April 14, 2018

How Many Committees Should You Have?

How many committees should your church have? Two, I believe. An Episcopal church should have two committees and, technically, they are sub-committees of the vestry. I also believe that this, and the other considerations in this blog post, should be spelled out in the parish by-laws.

For starters, our polity has set it up that the business model of every Episcopal congregation is overseen by one elected body – the Vestry. The Vestry is the overarching committee, the Committee of all committees.

Also, the Canons are clear, and rather limited, at that, when they speak about the powers and responsibilities of a Vestry. When a parish is not otherwise in clergy transition, a Vestry is fundamentally in charge of the fixed assets of the parish (“…agents and legal representatives of the parish in all matters concerning its corporate property”) as well as something like a council of advice between the clergy and the congregation (“…and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy,” Canon I.14.2). The Vestry is in charge of money and the oversight of fixed assets.

Therefore, the Vestry should have two sub-committees who report to them, flow from their work, and do not otherwise relieve them from their oversight: Finance and Buildings & Grounds. That’s it. Two (sub)committees.

Having too many committees is a potentially unhealthy situation for two primary reasons. First, it forces the Vestry to pay attention to matters which, otherwise, need not be considered by a centralized operational board. There’s something healthy about decentralized coordination. Second, it spreads the Vestry’s necessary oversight of truly critical matters too thin. How can the Vestry discern the ways in which God’s call impacts our operational model if they’re spending time on the youth group ski trip and the hotly contested debate between paper versus styrofoam cups at coffee hour?

Most of the things we call committees are, simply, dedicated and important areas of lay leadership and Christian responsibility. At St. George’s, we approached this situation in four steps.

Step One: we made an important distinction between areas of Christian responsibility and formal committees. We added to our by-laws a new article: The Congregation of the Parish. It specifies the role and ministry of the congregation. It uses the Prayer Book’s language around lay ministry (from the Catechism) and the canonical language around membership. It also discusses Congregational Ministries, which is where we moved the language formerly codified around committees: “The Congregation is encouraged to establish and engage in such ministries as to serve Christ’s mission. The ministries are organized by the congregation in consultation with the Rector. The outlay and budgeting of money is still subject to Vestry approval. Some important ministries are highlighted below, which is by no means an inclusive list: Christian Education, Outreach, Pastoral Care, Worship.”

Step Two: we specified the powers and role of the Vestry in the next article of the by-laws. “Serving for the greater good of the Kingdom of God and the Christian welfare of the Parish, the Vestry is the governing body of the parish and shall also serve as a council of advice and support to the Rector; identify and attend to significant issues facing the Parish; and work together for the glory of God as one body in Christ. The Vestry shall govern on issues concerning (a) the strategic mission of the Parish; (b) the membership of the Congregation; (c) maintenance of Parish assets; and (d) the money that is required to sustain the Parish’s life in Christ.”

Step Three: we ensured that the by-laws stipulate certain ‘Congregational Committees of the Vestry.’ The Vestry has two ‘standing committees’: Finance and Buildings & Grounds. The by-laws speak to the ways in which members are appointed and chairpersons elected – in short, together with the Vestry and Rector and not without their ultimate approval. We set up appropriate term limits, as term limits are everyone’s friend, no matter what.

Step Four: we made the by-laws a living document, not a fixed guidebook. In the future, we suspected, a specific committee for this-or-that might need to exist. We added that language to the by-laws, writing: “From time to time, other committees may be formed or existing committees merged, with a size, composition, function and duration as may be determined to be appropriate by the Vestry.” Also, we allowed the Congregation to play a part in this process, too, adding: “Should members of the Congregation desire the formation of a specific committee, a letter signed by no less than five (5) parishioners should be submitted to the Vestry. The Vestry will vote on the committee formation, and the committee, if approved, will remain in effect until the end of that Vestry year.” Not one of those non-standing committees will continue indefinitely, however; to ensure that committees remain fresh and vital we wrote: “Each new Vestry will need to vote to continue the existing committees at the beginning of the year.”

To set up healthy processes, good communication, decentralized discipleship opportunities, and, at the same time, ensure that the Vestry focuses on those matters most pressing to their canonical charge, an Episcopal church should have two committees – Finance and Buildings & Grounds. Technically, they are sub-committees of the vestry. I also believe that this, and the other considerations in this blog post, should be spelled out in the parish by-laws.