May 2008
Vestry Orientation

Vestry service: light over darkness

About twenty-five years ago, I began my leadership journey as an elected vestry person in my current congregation, Christ Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the first year of my term, the vestry dealt with a significant conflict that resulted in our clergy person resigning and the congregation beginning a search process. Since then I have served several more terms in the same congregation, a couple of those as senior warden. Some would say I am a glutton for punishment; I choose to look at it more as a labor of love. Because of this work I have grown in my understanding of church as institution and as community. I have deepened my relationships with many people in the community and have a very real sense of making a difference. 

Serving on the vestry is a wonderful way to be “in the know” because my own sense of belonging needs to know what is going on in the community. This desire/need outweighs all the tough moments that occur for vestries. Churches are living organizations that change continually. There is no way to escape conflict, disappointment, hard times, or all the negative aspects that happen in life.

But just as the difficult times exist, so do the really great times, times of joy, of deepening relationships and working together to accomplish tasks one person cannot do alone. For me, it is worth working through the dark times so that one can experience the light.

Following are a few hints I have learned throughout the years that help get past the feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger that can be triggered by some vestry meetings. These are not necessarily new learnings, and I am sure many experienced vestry people could add additional ideas.

  • Help new members come on board each year.
  • Remember the vestry is an organization that consists of people who care about this job and the church, each with his/her own background and understanding of church. Everyoneon the vestry has his/her reason for being there.
  • Be familiar with the canons (laws) of the church — local, diocesan and national. You will feel more secure in some of the decisions you are asked to make.
  • Know the history of your local congregation.
  • Attend meetings; actions often speak louder than words.
  • Know your own expectations and don’t be afraid to express them on everything from how one behaves in a meeting to how decisions are made.
  • Be aware of your own expectations for clergy persons. And be aware of when expectations are clouding decisions.
  • Know what kind of time and energy you have to commit and check periodically to see if you are over-extended.
  • Encourage differing opinions in the conversations but be careful about taking these differing opinions personally.
  • Participate in fellowship activities as much as possible. This builds working relationships. You might even offer to host a social gathering of the vestry and spouses. Have fun together.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions and for clarification.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask the vestry to table a discussion in order to give people more time to think about the issue.
  • Be willing to be held accountable and to gently hold others accountable.
  • Recognize and be patient with the synergistic aspect of organizations.
  • Often direction emerges from dialogue and from hearing all the voices. The ideas that emerge from the group are usually greater than what any one person can propose. This process takes time — more time than a “yes/no” vote, but the community building aspect of dialogue is worth the time. Taking the time allows the Spirit to have voice.

A retired teacher, Ellen Bruckner is on the vestry at Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is the coordinator for Province VI.

This article is part of the May 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Orientation