February 25, 2015

Beyond Vestries

A friend recently quipped “I don’t believe vestries are needed for the church today.” He said it as a hyperbole, something to spark conversation, and if for no other reason than it might do that – actually spark a conversation and actually lead us to seriously re-consider our conventional working model – I’ll go along with it. If you’d like a more palatable post, though, let me say that vestries, alone, are no longer needed for the church today.

The vestry is a great idea of the late-18th century. It was more formally instituted by the mid-19th century, and in fact it wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that a denomination wide church canon was established to clarify matters. It’s Title I, Canon 14; Sections 1 & 2:

"Section 1. In every Parish of this Church the number, mode of selection, and term of office of Wardens and Members of the Vestry, with the qualifications of voters, shall be such as the State or Diocesan law may permit or require, and the Wardens and Members of the Vestry selected under such law shall hold office until their successors are selected and have qualified."
"Section 2. Except as provided by the law of the State or of the Diocese, the Vestry shall be agents and legal representatives of the Parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy."

We’ve not only created but, over these many years, we’ve honed and perfected a brilliant late-18th century model of church. It really is a stunning, absolutely creative solution to the problems people faced nearly 250 years ago. Bravo! The problem, however, is that it is now the 21st century.

Not only is the vestry a great idea but also even today, it remains a necessary instrument. It is as important now as it was when suddenly the ‘Episcopal’ churches in the American colonies found themselves with land and property but no clear idea who owned it or how to delineate who oversees the “corporate property” of the parish as well as the ways in which “the relations of the parish to its clergy” shall be managed. What that means in reality, today, is that the vestry of any given parish is an essential and a really great buildings and grounds / cemetery / personnel / liability committee which has ultimate fiduciary responsibility.

But the system of the Church of England, from which this creative solution emerged, did not merely understand the parish as being reduced – or reducible – to its “corporate property” nor simply to “the relations of the parish to its clergy.” Rather, the parish, as such, was understood holistically. It was seen as an expansive and varied place set in a particular time, an entire geographic area which, by definition, necessitated and involved all of its inhabitants whether or not they frequented the building(s) called ‘church’; whether or not they availed themselves of the services of the person called ‘clergy’; whether for that matter they professed an outright belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord. The parish, as such, was much more than what our American colonial forebears imagined when they created the managerial tool called ‘vestry.’ They gave us a good start, and it was an essential move on their part.

Now, however, it’s time for us to create new instruments and new organizations.

It’s easier than you might think, and here’s a way.

Let’s assume, for starters, that a significant majority of the people in our pews have been dutifully trained and formed in what it means to be a member of The Episcopal Church. What that means is that they’ve bought into this 18th century model of church. It worked back then, and it worked quite well until relatively recently. You cannot and, try as you might, you will not persuade anything but a small minority of them to change their minds and function differently. Even if they’re open to your new teaching, they have their own comfort level and that is how they have been trained and formed to think and operate. Don’t try to change their minds. Plus, by the way, someone has to take care of those buildings and grounds and cemeteries and all that corporate property.

At the same time, you can bet that a sufficiently vocal minority of people in your pews have a greater interest in religious education, say, or fellowship events or issues related to justice. They care about more relational matters than they do maintaining the corporate entity called ‘parish.’ Further, you also know that in a world which has drifted and will continue to drift far away from institutions that seem to speak only to their self-perpetuation, the way to truly grow a church is to connect with people on a personal, relational basis.

Granted, those persons are a minority in each congregation, but they are connected to a majority of people in your community, albeit people who are not necessarily in your pews or, for that matter, anyone else’s pews. If you put those persons together with their counterparts from neighbor parishes in a new body, a third organization beyond the established vestries, they will in time form a new majority, and they will find a new collective strength. They will not dismantle the previous system, encapsulated in the vestry model. More, it is hugely important that you, as leader, not communicate or in any way foster the idea that there are ‘enemies’ in this scenario.

The former organization can keep the title ‘vestry,’ and the canons of the church don’t have to be revised nor does anyone need to talk about dissolving and merging ‘parish boundaries’ or any other such thing. Those are probably ‘third rail’ issues, anyway. The latter organization can be called, say, the ‘parish council.’ Both can equal claim to the power structures and ways in which budget(s) are established and mission is financed. Both can argue from positions of relative strength, and neither would seek to tear down or disenfranchise the other.

What it would do is create a system of real checks-and-balances on the ground whereas, in reality, our 18th century church has never really had much balance in its local, lived expression. We’ve had plenty of ‘checks’ on the ground. Because our dominant model of church is all about maintaining corporate property and keeping up the establishment, we’ve effectively figured out how to shut down anything that might risk that model: The Episcopal Church in its local, lived expression is very good at stifling new ideas and suffocating relational groupings if it appears that such movements will threaten the establishment. Creating these checks-and-balances between Vestry and Parish Council, then, will lead both groups to become partners in the work of ministry, one paying greater attention to relational matters, the other to those more functional (and necessary) concerns of what it means to be church. Doing so will come with its own hardship and headaches, and this model requires a greater degree of priestly leadership and authority in maintaining balance and keeping everyone accountable to a higher mission, but I believe it can be done.

I’ll go back to making hyperboles and say, in closing, it must be done.

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