March 19, 2019

Top Ten Ways to Thrive as a Vestry Leader

Weeks or maybe months ago, someone asked you to consider serving on your church’s Vestry. You thought about it, prayed about it, talked with your family and friends about it. You know you have gifts to share, and you love your church. You want to serve God and help your congregation. But you’ve also heard stories from past Vestry members – the late nights, the struggles, the big questions, the anxieties, the mountains turned into molehills.

Serving on the Vestry is an amazing opportunity to grow, but like all opportunities it’s not without challenge and growth areas. Vestry is the place where faith meets structure, where character matters, where leadership counts. Serving on Vestry can help strengthen your walk with Christ. Instead of a Top Ten list for things to do or think about as a Vestry leader, I’m more concerned with ways in which Vestry service helps individuals thrive and a congregational culture take off. As I prepare to gather our new Vestry, here’s my Top Ten list of ways to thrive as a Vestry Leader.

1. Develop a healthy Christian spiritual life through intentional practices of faith. Some years ago on this same platform, Scott Evenbeck wrote, “The work of the vestry can be done only as it is grounded in the Spirit. Too often we are not intentional and reflective about our work. How then do we remind ourselves that the work of the vestry is God’s work?”[1] He’s right. This is spiritual work, and it’s good to be mindful of incorporating some spiritual practices into Vestry meetings. But equally important is that each individual Vestry member needs to be intentional about those practices that help her thrive as a Christian person. If a group doesn’t yet exist, create it and get others to join.

2. When you’re in town, attend church on Sunday morning. There’s membership in the institution of the church, and then there’s membership in the Body of Christ. If you’re older than 16 + baptized (and your baptism is recorded in the parish register) you’re technically a member. If you take Communion “at least three times during the preceding year” you’re a “communicant.” But neither gets close to true, living membership in Christ’s Body, the church. A “communicant in good standing” is someone who, “for the previous year, [has] been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and [has] been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” Regular, weekly attendance at worship on Sunday mornings in church is “faithful in corporate worship.” When you’re in town, be present every Sunday.

3. Give generously. Strive to tithe. All members, especially all Vestry members, should make an annual pledge of a generous financial gift to the Kingdom of God through the mission and ministry of the church. Again, that’s what’s meant by being “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” The expectation is that Vestry leaders will be generous in their financial commitment. In fact, the expectation is that they, and all members, will tithe – that is, give 10% of their income. Financial stewardship in The Episcopal Church is set at “the biblical standard of the tithe.” (Canon III.9)

4. Engage in a life-giving ministry. Committing to an identifiably Christian ministry is what the church means when it says to be “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” Find and engage a ministry that gives life to you, the server, as well as the one being served. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mt.20:28), and after he washed his disciples’ feet he said plainly: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (Jn.13:15-17) The blessing shows up when the world’s distinctions between “us” and “them” dissolve as you do ministry in Jesus’ name. Teach Sunday School. Tutor kids after school. Go on the summer mission trip. Serve on the altar. Help in the food pantry. Join a committee. Organize a fellowship event. Serve on vestry. Come up with a new ministry and get others to join.

5. Lead well. Find your healthiest center and lead from there. Avoid passive aggressiveness and watch for it in others. Strive for the greatest common ground. Work closely with the Rector. Support the mission of the church. Give breathing space to what is newly emerging, and understand that in a tradition-centered church, such as ours, if it is borne of the will of God that which is old is never compromised by what is new. Remember also, as Scott Evenbeck wrote, “[t]he vestry is not a representative body. … The vestry is a group of individuals seeking to discern, with the rector, what the parish is called to do and to have oversight of that work.”[2][3]

6. Communicate well. You’ve heard it said: “speak the truth in love.” But the biblical quote is much bigger: “Instead,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Eph.4:15) Communication on the part of a Vestry leader must come from a place of maturity. True maturity, we believe, is found in Christ. Speak true words and do not hide the truth. Listen well but don’t only come across as a ‘sponge’ for other’s issues or anxieties or concerns. Beware of ‘triangulation.’ You’ll know it when you experience it: “We’ve been talking…,” it normally begins. You are the Vestry, and the Vestry is you.

7. Keep confidentiality. Our policy is that “church conversations and records of an official or pastoral nature are confidential and shall be safeguarded against disclosure, loss, defacement, and tampering.” Is this in contradiction to “Communicate well”? No. Confidentiality doesn’t mean “not speaking.” Vestry leaders need to speak. Vestry leaders need to give voice to God’s mission and call. Confidentiality means that all members engage the conversation and process, affirm consensus when it’s reached, not undo the process and/or decision, let others know that a decision has been reached, and affirm that decision in speaking, writing, and communicating. And, yes, this includes non-verbal communication.

8. Learn to read financial statements. Members of the Vestry are “agents and legal representatives of the parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy.” Vestry members need to know about the assets and liabilities of the corporation that is its Parish – the money (in and out), financial patterns and trends, as well as the state of the buildings and fixed assets of the parish. The Vestry is the ur-Committee of the church, the ultimate committee. All committees flow from Vestry’s oversight and responsibility. Use them to better understand what you need to understand.

9. Understand the meaning of ‘fiduciary.’ The Vestry doesn’t ‘own’ the money and buildings of the parish. Vestry leaders are entrusted with these assets, and expected to use them to glorify God and build up a lively Christian mission in their local context. Institutionally, we are incorporated as parishes, which are independent corporate entities held in trust for The Episcopal Church through the local diocese of which it is a member. Basically, Vestry leaders are also trustees. They are as accountable to the Bishop of the Diocese (and, through the Bishop’s office, to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church) as they are to a member in good standing of their local congregation.

10. Rest. You are a member of Vestry for a short period of time, and we expect you to give it your all. But you are a disciple of Jesus for your lifetime. And, we hope, you are and will remain a member of this local parish church for an equally long period, longer than your service on Vestry. Keep all things in perspective and remember that your relationship with Christ and the members of your church is the most important thing. Vestry is one way to serve, and we’re glad you’ve said ‘Yes’ this time. Thank you.

[1][2],[3] Scott Evenbeck, “My Top Ten: Vestry Responsibilities.” Episcopal Church Foundation, Vital Practices. Sept. 2003.