January 20, 2011

No More Parking Lot Conversations

I have the privilege of working with congregations and their leaders as a bishop’s staff member involved in congregational development. One of the persistent behaviors I witness among vestry members is their reluctance to speak up about lingering concerns in the course of their meetings. 

I am sure there are many reasons for this reluctance including not wanting to rock the boat or appear disrespectful. Whatever the reservation, this silence forces issues to go underground only to surface in parking lot conversations. Yes, people literally lingering after meetings beside their cars to air feelings about what did or didn’t happen in the vestry meeting. A modern day alternative might be to send a quick text message or email to a like-minded person who was also present to air concerns or judgments about what was or wasn’t done. This might be automatic behavior that is not conscious of the impact it has on group process. 

Any way you slice it, ‘parking lot conversations’ are unhealthy for a congregation and its leaders. They amount to informal caucusing outside the bounds of intentional gatherings of leaders who are entrusted with responsibility. They are symptomatic of lack of honest and respectful airing of leaders’ observations. This behavior is often exhibited in congregations where there is lingering distrust and less than good relationships between leaders, often leaders and their clergy. 

It is incumbent on leaders of faith communities to be very thoughtful about the ways in which they communicate with each other. Clandestine meetings, parking lot conversations, closely guarded incendiary emails are always destructive. Always. So how can leaders minimize these behaviors?

First, vestry members and clergy must face the reality that people will be tempted to act out in these ways, especially when things aren’t going the way they would like to see happen. Knowing this, vestry member covenants of behavior and meeting norms should be established in every congregation. These covenants should be communicated on websites, newsletters, and in very visible, high traffic places in churches. These covenants should be agreed to by nominees for vestry election and reviewed at the beginning of every vestry meeting. Many churches commission their vestries annually during a main worship service. This covenant can be read out loud and in unison by all the members being commissioned. This practice is not only a public promise but sets a tone of mutual trust that all who make it will work to comply. A covenant is not only a promise one to the other, but an agreement to demonstrate holy manners in a faith community. 

Covenants should be as brief as possible. Episcopalians are notorious for their wordiness! It is important to make them as brief and to the point or their effectiveness is diluted. Covenants should be written by a vestry or an appointed group and approved by a vestry after thoughtful review. A written covenant may remain intact for years or edited as deemed appropriate. The point is to have one, to let the congregation know that it represents a promise by its leaders to be in honest, disciplined and respectful relationship with each other. The impact of covenants on the culture of a church can be powerful and positive. A community of faith should expect no less of its leaders.