May 2012

Being on the Same Page

Years ago, shortly after my arrival at a new parish, I sought the advice of my bishop regarding some confusion we were having over roles, responsibilities, policies, and procedures. After listening to my description of the situation, he said, “Consult your governing documents.”

That was wise advice and it has benefitted the congregations I have served, both as a settled rector and as a transition specialist. Governing documents, such as bylaws, policy manuals, and articles of incorporation, are essential to good order in the life of a congregation or church organization. They describe agreed upon roles, responsibilities, policies, and procedures and reflect compliance with and accession to governing documents of the diocese and the general Church.

When a new priest arrives or when new vestry members assume office, organizational documents should be reviewed so everyone can get on the same page. Conducting the business of the congregation in compliance with the organizational documents will help everyone stay on the same page.

The canons of most dioceses require that bylaws and articles of incorporation be reviewed by the diocesan chancellor and signed by the bishop. This requirement extends to amendments and revisions. Copies of the most recently approved bylaws and articles from congregations and organizations are usually kept on file in diocesan offices. Many dioceses have model documents available either on their websites or through the bishop’s office.

Printed copies can be made available in the church office or in some central location. Congregations with websites often post electronic copies of organizational documents for all to see. Providing vestries with a notebook that includes organizational documents is a good practice. Members of the vestry can also file copies of minutes, financial statements, and correspondence in their notebooks throughout their term of office. When vestries have an annual retreat or organizational meeting, it is good to take the time to review organizational documents and established policies and procedures.

From time to time, changes in the needs of a congregation, changes in state or federal law, or changes in general or diocesan canons may make revision of organizational documents necessary. The process for making revisions and amendments is normally described in the documents themselves. The last thing one wants to hear is, “We know the bylaws say thus and so, but here’s how we actually do it.” If operating in a different manner from what is described in the governing documents seems advisable, it may be time for a revision. Simply setting aside the agreed upon procedure in one matter can easily lead to disregarding procedural norms altogether, which can lead to conflict and potentially leave those in leadership vulnerable to litigation.

Diocesan Safe Church policies require employees of congregations and organizations of the Episcopal Church to receive specific kinds of training and to repeat that training periodically. Members of vestries and those who work with children and youth must also receive specific training periodically. Clergy and vestries are expected to see that everyone is in compliance with these requirements. Each congregation and organization should maintain files that contain records with names of persons who have taken the required training and the dates. Safe Church training provided by the Church Pension Group strongly emphasizes knowing and following the policies and those who are trained are often required to sign a statement saying that they have read the policies and agree to abide by them. It is important to make those policies available to everyone who is under the requirement to receive training and to post the policies for everyone to see.

If there is an employee manual, it should be periodically reviewed by persons who are familiar with employment laws and practices. Employees should be provided with the current manual and it should be a condition of employment that they sign a statement that they have read and agree to abide by the policies and procedures set forth therein. A good employee file should contain: a written position description, an application for employment, documentation of compensation, a description of benefits, the background check report, the Safe Church training record, and certain other documents as may be required by church, state, or federal laws. The clergy in charge should see that the files are complete, up to date, and kept in a secure location.

Attention to these resources fosters healthy congregational life because governing documents are vehicles for getting on the same page and staying there. When the leadership of a congregation or church organization is familiar with and faithful to its governing documents, it reduces confusion and misunderstanding, increases clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, and conserves time and energy.

Ronald D. Pogue is Interim Rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Ashland, Kentucky. He has served as a rector in the Diocese of Texas and as an interim rector in the Diocese of Kansas and the Diocese of Lexington. Ron is the founder and moderator of Unapologetically Episcopalian, a member of the Board of Transition Ministries in the Episcopal Church, and is certified as a Professional Transition Specialist with the Interim Ministry Network.


This article is part of the May 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Governance