January 2016
‘Reboot’ Your Vestry

Norms & Covenants: Tools to Strengthen Your Team

I recently agreed to stand for election as vice president of an organization I’ve become active in.

My first board meeting was a mix of returning and new members. Although I had met with the new co-presidents to plan the agenda, I found myself feeling ‘adrift’ at various points during the meeting. The reason? I felt more like a guest – or an observer – than a member of the board. Despite the good intentions of the continuing board members, many assumptions were made regarding the level of organizational knowledge of everyone in the room.

What had been forgotten was remembering what it meant to have new members join the team. Each time a new member joins the vestry or other leadership team, or another member completes their term and leaves, the group changes. No longer is there a shared understanding of how the team functions or the expectations for member behavior, because it’s now a different group. One of the first tasks for a new team is making time to get to know one another and to review roles as well as the group’s purpose. Adopting a practice of open and honest communication can be effective in helping prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Why is this important?

Creating a vibrant and vital vestry is an annual task that begins with the incorporation of newly elected members and moves through a predictable cycle. Forging an effective leadership team from the diversity of experience, personality, and gifts present in a vestry is not and easy task.

From biblical times to our own, God has used ordinary, flawed human beings to accomplish great things. Vestries are no different. Each member, including the rector, brings his or her own expectations, preconceptions, and anxieties to the vestry table. A critical element for forming an effective team is a safe and accepting environment where all members feel comfortable sharing their ideas, their concerns, and their hopes. For a lay and clergy team, that means following our baptismal promise to love and value your neighbor as yourself so that no one is outside the circle that meets around the vestry table.

Norms, related to procedure, and covenants, concerned with behavior, help us bring these disparate, individual expectation and anxieties into alignment, facilitating the group’s work and relationships. They help build the trust and mutual respect that encourages all members to share their gifts and ideas. Norms and covenants strengthen the team’s ability to make decisions and to accomplish great things in Jesus’ name.

Developing these norms and covenants together is an important element of healthy team formation. For congregations with established group norms and a vestry covenant, an annual review when new members join gives everyone the opportunity to talk about what’s working and what’s not. It also gives new members a voice and a stake in the guidelines.

Putting Practices in Writing

Although Episcopal vestries are encouraged to adopt written norms and/or a covenant agreement, there are many who have not yet taken that step. Elements of each may exist in practice, relying on ‘institutional memory’ or ‘we’ve always done it this way’ to guide their process.

Perhaps one of your vestry goals this year is to develop written norms and/or a covenant agreement. This two-step process, shared by David Vryhof, a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist SSJE shares in “Tools for Healthy Communities,” has been modified to include writing norms:

1. Leadership teams considering drafting norms and/or a covenant might start by asking themselves these three questions:

  • What’s going well?
  • What concerns us?
  • What would we like to see as we move forward?

Appointing someone to take notes during the discussion makes it possible for your team to identify common words and points of contention. The language that arises in this conversation might point the way to shared concerns or joys that could be incorporated into a covenant, should you decide that one would be useful for your group. And, taking time to reflect on your process and the group’s behavior, can be a good way to begin to think about which practices you’d like to encourage (i.e. respectful listening, providing every member with an opportunity to speak) and those you’d like to improve, such as minimizing interruptions, starting and ending on time, etc.

2. If your vestry knows it would like to draft a covenant or written norms, your next step might be to discuss some or all of these questions:

  • What is our purpose? What do we hope to be and to do?
  • What are the values we want to embody as a group?
  • How will we work together to achieve our purpose, while also embodying these values?
  • How will we handle disagreements or conflict in the group?
  • How will we support and encourage one another?
  • What will we agree to do together in each meeting, seasonally, and yearly?

Give time for personal reflection, perhaps at home. Ask each member of the group to contribute answers and look for common themes. See if you can summarize the most important points in a mission statement or a simple Rule of Life. The goal is to create something helpful, a document that will guide the group and keep it focused on its purpose and its values. And, as before, by paying attention to behavior during these discussions, you have an opportunity to note behaviors to encourage as well as behaviors the group would prefer to discourage.

Key Points to Remember

It’s a good idea to keep group norms and vestry covenants simple. They’re meant to create an environment of trust and respect, not a barrier to healthy debate or group process. Some issues to consider:

  • Meetings (length, attendance, cell phone usage, agenda procedures)
  • Discussion (listening, handling debate/disagreement, courtesy, respect)
  • Confidentiality (balanced with the need for transparency)
  • Accountability (personal responsibility and commitment to the process)

Whether you have norms and a covenant in place or are just beginning that work, it is important that every member of the vestry, clergy and lay, is heard and willing to agree to the guidelines established. This will probably be your first decision as a new vestry, and it calls for consensus, not a simple up or down vote.

“Making and keeping covenants is woven through the history our life with God. As part of the covenant God made with the people of Israel, God gave the Law to guide them and to set out the values by which they should live in relationship to God and with one another. When it was used for this purpose, it proved a very helpful guide. But when it was abused—used to justify some and condemn others—it became an instrument of division and oppression. The law itself was not the end; it was a means to an end. In the same way, a Rule or covenant itself is not the end, but a means to an end. When it is used rightly, it can help us live together in harmony, cooperation, and with a clear sense of shared purpose. It can be an instrument of unity and of health, helping us stay focused on our mission and binding us together in love.“

Br. David Vryhof, SSJE

Try This

Jesus could hardly have picked a more diversified group as his disciples. We know from this example, as well as from our own experiences, that the most life-giving communities are often not the most homogenous, but the most diverse. Unity does not require uniformity.

If your group is experiencing strife or conflict, you might find it meaningful to reflect on your diversity as a group. Identify together what each member contributes to your common life and work by writing down the unique gifts and perspectives of each member. Look for the root of the differences that divide you. Articulate together how your diversity is a strength rather than a liability. (From “Tools for Healthy Communities” by David Vryhof, SSJE, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers)

Nancy Davidge is ECF associate program director, editor of ECF Vital Practices, and editor of the recently revised Vestry Resource Guide.


  • Webinar: Developing a Leadership Covenant, Mar 10, 2016 at 7 PM ET: This hour-long webinar explores a theological understanding of “covenant” and presents strategies for developing a covenant within a vestry. Presented by David Keck, author of Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together
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This article is part of the January 2016 Vestry Papers issue on ‘Reboot’ Your Vestry