September 2003
Vestry Responsibilities

Vestry Members as Spiritual Leaders

“The spiritual leadership of the parish is the rector’s job!”  

“I don’t know how to talk about it, I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Now you’re saying we have to worry about being spiritual leaders as well as overseeing the budget, and stewardship, and education, and buildings and grounds?” 

These were some of the shocked reactions in a workshop focused on spirituality for vestry members attending a recent diocesan vestry training day. Clearly, they did not see a growing, active prayer life as an essential attribute of vestry leadership. However, quite the opposite is true. Vestry members are indeed spiritual leaders in their parishes. For the vestry is the Body of Christ, and not just in microcosm. In their gathering they represent the fullness of the church—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It is the holiness factor under consideration here.

When vestry members individually and collectively take seriously their leadership in the spiritual life of the congregation, their very functioning is influenced. An example: When I was a rector, at our annual mutual ministry reviews, we would ask retiring members to tell us how being on the vestry had influenced them the most. The first time I tried this I expected to hear about the demands on already busy lives or stress on the congregation as our local employer (a naval base) closed its doors. 

Imagine the impact on all of us when we heard our most tentative believer say that her faith had grown because of being on the vestry, and this is what enabled her to volunteer to run the church school when that position became vacant. The sense of community within the vestry, regular Bible study with which we opened meetings and the time for silent prayer before a major decision had all deepened her relationship with God.

Sustaining their own spirituality
Vestry members become spiritual leaders by having their own spirituality sustained. What can we offer vestries—large and small—that nurtures and forms their inner lives? How do we transform the agenda of a business meeting into an opportunity for encounter with the living God? How do we nurture our chosen congregational leaders into spiritual role models for the whole congregation? 

This does not imply that when one is elected to the vestry one must all of a sudden become a spiritual giant. It does not even suggest that only those with attractive and stellar personalities can assume congregational office. (There are certainly enough cranks and oddities among the saints on the church calendar.) What it means is that one has an authentic relationship with God: a relationship nurtured by prayer, framed by some sort of daily discipline, and anchored by weekly participation in corporate worship.

When the vestry gathers to do its work, here are some practical ways to structure the process of getting the inevitable business of the church accomplished in a way that is also attentive to the spiritual life of the vestry:  

  • Mail out the agenda beforehand and invite those who will gather to see the meeting announcement as an invitation to prayer. 
  • Always do some Bible study at the beginning of the meeting, no matter how packed the agenda. Give it just 15 minutes if you are pressed, but do not ever skip it. 
  • Share a meal or Eucharist, perhaps once a quarter. 
  • Check in: How have I seen, felt, discerned God’s presence in my life since the last meeting? 
  • Decision making: Before a decision is made, stop and spend time in silent prayer together. 
  • Make as few yea/nay votes as possible. Instead, utilize consensus. 
  • Sing. 
  • Have a designated “pray-er” during the course of the meeting, someone whose responsibility is not to talk, but simply to be in prayer and in the presence of the vestry, during the meeting. The task can be divided up, with changes made every 20 minutes, and an object silently passed from one pray-er to the next. 
  • In closing, talk about: Where have we seen God’s presence in this meeting? Where have we blocked God’s Spirit in this meeting? 
  • Close with Compline. 
  • Have prayer partners pray for one another in between meetings, and change partners each month. One of my field education students suggested we use plastic eggs, with enough for all vestry members, including the rector/vicar. Put them all in a basket and have people choose an egg without looking. Show the eggs when all have chosen one. Partners pray for one another before leaving the premises, and covenant to do so throughout the coming month, until the next meeting. Return eggs to basket for next time.

Not all of these suggestions can be implemented, nor should they. However, by choosing some of them you say to one another and to the congregation that you will not tend to the church’s business without tending to your own and one another’s souls.

The Rev. L. Ann Hallisey is Director of Cornerstone, a ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation. Cornerstone’s mission is to develop programs and publications that nurture the development of lay and clergy leaders, thereby strengthening local congregations for mission and ministry. Ann has been a priest for 19 years, serving the last nine years as the rector of Church of the Ascension in Vallejo, CA. She is also a licensed marriage, family and child therapist and an experienced spiritual director.

This article is part of the September 2003 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Responsibilities