Today’s Vestry Challenge: Keep It Simple and Nimble
Editor’s note: This article is an (edited) excerpt from Randy Ferebee’s book, Cultivating the Missional Church: New Soil for Growing Vestries and Leaders.
At a 2010 meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said “We need a system that is more nimble, that is more able to respond to change,” calling for “a more responsive and adaptable and less rigid set of systems.”
As the church evolved, it took on more and more of the marks of an institution. Structures and rules were put in place to govern the behavior of those who banded together in congregations. This evolution was often marked with a movement from simplicity to greater and greater complexity. In Acts 6 we have the story the church uses to support the ordination of deacons. There was a need, and in short order the apostles set apart seven men to minister to the need. Today the path to ordination as a deacon, be it a vocational deacon or a deacon who is preparing for ordination to the priesthood, is complex and elaborate.
Take any process that the local, diocesan, or national expression of church engages over time, and the normal track is that the processes move more and more in the direction of complexity and regulation. In the governance function of the vestry, it is helpful that all process be as nimble, responsible, and as useful as possible. Remember the axiom “keep it simple”? The best approach is often the most straightforward and simple path.
Finding a true and simple path through the governance thicket
Some, perhaps much, of the vestry’s encounter with inherited governing processes might not be, as yet, nimble and responsive. It is necessary to consider what the church’s laws, called canons, expect and how vestries honor their responsibility. Leadership bodies who are redefining themselves to be effective in this new age are finding ways to honor the important truth conveyed in the law by returning to or discovering ways that are more straightforward and less cumbersome.
Though there may be local or diocesan variances in governing law, vestries are “selected,” according to the national canons, to tend to the temporal (or worldly) affairs of the church alongside the clergy who are to tend to the spiritual affairs of the church. This distinction is clean only on paper. In reality, both worldly and spiritual things are the concern of all leaders.
The worldly functions include tending the buildings and grounds, maintaining proper stewardship of all funds, stewarding annual giving and spending, making reports to the diocese and governmental entities, care of the temporal needs of a rector (or equivalent), auditing all financial and physical assets at least annually, and, when necessary, calling a new rector or vicar. The vestry is also responsible for keeping and preserving the minutes of its meetings; this is normally designated to a secretary or clerk. The vestry is the legal representative of the congregation.
Any of these actions that can, should be delegated to others who have a special calling or expertise. The vestry gratefully receives their gifts of time and talent, and then takes necessary action. In doing so the vestry utilizes a classic Anglican bit of wisdom called “subsidiarity.” A simple definition is that the vestry takes on only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively by others. An example is having a person skilled in finances manage an audit or bookkeeping or cost estimating, and report to the vestry for any needed action. When delegated, the vestry should trust the person(s) to whom the ministry has been entrusted.
The vestry in its governing responsibility is accountable for compliance with all applicable rules and regulations. These include the national canons (laws) of the Episcopal Church, the canons and policies of the diocese, and the bylaws and formal or informal policy of the local congregation. So that these responsibilities do not surprise anyone who serves on a vestry, an annual review of all governing rules should be engaged by the vestry, normally upon the seating of new members. These principles should be readily available at any meeting.
In general, the overtly governmental functions should claim only a small minority of the vestry’s meeting time. It may be helpful to appoint someone as a process observer to monitor meetings and time discussions in order to bring all vestry work into balance. “A congregation easily becomes an end in its own mind—recruiting people to an empty discipleship of committee service, finance, and building maintenance. Institutional maintenance is a necessary, but ultimately secondary, function of a congregation. If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the congregation fails, no matter what the treasurer reports.”
The real work of the vestry
If the vestry is not a board of directors managing the temporal affairs and keeping the rules and regulations as a primary function, what should a vestry be? Beyond the governance of a congregation lies the larger horizon of where God is calling those in your faith community as they are formed as disciples of Jesus Christ. Congregations are unique and gifted collections of people endowed with abilities and talents that, when aggregated, offer God both voice and hands to accomplish the ongoing work of making whole that which is broken.
The major work of the vestry, which transforms governance into a generative, sense-making experience, is to create a frame of reference through which leaders process all governing issues and challenges. The output of such a process both builds health in individual members and energizes a congregation to move forward with a growing capacity for participation in the reign of God.
Much of the time the vestry spends together has this purpose: How do we make God present in our families, our neighborhood, our town, and our world? As each vestry discerns its own unique answer to this question, it opens the ministry to everyone while helping to create a meaningful path through the complex adaptive changes every community needs to negotiate.
1 Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Presiding Bishop Warns Executive Council of ‘Suicide by Governance,’” Episcopal News Service (Oct. 24, 2010).
2 This is true in virtually every human process, not just the church!
3 Note well that the word used for choosing members of the vestry in our national canons is selected. This word use is intentional. Vestries have canonical permission to explore many options of bringing leaders to service as members of the vestry.
4 A suggestion: in advance of this discussion give each member a succinctly worded document that contains all governing rules.
5 Dan Hotchkiss, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004), Kindle Edition 477–79.
Randy Ferebee is a retired priest in the Diocese of Western North Carolina. Currently he is helping restart an Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach, SC. He is a founding director of Epiphany Institute + Consulting and was instrumental in helping the Episcopal Church Foundation establish an alliance with Kanuga Conference Center to offer the annual Church Leadership Conference. Dr. Ferebee is the author of Cultivating the Missional Church (Morehouse/Church Publishing, 2012).
- Cultivating the Missional Church, Randy Ferebee (Morehouse/Church Publishing, 2012)
- Vestry Orientation, an ECF webinar led by Donald Romanik and Brendon Hunter, January 11, 2017
- A Suggested Order of Meeting (for Vestry Meetings), ECF Vital Practices tool
- Reframe Vestry Meetings by Randy Ferebee, Vestry Papers, January 2013
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