On Being a Senior Warden
In my 40 years in the Episcopal Church, I have served as bishop’s warden or senior warden in two churches. One church was located in a small town and had been a mission for more than 35 years but became a parish while I was a member there. During its status as a mission, I served as bishop’s warden with four different priests. After it became a parish, I served as senior warden for two priests. The second church was located in a mid-sized city and was described as a program size church. While worshiping there, I served as senior warden for three priests. My total service time as bishop’s warden or senior warden was fifteen years.
During my years of service, there were a variety of experiences. Most of the time, the churches were healthy and vibrant. On other occasions, there was turmoil. In both churches, I served during times when the rector was called to another parish and our parish entered into a search process.
One of my proudest moments serving as a bishop’s warden/senior warden occurred while serving with my third priest. He was a young priest in his third year serving in his first parish following ordination. I was an older and experienced bishop’s warden who had served with two other priests in our small town parish that had been a mission for thirty-five years. Under the leadership of the young priest, the parish was admitted as a parish at our Diocesan Council. I had served as bishop’s warden the two years leading up to the admission as a parish and was pleased to see God’s hand working in the young priest. The next years were years of growth in our parish as we saw God using the talented young priest to lead a vibrant small church. With the mentoring of the young priest, three young men from the small church accepted God’s call to go forward to serve as Youth Ministers with two of them now having been ordained as priests.
Leading During Times of Transition
One of the most difficult periods in which I served occurred several years later in a much larger parish in a different city. The parish had survived a difficult time following the dismissal of the rector by the bishop. The new rector was in the second year of his service. I had just retired from my secular career and was looking forward to a retirement of leisure and travel. The rector asked me if I would serve as senior warden. With much prayer and with the blessing of my wife who said, “Maybe this is God’s way of easing you into retirement,” I accepted. One week later, the rector advised me that he was going to resign and would leave in three weeks. Selecting an interim rector and leading the search for a new rector made the following nine months a very exciting but trying time. It was also a time of seeing God working in our parish. During that time we saw God raise up leaders who helped instill a new spirit in the parish.
During periods of transition, particularly if you do not have an interim rector, the senior warden becomes the face of the parish. This is a great time for a period of reflection on the part of the parish. It can be a time that leaders are discovered and the parish celebrates its strengths. As the senior warden, you should demonstrate a posture of calm and confidence. That posture comes from the knowledge that God will provide.
The Ability to Adapt
The vicars and rectors that I served with had a range of characteristics. One was on his first assignment after graduation from seminary. Another was a retired priest serving as our interim who had been named rector emeritus of a large parish that he had founded. One was a female, the others male. One was very high church while another was more evangelical. Some were older than I while some were younger. I was blessed to serve with each of these priests and learned from each one.
In serving with a variety of rectors, the senior warden should be able to adapt his interaction with the rector just as he adapts his interaction to various family members, friends, parishioners, and co-workers. Everyone wants to be treated with respect, honesty, and dignity.
Cultivating a Relationship of Trust and Respect
The most important thing that I have learned is that as senior warden you must know your role and your relationship with your rector. You are the rector’s warden. You are not the assistant rector. You are not in an employer/employee relationship. You serve as a partner in ministry with your rector but you are the junior partner. You are an advisor, an encourager, a supporter, and a confidante. It’s my belief that when God calls a priest to serve as rector of a parish, God gives a vision to that priest. It is incumbent on the senior warden to assist the rector in accomplishing that vision. When you and your rector have a different opinion on a matter, you discuss it privately. Regardless of how the difference is resolved, afterwards you speak in a unified voice. You should encourage your rector to take care of his or her health—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually and as well the health of her or his family.
If you respect your role as senior warden and if you maintain a healthy relationship with your rector, God will lead you through prayer to make the best decisions in whatever situations you encounter. At the end of your term, you will have been blessed by God and you will be a blessing to your rector and to your parish.
Our Episcopal churches are blessed to with the volunteer leadership provided by the wardens and other vestry members. The challenge is finding an appropriate balance between ‘getting the work done’ and maintaining a strong connection with the spiritual expression of your faith. In “Feeding Your Soul in the Small Church,” (Vestry Papers, September 2009), Kevin Spears invites senior wardens to pay attention to these six practices:
- Focus on building an authentic relationship with the rector.
- Use this opportunity to work on your own personal productivity and time management skills.
- Get comfortable with unfinished business, incomplete projects, and slow progress.
- Pray for your congregation – out loud, in detail, and at least once a week.
- Take every opportunity to express appreciation, encouragement, and gratitude to people who lead and serve.
- As often as possible, find a way to ask the question, “What are we really about in this congregation?”
Robert Harris is an experienced senior warden and vestry member. During his 40 years as an Episcopalian, Robert has over 15 years experience as a senior warden, serving churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
- Sample Vestry Job Description, The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia
- The Warden’s Handbook, The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
- Wardens of a Parish, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Congregations, Church Publishing Incorporated
- “You’ve a New Warden: Now What?” by Donald Romanik, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, January 2009
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