January 2015
Vestry Leadership

Lift Every Voice

This article is also available in Spanish aquí

Vestry meetings can be a challenge in diverse congregations. People vary widely in personality, cultural background, work experience, educational preparation, and familiarity with The Episcopal Church. Some features of our individual experience make it likely that we will be comfortable speaking up in vestry meetings. Others make us likely to remain silent, even when we have something to add.

As congregational leaders, how might we help people who might otherwise remain silent feel more comfortable about adding their voice to the conversation or discussion? Here are some things that I’ve learned in the 15 years I’ve worked with vestries as a priest serving diverse congregations.

Lift Every Voice

Start the meeting with an exercise that involves hearing from everyone at the table. Reflection on a short Bible passage is a great way to do this. At St. Mary’s, we use mutual invitation to make sure that we hear from everyone in the room. The meeting chair invites someone to start the sharing, then that person invites someone else, and so on.

Opening with Bible study that calls on every voice gets people in the habit of both speaking and listening at meetings, and sets the baseline expectation that every voice will be heard.

Keeping the “every voice” spirit going when you get down to business can be a little harder. The best vestry meetings identify one issue that’s important enough to hear every member’s perspective. Sometimes that’s not possible. But if you find yourself with many meetings without anything that important on the agenda, you may have a deeper problem.

Ideally, you let people know what the “every voice” issue is in advance, giving them time to think about this issue and what they might contribute. Not everyone thinks well on their feet. Mutual invitation works here too, although you may need to offer a second round for anyone who wants to respond to what someone else has said.

Beware the Spreadsheet

In my experience there's nothing quite like a spreadsheet to sap the confidence of even the most intrepid vestry member. There is a great divide between people who handle spreadsheets in daily life and people who don't. When we pass out spreadsheets in vestry meetings with little or no explanation, we have just silenced half the room or more. If you don't know what to do with a spreadsheet, it's hard to know what questions to ask. Vital information about the church's resources and obligations remain locked in those intimidating columns of numbers, leaving the people elected to steward those resources and meet those obligations without a clear way forward.

My vestry uses spreadsheets. A well-designed spreadsheet really is the best and easiest way to track and display financial information. But we try never to assume that it is obvious how to use them. We pay special attention to labeling columns. We use as few columns as possible, and select for the most useful information. We try to have one column that can be scanned quickly to identify where attention is needed. The most useful column may be the one that shows year-to-date expenditure as a percentage of year-to-date budget. While some members of the vestry would be hard-pressed to make that calculation, they can all scan the column and circle the numbers that are far off from 100. That gives us a place to start in reviewing expenditures and income sources that are not what we expected them to be.

At least once a year, we do spreadsheet “de-mystification” training. We walk people through the rows and the columns, explaining what information they contain. We practice finding and interpreting various figures together. We set the expectation that no question is too basic, and that we are all in this together. It’s a good opportunity to recognize the gifts of those who do bring the skills to manage our resources from a numbers perspective, but also to recognize that numbers are only one piece of what the vestry is called to do.

Prepare the Way

When I send the vestry agenda each month, I prepare notes, usually about two pages for a typical two-hour meeting. They are unofficial and written in my rector’s voice (as opposed to representing an official vestry perspective). I describe each agenda item in a brief paragraph, which answers some or all of the following questions. Why are we talking about this? What is the key background information? What do you, the vestry member, need to do to prepare for this part of the discussion? How important is this? Have we talked about it before? Where did we leave things in the previous discussion? Do we need to make a decision at this meeting?

I started doing these notes to help vestry meetings move faster. The notes help a little with that, especially when we remember not to rehash what’s in them. What they really help with is giving everyone a fighting chance at participation. For people who have had to miss meetings, there’s a quick catch-up on ongoing conversations. For non-native English speakers there is key context that gives a head start in understanding fast-moving conversations. For someone who is not sure they understand what an issue is about, there’s a chance to ask discreetly before the meeting, and get some clarification. The notes give us a chance to start with a shared set of basic information.

Our Episcopal structures -- and the materials that the Church provides to support those structures -- tend to make a lot of assumptions about shared culture and experience. If your congregation is made up of anyone who is not already spending a lot of time in a boardroom during the week, you will need to find ways to supplement those structures and materials. You will find that it is worth it, as important perspectives emerge and people feel free to bring their gifts to the table.

Try This
Sometimes in a group situation, when a few voices dominate a conversation or discussion, others can have a hard time breaking in, while the shyest among us may not even try. Mutual invitation is an easy to use process that ensures everyone who wants to has the opportunity to speak. This process works best in groups of no more than 12 people and when you have the time necessary for every person to speak.

The leader or designated person introduces the question or topic then invites someone else in the group to share. After the next person has spoken, that person is given the privilege to invite another to share. If you have something to say but are not ready yet, say “pass for now,” and then invite someone else to share. You will be invited again later. If you don’t want to say anything, simply say, “pass” and proceed to invite another to share. This continues until everyone has been invited and all who choose to have shared.

Key to this process is listening and not responding to another’s sharing immediately. There will be time to respond and ask clarifying questions after everyone has had an opportunity to share.

Eric H.F. Law offers a detailed description of this process in this three part series in the Kaleidoscope Institute Newsletter of May, June, and July 2007.

Anna Olson lives and works in the diverse Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, serving since 2011 as rector of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles’ only historic Japanese-American Episcopal church. Her interests and expertise in parish ministry include working with historic congregations to connect with the needs and gifts of new neighbors; developing models for multilingual and inculturated liturgy; liturgy in public spaces; and opening space for marginalized communities to reshape and revitalize the church. She has a partner and two daughters, is fluent in Spanish and holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo.


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Sample Vestry Agenda

This article is part of the January 2015 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Leadership