June 17, 2020

Aligning the Vestry Pt.2 of 2 of Transformational Vestries

In my previous post, I put forward the idea that the The Vestry is a thing, an entity in our church which needs serious re-examination and balance. I believe that at least one of our problems lies in our unspoken, unexamined but nevertheless shared core concepts around The Vestry. Frankly, too many people in too many congregations feel responsible to do nothing more than replicate an outdated oversight and management model year after year after year. Put that way, The Vestry is far from the kind of body which would help the Body of Christ keep the main thing the main thing. I believe the problem is much deeper than any of us realize, and it’s deep in the engine room of The Episcopal Church.

The solution? I’ll say it as simply as I know how: we need to better align the Vestry with the methods of a missionary church. It’s about alignment, not a new program or crafty idea. It’s about making The Vestry work for Christ’s Body, and not the other way around. It’s about making The Vestry as healthy and gifted and inspired as our healthiest, most gifted, most inspiring member.

Easier said than done, right? Yes, it is much easier said than done. But if you take nothing away, take this. First, it can be done; I know that to be true. And, second, it will only be done at the grassroots level if you start to do it.

So here are ten key steps toward Aligning (your) Vestry, some conceptual, some practical.

1. Vestry members are Leaders
Identify, recruit and encourage the leaders in your congregation to serve on Vestry. You know who they are, so start tapping their shoulders now. Most gifted leaders avoid Vestry service (and other Board service, in general) because their skills are not often used well on Boards. Equally, get the Vestry to claim their role in the congregation as leaders – not managers, not facilitators. Leaders.

2. People who Believe in the Mission
Get people who believe passionately in the mission of The Episcopal Church to serve in leadership. Don’t know what the mission is? Now is not the time to write a mission statement. There’s already a solid one in the Book of Common Prayer, p.855, and our Presiding Bishop is pretty darn clear that we are a part of the Jesus Movement. We don’t need people with their heads in a book or a committee to figure out our mission. You know the people who believe passionately in the Jesus Movement when you see them. You feel their positive, impactful energy in the room, regardless of whether they’re outgoing charmers or the reflective, quiet type. Don’t have enough of these people? See item 8, below.

3. Build and Model Trust
Find as many ways as possible for the individual members of the Vestry to get to know and, in time, build relationships of trust with the other members. Begin meetings with faith sharing questions – open ended questions. Ensure that clergy also model sharing. Establish a culture in which no one at the table is an expert on everything; we’re all learning and sharing together. Retreats and rhythms (faith sharing, open-ended bible study) are good, but it’s more of a spirit, an ethos, than programming.

4. Vestry as One
The Vestry is not a representative body, or a confederacy of various parties representing their distinct interests. The Vestry is one body. The Vestry should not be distracted by too many sub-committee reports and if the Vestry strays into the weeds on this-or-that it’s a perfect time for the leaders (rector and/or wardens) to move that to a committee or a small working group. The Vestry should meet, think, deliberate, discern, pray and imagine as one body. No one else in a given Episcopal congregation can ‘see the forest for the trees’. The Vestry must be this group.

5. Risking to Grow
What is the Vestry willing to risk? To what end is the Vestry willing to take that risk? How risky is it? What is the big goal? I guess I should say that all Vestries are being called upon to take risks. It’s not a choice of whether; it’s about which ones God is calling your church to take.

6. Get Messy
I think an unspoken rule of Vestry service is: “You’re here for [this many] years. Don’t screw it up.” We have effectively raised up an incredibly cautious, scared, anxious, risk-averse Vestry culture across The Episcopal Church. What else would we expect, then, than numerical decline? And yet I’ve heard time and again from lay leaders across the church that they accepted a call into leadership only to find that their questions, concerns, joys, and sense of opportunities weren’t welcome. Vestry was all ‘business as usual.’ What if Vestry Leaders could ask the big questions? Even more so, what if Vestry was the best and safest place in the entire church to ask and have those big, audacious questions addressed head-on?

7. Are you trying to improve the organization, or transform it?
Most of us think that our goal on Vestry is to improve the internal operating system of the parish/congregation, and that takes up the vast majority of time. But what if making a more streamlined, nimble, agile, effective church does not, in fact, lead to a transformative and transforming church? So what, in the end, is the goal? Are we trying to improve the local version of the Episcopal Church, make it work better, for less money, with less wear and tear, and fewer headaches for leadership? Or are we trying to figure out a way to more fully understand and bless our immediate communities and neighborhoods? What if transformation looks a little more ‘messy’ and we can’t ‘control’ it? Would we still pursue transformation?

8. Number, Size & Length of Term
It seems that Jesus himself must’ve said something about having three-person classes serving three-year terms of leadership on the Vestry, or at least that’s what most Episcopalians seem to think of as normative. Why? Why three years? That’s really quite long. Ever since, my parish switched to two-year Vestry terms we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people who are more willing to explore being nominated – and the right kinds of people, too: imaginative, creative, not business-as-usual folks. Two years is a bit more manageable than three. And why three-member classes? I would imagine that a Vestry should not be larger than 10% of a given congregation’s Average Sunday Attendance. Figure out what number you can or should have, and revise your by-laws accordingly. It’s better for the whole body, Vestry and congregation, if you have the right people with the right giftings on the right team(s).

9. Delegate Oversight
The Vestry can give away its responsibility to any committee or task force or working group it creates at any point and, in so doing, it never loses its power of ultimate oversight. A smart Vestry makes sure it always pays attention to the big picture and never slides into the weeds on this or that. Good Vestry leadership helps keep the group on track and moving forward.

10. Shared Oversight, Balance
A Vestry that honestly wants to transform itself, leaving behind business-as-usual and moving toward something more engaging and mission-focused, will find ways to embrace a shared model of oversight and some honest balance among so many competing interests. For instance, why should a Vestry spend more than 5 minutes of its meeting on financial reports if, in fact, they have a strong Finance Committee and the Treasurer is communicating effectively? Years ago, we moved the Treasurer’s Report to the end of the agenda. Back then, it was a good move because we didn’t think about whether we had the money to do such-and-such; instead, we talked about things in terms of mission and ministry. But then we created a great Finance Committee and set up really effective financial management and oversight systems. These days, our Vestry hardly talks about money at all. We’ve got other, more impactful things to discuss and we trust that if we need to know something about our financial life we’ll be told from the Finance Committee and/or Treasurer.