July 2010

Vestry Discernment Begins with the Soul

Demands and expectations placed upon a vestry are many. As a result, vestry members often believe that they (along with the clergy) are responsible for the health and well-being of the church and need to attend to and “fix” whatever problems that arise.

This approach leads to very little room for reflection and discernment. I suggest turning everything upside down. Nuts and bolts issues are more effectively and efficiently addressed when vestries focus first on key questions having to do with discernment and key values.

Here are three centering points that lay a foundation for that process:

Tend to the soul
A white explorer in Africa, anxious to press ahead with his journey, paid his porters for a series of forced marches. But almost within reach of their destination, they set down their bundles and refused to budge. No amount of extra payment would convince them otherwise. They said they had to wait for their souls to catch up. (Charwick, The Soul of the World, A Modern Book of Hours)

Tending to our souls on a daily basis is crucial for peace of mind and clarity of purpose. When we live at the pace of our souls, life has more meaning and clarity.

I think of this practice as being daily, quiet and personal.

Shield the joyous
This phrase comes from An Order for Compline in The Book of Common Prayer (page 124): Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Most of us are familiar with and well-practiced at addressing most of the other needs identified in this prayer. Very few work at “shielding the joyous” as fervently as we “tend the sick, give rest to the weary,” etc. I think of this practice as more communal and public.

Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly!” Living from the place of hope, faith and joy requires courage and boldness — and not doing it alone.

The answer to “how” is YES
Here is where we begin to move into the territory with which vestries are more familiar and comfortable. Yet, if we jump into the “fix it” mode without bringing our souls and our joy with us, the result is likely to be superficial and temporary.

Asking powerful questions is the most efficient and effective way to uncover the core values of a community (purpose, vision, aesthetics, community, creativity, possibility, abundance).  Identifying, strengths, enthusiasm and passion are more effective (and fun) than focusing on what is wrong, or reminiscing about “the good old days.”

Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging) suggests there are five “conversations” that are needed in order for health and growth to occur:

· What is possible?
· Ownership (from the ground up)
· How is dissension welcomed?
· Commitment
· Gifts

Examples of powerful questions are:

· How much risk am I willing to take?
· What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?
· What is the “no” or refusal that I keep postponing?
· What forgiveness am I withholding?
· What is the gift that I still hold in exile?

Once these three “warm-up” practices are in place, the “hard work” of the vestry isn’t so hard. The focus is not on plugging the leaks or resolving the latest conflict. When leaders are tending to their own souls, living from their joy (and supporting others to do the same) and being curious (with powerful questions), discerning the future of the larger community becomes less burdensome and more healthy.

The author of The Power of Play: The ABC’s of Living with Wonder and Exuberance, Will Thompson is an Episcopal priest and licensed clinical social worker. After years of working with individuals and groups in clinical and parochial settings, he tired of seeing clergy and church leaders become cynical and burned-out in their work and decided to “play” with them. His business is divided between individual coaching, virtual leadership training and wellness presentations. www.theclergycoach.com

This article is part of the July 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Discernment