November 2008
Spiritual Discernment

Discernment: Where’s the Spirit moving?

The way Martha Steves, former senior warden and current vestry member explains it, the work of St. Mark’s vestry in San Antonio, Texas, has undergone a gradual yet fully transformative shift. 

“This is by far the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” says Steves, a lifelong Episcopalian, who has served on the vestry no less than four times. Current senior warden Dina Aboul-Saad, director of development for an international nonprofit organization, echoes Steves’ sentiments. “In good conscience and with a smile, I can say I’ve had a really good time, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Over the past two years, St. Mark’s vestry has adopted a new way of working — one that places the discernment of God’s will for the parish at the very heart of vestry service. Attentive listening, biblical study, consensus building and unhurried conversation take precedence over hearing reports, advocacy, and taking votes. These changes have produced subtle but profound results in the church’s leadership.

“I see vestry people who are more energized,” says the Rev. Michael Chalk, St. Mark’s rector. “They feel that their time is better utilized. They are being challenged and their leadership skills are enhanced.”

New ways of working
Key to the transformation has been the integration of specific biblical lessons into vestry business, the radical restructuring of the vestry agenda, and the willingness of church leadership to be open to a new way of working. These changes came about gradually as a result of the vestry forming more intentional links with The Work+Shop, a ministry of St. Mark’s and a community of supporters in San Antonio.

The Rev. Dr. John Lewis and the Rev. Jane Patterson, part-time staff clergy at St. Mark’s, have co-directed The Work+Shop since 2005. In their retreats, Bible studies, classes and discernment groups, Patterson and Lewis lead individuals and groups in discerning God’s call in their everyday lives. As individual members of St. Mark’s encountered The Work+Shop’s programs in adult education classes, church committees, and other small-group settings, the idea of bringing a discernment process into the monthly work of the vestry began to grow. In these experiences, participants would bring a concern or issue to the group and explore a passage in the Bible that might enlighten or provide guidance for the situation. These small group meetings had little in common with traditional vestry meetings, where checking off a to-do list of decisions and reports too often meant not enough time for reflection and discernment about the church’s life.

Lewis and Patterson are present at every vestry meeting to help members focus on the biblical passage and what lessons it may hold. Explaining their process of choosing the appropriate biblical passage, they consult first with the rector and senior warden on what is coming up in the meeting. Then they work on finding the appropriate passages, which they introduce at the beginning but continue to teach throughout the meeting.

“In some ways the whole vestry meeting is the Bible study,” Patterson says. 

Decisions owned by all 

The vestry now gathers monthly to focus on the core issues affecting the church, ones that require a thorough airing. Decisions are owned by the entire vestry in a manner that grows leadership and shares accountability. What is more, say members, consensus is valued over winning the day with one’s viewpoint.

It hasn’t always been easy to change, leaders say. During a months-long debate about opening a preschool, a massive and identity changing decision in the life of this downtown church, vestry members found themselves slipping into “camps” once more, before finally stepping back to discern what was best for the parish community as a whole. Still, lessons were learned.

“For me it made me realize that you’ve really got to listen to what everybody says, and if someone has an opinion that’s different from yours, it’s even more important to listen,”
Steves says. Revising the agenda was another key to making room for the vestry’s practice of
discernment. No longer are minutes and reports read and ratified during the meeting.Instead, all material that doesn’t require a discussion is sent to vestry members in advance, with the clear expectation that they will read, comment upon or correct items before meeting. In other words, the vestry has more homework now.

“In some ways, it’s less comfortable,” says Chalk. “It’s so much easier to go to a meeting and just hear reports and then go home. But we want the meeting to be about making strategic decisions and discerning our future.”

“Anything that can be written, anything that does not need an interactive discussion just gets handled before the meeting,” says Aboul-Saad. “We went from having 10 or 15 minutes for each of our issues to having two basically main issues each month.”

What’s the Holy Spirit doing here?

The question that Patterson and Lewis want the vestry to keep foremost in their minds is, “What’s the Holy Spirit doing here?” The result? “You don’t feel pinched anymore. You feel like you can really talk it through and listen to each other,” says Aboul-Saad.

This article is part of the November 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Spiritual Discernment