev. Blair Pogue’s words, a spiritual discernment team.
2. Establish clear norms for start and end times: It is also important to set a clear framework for how meetings will take place. Create (or review and amend) a vestry covenant at the beginning of each year, and have at least one of the norms explicitly address meeting times. An example norm might read “As a vestry, we are committed to starting our meetings on time and ending on time, and our meetings will run no longer than two hours.” Some vestries have used the techniques below (see, especially #6, the consent agenda method) to achieve meetings that are slightly less than an hour and a half. Click here to see additional examples of vestry covenants.
3. Employ the 1:1 rule for meeting preparation: We are not good stewards of one another’s time when we fail to prepare for meetings, and this is true of both the meeting facilitators as well as participants. For meeting facilitators, a handy tip I’ve picked up is to employ the 1:1 rule, which states that for important meetings (such as vestry meetings), the meeting facilitator needs to do at least one hour of preparation for every hour spent in the meeting. So if the norm at your congregation is two hour vestry meetings, meeting facilitators need to spend at least two hours preparing the agenda, making sure everyone has the materials they need, etc.
4. Foster trust and transparency about meeting participation: One common mistake meeting facilitators make is that they assume collaboration requires everyone has to be at every meeting. Collaborative leadership experts, such as those at Interaction Institutes, disagree. Rather, becoming a collaborative leader means developing trust and transparency around who needs to be part of discussions. To do this, we need to create forthright cultures where we can discuss why certain individuals need to be at a meeting, why others do not, and also one where it is okay to ask why you need to be part of an upcoming discussion. In discussing this openly, people will give input on who needs to be at the table, and you will have made sure that the time spent (or saved, as the case may be) is truly worth their while.
5. Use phone and video conferencing technology if/when possible: Time spent commuting back and forth is a real factor in people’s ability and willingness to participate in community leadership over the long haul. To the extent that it is possible (and I recognize that it may not be possible in all places), incorporate phone and video conferencing technology periodically so as to reduce the commute time for members who live quite far from the congregation. I’ve especially become a fan of Zoom, which has free and low-cost options available, because I’ve found that it is easier to use than other conferencing technologies and has options for people to both dial in using their phones and video in for those who have their own laptops or computers.
6. Use the consent agenda method: The consent agenda method is one whereby regular committee reports are sent and read in advance by vestry members, and are approved (or not) as a single item on the meeting agenda. In the instances in which a vestry member reads a report and has a question or would like to discuss a point, they can write the meeting facilitator to move a report into the discussion items of the agenda. For more information on this time-saving meeting technique, I suggest reading the Rev. Ronald Byrd’s article on how he incorporated consent agendas into his vestry meetings, and also Bob Shorr’s article and tool of what consent agendas are and how they work.
7. Spend the bulk of time on strategic discussions: Congregations face many strategic challenges. How can our congregation become a source of hope for the wider community? How can its membership begin to look more like the surrounding neighborhood? How can our congregation become financially sustainable? My hope is that by employing some of the techniques above, you will have carved out more time for leaders to offer their insights on these weightier matters that lie at the heart of your community of faith.
Finally, it is important to give thanks for people’s gift of time. The United Way has a famous fundraising maxim about the importance of thanking people seven times for their financial gift. I think this can be extended to gifts of time as well. This doesn’t mean sending seven thank you cards over the course of a single year; rather, it’s an impetus to find ways to thank key leaders for their contribution of time in small and large ways. A thank you card is a good start, as is a small recognition ceremony at the annual meeting to honor service of new and returning vestry members. Other times it may be as small as adding ‘thank you’ as an agenda item during a regular meeting, or perhaps an annual one-on-one coffee with vestry leaders in which the sole purpose is to say ‘thanks.’ When combined with the other seven techniques, we will be fostering communities of faith that are effective stewards and grateful for the contributions of leaders’ time.
Miguel Escobar is Managing Program Director for Leadership, Communications and External Affairs at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF).Miguel coordinates the fundraising, communications and marketing efforts of ECF, as well as the team responsible for the online publication ECF Vital Practices, the Fellowship Partners Program, the Vestry Resource Guide, ECF's educational events, and a new initiative focused on forming strong leadership teams called Vital Teams.
From 2007 to 2010, Miguel served as Communications Assistant to the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Miguel serves on the board of directors of Forward Movement and serves on the advisory councils of Duke Divinity School's Leadership programs and the Office of Latino Ministries. Miguel graduated in 2007 with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
- Time Stewardship at a New Level by Steve Huffman, Vestry Papers, June 2001
- The Consent Agenda: More Efficient Meetings by Bob Schorr, Vestry Papers, January 2014
- Consent Agendas tool with a list of suggested items acceptable for a consent agenda
- The Consent Calendar by Ron Byrd, Vestry Papers, January 2016
- Vestry Covenants: A Great Start to 2017 an ECF webinar led by Miguel Escobar and Brendon Hunter, January 24, 2017
- Vestry Covenants and Norms, includes examples from various Episcopal congregations
- Vestry Meditations by Colleen McMahon, Vestry Papers, January 2017
- Meditations for Vestry Members by Colleen McMahon (Morehouse Publishing, 1999)