January 2013
Vital Vestries

Build a Healthy Vestry

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Whether your vestry is composed of six or sixteen, the members are vital faith leaders for your church. Yet, when it comes to recruiting new candidates, outgoing members sometimes default to criteria that I equate to raising a red flag. Do any of these sound familiar? “He’s retired and has lots of time on his hands, so I bet he’d be willing.” “She’s one of our biggest givers, we’d better ask her.” “He’s not involved yet; maybe if he’s on vestry he will get more connected.” Help!

As a new rector in the 1990s, I knew that I wanted a prayerful process for raising up healthy, faithful leaders for the congregation. I attended conferences and listened to wise observations from experienced lay and clergy leaders and over time created a process that has helped us at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Houston.

The key to this process working well is intentional planning and communicating by congregational leaders, especially the senior warden, keeping the focus on ministry. Clergy and lay leaders identify qualities to look for in new vestry members, sharing this information widely among the congregation using print, email, and personal invitations to potential candidates. Scheduled discernment sessions precede the formal nomination process and election, providing an opportunity for interested members to learn more about how the vestry functions, expectations of vestry members, time commitment, etc.

The step-by-step process we use at Emmanuel follows; please take what you want and adapt it for your situation. I’ll cheer you on as you cooperate with the Holy Spirit in prompting the right people to serve at the right time.

1) Set a schedule: The process is built around scheduled “Vestry Discernment Sessions.” I have usually needed to schedule two duplicate sessions, one on a weekday evening and one on a Saturday to insure availability to each interested person. The senior warden and I lead these sessions, and sometimes other vestry members attend.

2) Publicize these sessions in every way you have available: This is the time to “take nominations.” Encourage vestry and all members of your church to identify who should attend these.

  • General publicity: Use your newsletter, electronic notes, verbal and printed announcements on Sundays to invite people to come. Always use the language of ministry! The “oversight of the well-being of the church,” the administration of the “household of faith,” modeling of Christian community, all these are ministry. Be sure to emphasize that a variety of gifts are needed on a leadership team. For example, a vestry needs a person or two who have a gift of prayer as well as one or two who excel in reading a balance statement!
  • Personal invitations: Encourage all members of the church to be alert to who will make good vestry leaders. Certainly vestry members should initiate conversations with potential candidates. I always make personal invitations by writing letters or emails to a list of those we agree are healthy, mature possible candidates, and I follow up with a phone call. This is part of discernment: I describe to people the qualities I see in them that would make them appropriate candidates for vestry. I am clear that attending one of the sessions in no way obligates anyone; rather I emphasize that this is prayerful exploration with the help of the Holy Spirit. You can share this work with the Senior Warden. I think the clergy leader should keep a list of who is invited each year in a private file and make notes of results. Some who discern they are not ready this year may be open to attending a discernment session or becoming a candidate in their future.

3) Qualities to look for: Each person must be grounded in faith, be regular in worship attendance, and be a person of prayer. Of course, we are looking for skills and experience that will be helpful. We seek those who are respected in the church community; some will already be known widely, while others are building that respect within smaller circles in ministry teams and responsibilities. Finally, each person must be positive and trustworthy, i.e. emotionally healthy. We must not get hooked into “fixing” someone, even when we feel anxious, even desperate to get that one more vestry candidate!

4) Hold the sessions: I make an agenda so that each session is 45 minutes-1 hour in length. At the heart of discernment is the question: Is this a ministry God wants me to do? To help those who attend listen to God about this we provide handouts that describe both the “job description” and the criteria and expectations of vestry members. Our list of expectations begins with their commitment to Christ and belief that prayer helps us discern God’s leading. We include practical statements about attendance at meetings (and provide a list of the next year’s meeting dates), and financial pledging. We also express expectations of ability to form an environment of trust and loyalty. We read and briefly discuss our Vision and Mission statements and preview any extraordinary initiatives of the near to mid-future. We open and close with prayer and have a brief scripture teaching. We want those who attend to leave with a sense of what the time commitment will be and with our support in their prayerful listening. We ask for their replies within two weeks. These are all good answers: No; No, not now; or Yes, I’m ready! The clergy would do well to record the replies in the discernment file for future years’ consideration.

It has been my experience in most years that this deep listening is the election. I mean that if the community has invited all the appropriate people to attend one of the sessions and they have faithfully considered the question, “Is this a ministry God wants me to do” and the answer is yes, then we have the right number of people for the number of positions. We are careful not to have only one candidate beyond the required number. That is a set up for hurt and a hard pastoral situation. It is best that if you have more candidates than positions that you have at least two beyond the number of openings.

5) The election at the annual parish meeting: Publicize the candidates with short biographies and photos in your newsletter, on bulletins boards, and/or online. At the meeting, introduce the candidates who have gone through discernment. We do open the floor for nominations from those present at the meeting, not limiting the Holy Spirit’s inspiration! But I have found that we do not have these floor nominations. I always encourage those at the annual meeting to think about who to encourage to enter discernment the next year.

While all human processes have their frailties, over the years we have had healthy, strong vestries. People are mostly on the “same page,” expecting and experiencing vestry not as a “business meeting,” but as a faith-girded leadership group. Language is so powerful. Two of the most helpful uses of words in all this: 1) “Ministry”—People are called to this ministry. Vestry ministry is Christ-centered. 2) “Household of faith”—Confront gently but surely then get rid of the phrase that “church is a business…” It is not. We are a household of faith, and every household needs to tend to its “house” and its finances, and at the heart of the household are the relationships to God and each other.

The Rev. Janie Kirt Morris is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Called to Emmanuel from the Diocese of Oklahoma in early 2003, she feels blessed to serve there. Janie resonates with the assurance from Romans 8:38 that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In addition to her passion for ministry, Janie enjoys listening to music, especially jazz, playing and watching sports, and being in nature.


This article is part of the January 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Vital Vestries