January 2013
Vital Vestries

Reframe Vestry Meetings

Does this sound familiar?

Saint Dunstan’s Church is above average in size for an Episcopal Church. It has about one hundred worshippers on Sunday. This has been true for about a decade, but twenty years ago the number was twice that. During that earlier period, the church had a rector, an associate, a part time youth minister, and a director of Christian education. Now they have one priest and volunteer leaders in youth ministry and Christian education.

Located in a suburban area of a small city, Saint Dunstan’s has a small amount of capital debt from a Christian education wing built around the time attendance began to drop. Thinking the church was no longer appealing to families with children, a building dedicated to the education of children and youth was intended to “fix the problem.” However, young families have not made Saint Dunstan’s their church home. The new wing is now mostly vacant on Sundays and in need of some minor repairs.

The twelve members of the vestry meet monthly in a corner of their parish hall. They open with prayer, approve the minutes, listen to a budget report and resume what they believe to be a never-ending discussion. The repairs needed on the education wing surface again. “Do we need to have a rummage sale to help pay for repairs?” “Where are the kids it was built for?” “Why aren’t we attracting new folks, especially younger members?” “Maybe we need to hire a part-time youth minister or something.”

In the midst of this discussion another wrinkle is added. “Visitors don’t feel welcome here. I invited a co-worker a month ago and she came when I wasn’t here. No one spoke to her.” Problem solving sets in. “Let’s train our greeters better.” “Maybe the rector needs to make a bolder welcoming announcement.” “I think the rector should be visiting more people, at least that is what some parishioners have said to me. She spends too much time in her office.”

After two hours, the meeting adjourns. Most members are exhausted and no solutions seemed to be put forth. The issues will be revisited at the next meeting.

The place where the vestry is stuck has to do with change. Change comes in two kinds: technical change and adaptive change.

Technical change is familiar to everyone. We encounter problems and circumstances for which there is a known remedy. When our faucet leaks in the bathroom we call a plumber. The inculcated reaction in most of us is seeking a technical change when we are faced with a problem. Our default inclination is to fix the problem. This is the realm of management as opposed to leadership.

Adaptive change is about learning new ways, changing attitudes, remodeling behaviors and broadening our values. Without engaging adaptive change, many of the problematic experiences we have will go unresolved and, over the long term, fester. Adaptive change is about changing us, changing processes, changing our lives. Probably the most common source of leadership failure is the temptation to treat challenges with a technical fix rather than employ the longer, harder work of adaptive change.

Saint Dunstan’s was using technical change when adaptive change was needed. The good news for Saint Dunstan’s is that their rector attended a diocesan study day for clergy. She came back with an aha moment to share with the vestry. There was no overnight cure, but with the help of a nearby Presbyterian minister who was schooled in change theory, they began to break out of their cycle of limitation and lament.

The question for vestries then is: If the vestry is not a board of directors managing the temporal affairs and keeping the rules and regulations as a primary function, what should the vestry be? Beyond the governance of a congregation lies the larger horizon of where God is calling those in your faith community as they are formed as disciples of Christ. Congregations are unique and gifted collections of people endowed with abilities and talents which, when aggregated, offer God both voice and hands to accomplish the ongoing work of making whole that which has become broken.

The major work of the vestry, which transforms governance into a generative, sense-making experience, is to create a frame of reference through which leaders process all governing issues and challenges. The output of such a process both builds health in individual members and energizes a congregation to move forward with growing capacity for participation in the reign of God.

Much of the time a vital vestry spends together has this purpose: How do we make God present in our families, our neighborhood, our town, and our world? As the vestry discerns its own, unique answer to this question, it opens the ministry to everyone while helping to create a meaningful path through the complex adaptive changes every community needs to negotiate.


This article is excerpted from Randy Ferebee's new book Cultivating the Missional Church: New Soil for Growing Vestries and Leaders, (Church Publishing, available in early 2013) and is reprinted with permission.


Randy Ferebee retired in 2009 after 36 years as rector of St. Alban’s in Hickory, NC. He co-founded Epiphany Institute + Consulting to create environments for leadership development and to assist congregations with entering this new missional era. Many vestries are familiar with Randy’s work having participated in Epiphany Institute’s annual Church Leadership Conference, held each January at Kanuga. Randy’s new book Cultivating the Missional Church: New Soil for Growing Vestries and Leaders, Church Publishing, will be available in early 2013. 


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