January 2013
Vital Vestries

I Miss Vestry Meetings

I rarely hear former vestry members say, “I really miss those vestry meetings.” Does that surprise you? Do you consider vestry service a chore?

I have had the privilege of working with vestries for 40 years. As bishop I held an annual conference for wardens and vestry members to discuss the immense value of their leadership role in the church. It was one of my favorite days each year.

Why? Because I believe that vestries should be one of the most exciting ministries in the church – joyful, in fact. Healthy, effective vestries make healthy, effective parishes. When rectors and vestries work together as a well-aligned team, extraordinary things happen for the mission of God. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true – when they don’t, it’s usually not a pretty sight. Or at least a very dull one.

If you need to put more joy and vitality into your vestry service, let me offer a few learnings that I think help make vestries vital.

Spiritual nourishment tops the list. The open discussion of a passage of Scripture for 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each meeting enables the members to share insights, experience Christ’s grace in deepening relationships, and remember that they are about God’s business. Insights about a Bible text can open fresh avenues of thought never dreamed of when the formal agenda was prepared. (And it never makes the meetings longer – I promise!)

Gospel vision is the next key element. I am fond of quoting Helen Keller who was once asked if anything were worse than losing one’s eyesight. She quickly replied, “Yes, losing your vision.” A vestry that has lost its vision is a sorry sight. The symptoms are usually over-attention to financial reports (and scarcity), dull routine, and anxiety.

God has created the church to be on the move, not sitting still and fretting over maintenance issues. Of course, it is vitally important to care for the institution and fabric. But the world is yearning for good news and hope, and we are called to reach out, to offer transforming worship, to form faithful people, and to live Christ’s love in the world. Imagine a vestry agenda that, before the financial report, etc., has such visionary items first on the list!

Before the annual vestry retreat of one parish I served, vestrypersons interviewed several people in the community (not Episcopalians) and asked two questions: what is your impression of our parish and what do you think we should be doing for God and for this city? The results were fascinating and unfailingly provided seeds for new mission and outreach initiatives.

Year-round stewardship is next on my list. Vestry members need to be among the most generous and committed stewards in the parish. Generosity is contagious. When the vestry - in word and example - challenges the parish to give of themselves in time, talent, and treasure, energy is created throughout the community. Christian stewardship is not the same as fund-raising. It is a way of life. It is about living generously and putting God first in our priorities.

One of our most valuable tools is what we have long called the Every Member Canvass. I really worry about it being much neglected these days. However designed, a canvass makes it possible for one-on-one contact each year with our members, the vestry members taking the lead. Yes, a canvass asks, unapologetically, for financial gifts; but even more it is asking for commitment to God and building community. What greater gift can we give to one another than such encouragement?

Support for the rector is fourth on my little list. If a person cannot work with the rector in a positive way he or she should not be on a vestry. Now this does not mean always agreeing. A vestry of ‘yes’ people is not very creative. The Spirit works in lively dialogue. Support includes honest feedback and constructive criticism, but always for the purpose of building up the rector’s and the parish’s ministry, not tearing things down.

Likewise, rectors must empower vestry members to exercise their gifts of leadership. As systems theory wisely points out, if the rector over-functions the vestry will under-function and God’s work is diminished. Balance is key. One of the best times in my parish ministry was when we agreed that I should stop attending all the countless committee meetings. Not only did it give me time to be a better pastor and teacher and evangelist, but it empowered lay leadership in fresh ways. I kept in close touch with the chairs and attended meetings when asked or crucial. Meanwhile amazing ideas and plans emerged in my absence. Imagine that!

Dealing with anxiety in a healthy way is next. We live in an unsettled age of rampant change, and this takes a toll on the church. Anxiety may be a parish’s worst enemy, creating negativity and conflict. The three best ways I know to deal with it are laughter, listening, and firm focus. Vestries need to have fun, laugh together, and not take themselves too seriously. Anxious people need to be listened to and heard, even if we cannot satisfy their needs. Finally, the vestry needs to have a firm focus in mission, and never let agenda-driven people keep us from moving toward discerned goals.

When, at times, there is significant conflict brewing, mature Christian leaders do not separate. They lean into it and find a way through together.

Finally, healthy, effective vestries are always focused beyond themselves. Churches that live unto themselves die unto themselves. The vestry sets the tone. The ministry of the diocese and larger church should always get first and unfailingly generous support. Community outreach and evangelism should be on the top of our list of priorities, not last, with whatever energy and money might be left.

Probably the happiest vestry I ever worked with kept faithfully its commitment to give a minimum of 30% of the parish’s annual income to ministry beyond itself. Sometimes much more. Not only did this help many people and ministries. It energized the parish to be givers. They knew that their gifts were going to mission, not just maintenance; to making a real difference, not just protecting the status quo.

These are a few things that I believe help vestry service to be joyful and gratifying, making former members say, “I really miss those vestry meetings!” Such vestries build up the church in love and service, for the good of the world and the greater glory of God. As the old song says, “That’s what it’s all about!”

Henry Parsley was ordained deacon in 1973 and consecrated bishop in 1996. He has been especially active in outreach ministries, as Chancellor of Sewanee, and chairing the bishops’ Theology Committee. He loves to fly-fish, lead retreats on literature and faith, travel, and laugh with friends.


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