The Vocational Vestry
What if we looked at service on the vestry as a vocation? I ask this question often when working with vestries or Bishop’s committees as part of my consulting work with congregations. What is your vocational call to this vestry? How do your unique skills, gifts and passions fit with the work that God is calling your vestry and your congregation to do? Often these questions are met with blank stares from clergy and lay folk alike, because we are not used to thinking about the work of the vestry as part of our call to Christian life. Vestry is where we do other work, like deciding which ministry gets funding next year, listening to treasurer’s reports and deciding about budgets. For some congregations, finding people to serve on the vestry is difficult, for others it is overly political or it features the same faces, cycling in and out, year after year. I remember one person saying to me at a retreat I was facilitating, “It’s not like this is a ministry ministry. I mean, what we do is just make the other ministries possible.” And yet, what if approaching vestry service as a vocational call deepened the spiritual experience and produced more healthy, faithful and effective vestry teams?
“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” Anyone who has been anywhere near an ordination process in the Episcopal Church has read, heard, preached or pontificated on this quote from Frederick Buechner. It’s a line that resonates with those of us looking to be engaged in meaningful work—this idea that perhaps the call of God in our Christian faith is a call into something that will be both satisfying to the person called and meaningful to the world we serve. Unfortunately, while we apply this concept liberally to the spiritual work of listening and responding to God in Christian community, it is rare in my experience to see it applied by vestries and Bishop’s committees.
But what if we did? What would change about the approach to leadership and management that vestry and bishop’s committees engage in if the practical and concrete tasks assigned to these bodies by our canons were framed in the language and spirituality of responding to God’s call? In my experience, this can take a vestry or Bishop’s committee from drudgery to purpose, from mere committee work to a group that not only leads and works well together, but is a site of transformation and development for individual members, as well leaders of this sort of transformation in congregations.
Here are three places to start:
As you prepare to elect new members, invite individual and spiritual discernment
If vestry service is part of a vocational call, then discernment is needed before, during and after an individual’s term takes place. This past year at St. Columba’s, where I serve as vicar, we began to pray and discern who may be called to serve on the Bishop’s committee in late summer, and we invited individuals to consider this call prayerfully over the course of several weeks. This may be way more (or less) lead time than some congregations need—but whatever the process of invitation and election to vestry, consider framing it as a spiritual discernment. This means using the language of discernment and call, offering opportunities for prayer and discussion to individuals considering the call to vestry leadership and holding elections in a way that recognizes the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through communal listening and action. This approach might also mean finding a way to commission your vestry for this work with prayer—during a Sunday morning liturgy, for example, or at the annual meeting. This will not only influence the way new members see their work, but also send a message about how seriously and spiritually your congregation takes the work of administration, vision and finances.
Develop mutual ministry goals focused on the individual call of vestry members, as well as the work of the whole committee
One of the tasks that I am often asked to help new vestries with is the development of mutual ministry goals. In the Diocese of Olympia, where I work, this commonly means finding goals for the coming year that are necessary and important for moving the vestry’s work forward and that require mutual effort by both vestry and clergy leadership. So for example, “vicar has coffee with each visitor” would not be a mutual goal, because it only requires action on the part of the vicar. In the same vein, goals that do not require participation or oversight by the rector or vicar would not be good candidates for a mutual ministry goal.
In this work, I focus on both the communal work at hand and the individual investment in each goal developed. Often I will ask vestry members to spend time in prayer and reflection to discern precisely how they plan to invest in the goals at hand. They are given questions like: “Which of these goals calls to me?” “How am I specifically called to invest my limited time and energy to help move these goals forward in the next year?” After some time alone for discernment, followed by discussion in twos and threes, they return and share what they have discerned with the group. The result is vestry members who have thoughtfully discerned and openly committed to particular tasks within the general work of the vestry. They can move forward with a greater degree of accountability and a stronger sense of individual purpose and ownership.
Recognize the sacramental/transformational potential of your vestry
As Christians in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we believe that there is potential for Christ to fill all things and to inhabit each everyday moment in a way that makes it sacred. We live out this belief every Sunday around the table of the Eucharist, a mystery that feeds us spiritually and reminds us that in any place where two or three are gathered, Jesus is also there somehow. I believe that the vestry and Bishop's committee are primary sites for the transformation and renewal of our congregations and the individuals within them.
Much of what transforms and renews the people in our congregations are the dynamics of community—how money is dealt with, what happens when there is conflict, how crisis is dealt with, how practical decisions are made. These are all issues that often end up discussed, decided, prayed over and discerned by the vestry. Imagine what might change if we begin to truly treat our vestries and Bishop's committees as people doing sacred work, called there by God, and vital to sharing the Good News in our world. Imagine what it could be like for vestry members to experience their service as the chance to live out a vocational call and to grow deeper in their walk with God through their service.
It would mean vestry that is not a chore or a business, but a real part of God's gathered body. It would mean vestry as a wellspring of transformation for the individuals serving, the congregations being led, and the communities they serve. It would mean that serving on vestry can become one way to change the world.
The Rev. Canon Alissa Newton is Vicar at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Kent, WA. She also serves the Diocese of Olympia as Canon for Congregational Development, and is the Director of The College for Congregational Development in the Diocese of Olympia. Alissa has worked with congregations inside and outside of Olympia as a development consultant since 2008. For more information about The College for Congregational Development, visit cdcollege.org.
- Surviving and Thriving in Community by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE, Vestry Papers, May 2017
- Leadership in Community: A Dance of Mutual Love by Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, Vestry Papers, January 2015
- Vestry as Body of Christ by Ken Howard, Vestry Papers January 2013