Vestry as Body of Christ
Judging by what I hear from my clergy colleagues, I think it’s safe to say that vestry meetings are not most people’s idea of a good time. And from the comments I hear from lay people at diocesan gatherings, lay folk don’t often have joy in their hearts about vestry meetings either. This probably explains the rolled eyes I often get when I tell them I look forward to vestry meetings at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. What makes our vestry experience different?
It has a lot to do with our understanding of what it means to be a healthy congregation. From the beginning (St. Nick’s started in 1995), we expected every group within our parish to operate as a microcosm of the larger body, with its primary goal being to embody our understanding of healthy Christian community. And we expected this approach to “be church first, do church second” would be true even for the vestry… especially for the vestry.
At St. Nick’s, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian community underscores all that we do. We believe that the only sufficient basis for Christian unity is Christ’s love for us. To paraphrase Richard Hooker, what makes us Christian is our relationship with Christ. All other considerations – doctrinal and practical – are secondary; they are “logical consequents” of that relationship. We are not free to exclude people from the body of Christ simply because they disagree with us, even on important matters. On the contrary, because each of us is at least a little bit right and a little bit wrong in our understanding of God, we need the conflict of our differences to bring all of us to a broader, deeper understanding of God.
Let me share with you how this understanding plays itself out in the structure and processes of our vestry:
Fellowship, Bible Study, and Prayer before Business
As with every group in our congregation, vestry meetings start with prayer: not pro forma prayer but intentional prayer about our purpose for being there and inviting the Spirit’s presence and guidance. The first 30 minutes of monthly two-hour vestry meeting is dedicated to three things:
- A time of fellowship/checking in
- Bible study led by a vestry member
- Prayer led by the same vestry member focused items 1 and 2
Oddly enough, I think we achieve more in the remaining 90 minutes than if we used the whole two hours for business.
Discernment Rather Than Representation
We view the primary role of the vestry as seeking the will and the calling of God for the parish, not constituency representation. However, we recognize the tendency of those serving on leadership bodies to think of themselves as representing “people like them,” despite the fact that this can lead to cliques and factional disputes. So rather than deny this tendency, we name it, intentionally use it (to launch the gathering of information – e.g.,” What are the needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses of people like me?), and then just as intentionally discard it as we move into the process of discerning what God is calling us to do.
Transformational Dialogue Rather Than Win-Lose Debate
Most congregations view disagreement as a something be avoided, either by excluding those who disagree or by denying that it exists or matters. Yet as we understand it, disagreement can be not just healthy but holy. We find that when all of us strive to speak and to listen in love to what is at the heart of the matter for each of us (rather than to defend our positions), we are often pleasantly surprised to discover solutions that transcend our various positions and achieve what is at the heart of that matter for everyone. Our vestry officially abides by Robert’s Rules, but we call our votes to confirm our discernment rather than achieve a decision. Remembering that everyone present has something to contribute and that no one present has complete understanding, when someone raises an objection, we listen for how God is trying to expand our understanding through our disagreement. The results: Most often the many broaden their approach to include the concerns of the one. Sometimes the one is convinced by a deeper understanding of the many. And every so often (I get excited when this happens), the many are convinced by a deeper understanding of the one.
Organization and Leadership Based on Gifts and Calling
Because we view the vestry as the body of Christ in miniature, we try to operate more like an organism than an organization. Just as we do in the congregation as a whole, we view each person’s gifts and calling as God’s guidance regarding their appropriate role within the vestry. People aren’t required to “put in their time” before serving on our vestry. Nor are there hoops to jump once on the vestry before serving in certain positions. Our current Senior Warden was elected to the vestry less than a year after joining the parish and was elected by the vestry to the senior warden position soon after that, simply because it became clear to all that he was best suited for the role. Another important part of our vestry organization is paired ministry oversight. In addition to our senior and junior wardens, we have ten members who are responsible for serving as liaisons to each of our five ministry areas. So we “send them by twos.” Our goal is that every leader has a partner/understudy/co-conspirator for Christ – to support, coordinate, encourage, hold accountable. Nobody works alone.
I hope I have not given you the idea that we have achieved some kind of perfection, either as a vestry or as a congregation. On the contrary, we make as many mistakes as any other congregation or vestry, if not more. In fact, our willingness to try and to fail and to learn from our failures and try again is a big reason why our work together is as productive as it is… And an even bigger reason why, after 16 years, I still look forward to our vestry meetings.
Ken Howard is the rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, a young, growing, diverse congregation in Germantown, Maryland, near Washington, DC. He is the author of the book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them which describes the emergent, incarnational approach to Christian community which developed at St. Nicholas Church. He is also the director of The Paradoxy Center for Christian Community at St. Nicholas Church (PracticingParadoxy.com), dedicated to the exploring practice of Incarnational Christianity, and extending it through resource development, coaching, consultation, and training with congregations, dioceses, and national church groups.
- Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them: click here for 2-chapter excerpt
- Practicing Paradoxy website
- St. Nicholas Episcopal Church website
- Study guide for the practice of Incarnational ministry