May 8, 2024

75 Years of Lay Empowerment

This year, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) is celebrating its 75th Anniversary. We were founded by the Rt. Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill in 1949 as an independent, lay-led organization charged with “having great convictions about great things.” Bishop Sherrill served as Presiding Bishop during the post-war boom in The Episcopal Church and American society in general. Sherrill was clearly ahead of his time in creating an organization with a board of directors that was entirely lay, and we have continued that tradition and practice to this very day. A lay-led board is more than optics or window dressing, however. Lay empowerment has been part of ECF’s DNA since our inception.

Lay leaders have been involved in church governance and finances for decades, but until recently, have had a more limited role in broader matters of mission and ministry. The traditional model was that vestries were responsible for money and property, with the rector having control of everything else. Thanks to the work of ECF, and enlightened bishops and priests, that traditional role is no longer the norm. Lay leaders, especially members of the Vestry, are now full partners with the priest in discerning and implementing all aspects of parish life, not just the budget. ECF has been providing valuable publications, resources, and tools to support these lay leaders in their important work - from Vestry Papers to Vital Practices, supplemented by Vestry Resource Guide and Finance Resource Guide in both English and Spanish. Furthermore, each of our initiatives over the past 20 years has promoted and supported the ministry of all the baptized and effective lay-clergy partnerships.

Effective lay leadership is even more critical now, as the church experiences significant change and transition, including an ongoing decline in membership and attendance. Many congregations can no longer afford a full-time priest with the need for laypeople to assume full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the local faith community. Even in well-resourced parishes, active lay involvement is critical.

And ECF constituents seem to agree with this new paradigm. Over 60% of Episcopalians who respond to our monthly Episcopal Pulse surveys believe that successful “lay engagement and empowerment” is an indicator of a healthy congregation – 68% from smaller congregations and 53% from larger congregations. These faithful Episcopalians realize and appreciate that clergy and staff cannot and should not do it on their own. Active engagement in God’s mission in the world is a team activity requiring all of our skills, passion, and energy.

During this 75th Anniversary year, ECF is recommitting itself to Bishop Sherrill’s original legacy. Please join us in our celebration as we continue to support and resource our dedicated lay leaders at all levels of the church, especially those from underserved and underrepresented communities. Empowered laity is critical not only to the ongoing vitality of The Episcopal Church, but to our very future.