November 2005
Making the Tough Choices

Decisions: The Work of Leaders

Decisions, decisions, decisions — sometimes vestry meetings seem overrun and overwrought by them. Decisions must be made regarding mission, program, personnel, planning, facilities, finances and on and on. Some are of a regular and standard nature. Others evoke strong feelings and sentiment on every side. The vestry tries to use good decision-making procedures and listen to the guidance and direction of God. This is a tall order indeed. 

Decision-making has been part of the work of leadership in the community of faith virtually from the beginning. Ever since God told Moses to call together a group of leaders in what may be the first vestry meeting ever recorded (Deuteronomy 11 and the preceding chapters) through the life and councils of the early Christian Church, leaders in communities of faith have had to make decisions. Some decisions were readily embraced by the congregations of God’s people, others fiercely resisted.

Leaders make decisions
One important lens for viewing Holy Scripture is leadership. Scripture provides a succession of stories on how people of faith led, made decisions and followed through with action. Leaders had to call on trust, vision and God’s guidance. 

We most often think of the great leaders whose stories are told in Scripture: Moses, the prophets, Peter, Paul, and Jesus himself. However, we must not lose sight of many other leaders. Women and men prayed, discerned, and decided about very significant matters of faith and life together. Sometimes they surprised themselves about the new directions they pursued, whom they welcomed in the community, and ways that God seemed to be directing and guiding them.

Leaders today, including vestry members, continue this long-standing tradition of decision-making, and they do it in a time of immense change. Life just isn’t like it used to be. American culture, religious life, and institutions are changing dramatically. 

Congregational dynamics — giving, membership, expectations, worship, program demands — are changing all around us. Just think of your own congregation and the changes that have occurred in your parish, your community and in the Episcopal Church during the recent past. All of these bring challenges, opportunities, and pressures to bear on your congregation and its leadership.

During these times of amazing shifts, vestries are the leaders of change for their own congregations. They help congregations negotiate the tides that surround them, and introduce changes to develop and further the life and mission of local communities of faith. These two realities place great responsibility on vestries and their decision-making.

Some suggestions
So what are vestry leaders to do? How best to pursue decision-making? How do they lead the mission of their congregations in a time of massive change? How do they make decisions that positively develop the mission and ministry of their congregation? Some suggestions: 

  • Keep focused on your mission. Mission clarity is the bedrock of decision-making for vestries. 
  • Utilize skills in decision-making that vestry members bring with them. The old joke (please pardon the gender specificity) was, “When is a businessman not a businessman? When he’s on the vestry…” Something in many vestry systems and cultures kept competent people from using their best skills. It’s still a challenge. Effective vestries acknowledge and use abilities people bring from their settings of daily life, profession, and leadership. 
  • “Pray without ceasing…” The time for a vestry to begin praying together is NOT when they are confronted with a major decision. Rather, the ongoing experience of prayer in vestry life provides a continuous foundation 
  • Gather information and sift through it. Information is important to decisionmaking. Some of that data comes from research; some of it comes from disciplined listening to a congregation. Gather it, but don’t become paralyzed by data overload. 
  • Distinguish between issues that require a vestry decision and those that do not. Don’t be one of those vestries that is tempted to make every decision and thereby spends too much time on (let alone re-deciding) decisions which belong to others. Deal with the big, serious (what one leadership author calls the “adaptive”) issues. 
  • Build and utilize trust. Leadership is relational. Therefore, the relationships of trust that are built in a congregation help in the making of decisions. No vestry is going to please everyone all the time, but the fabric of trust sustains the community of faith itself. Keep focused on your mission. Mission clarity is the bedrock of decision-making for vestries. 
  • Use a clear process of decision-making. Knowing what to expect and how things are done help the whole congregation as well as the vestry. Have a clearly understood and agreed upon process for deliberations and decisions. 
  • Communicate regularly and with intention. How often have you heard parishioners say, “Hey, we didn’t know anything about this? Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?” Vestries need to have an intentional plan for communicating issues, processes, and decisions. 
  • Utilize outside assistance when necessary. There are times when external consultation is really helpful in making decisions. Use it. 
Remember — as a vestry you have continual decisions to make. You are making them in a time of radical change. May God bless you in your leadership.

The Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler is the director of mission for the Episcopal Church. He has served in congregational, denominational, school, university and seminary settings and has been a consultant for numerous boards and vestries. He has written in areas of leadership, mission, congregational development and education.

This article is part of the November 2005 Vestry Papers issue on Making the Tough Choices