January 2017
Vestry Leadership

Beginning Your Vestry’s Work Together

At the beginning of any new leadership role, you find that there is an existing to-do list. There are pre-existing challenges to be addressed, crises to be managed, opportunities to be pursued. For the new leader, there are both internal and external pressures to get “the work” underway, to show and feel forward momentum on the priorities that made you seek a leadership role in the first place. This is equally true for the collective leadership of a vestry.

Forming a group of leaders
In every congregation I’ve ever worked with, the new vestry begins their year of service with a demanding agenda from the first day. There are staffing questions to be cared for, budget matters that need attention, facility issues that simply cannot wait; on top of these, there is the actual ministry of the congregation that needs to be reviewed and, in some cases, renewed or reimagined. The agenda for the first meeting of the vestry can be dauntingly full even before the vestry is chosen.

Consider this a plea to press pause on that agenda – not indefinitely but more than momentarily – to care for the other vital work that must happen at the beginning of the vestry’s work together. Invest some time in intentionally forming the vestry as a group of leaders and disciples. Doing so lays a foundation that can pay dividends later in the year when questions get more complicated, stakes get higher, and disagreements may get more intense.

Learning who we are
The first priority for any new group at the beginning of its work together is that they get to know one another. This sounds obvious, and yet, I am surprised by the number of vestries that are still largely strangers to one another months into their work together. Senior leaders, specifically the rector and the wardens, can help facilitate this meeting process by publicly acknowledging the fact that vestry members may be familiar faces to one another but unknown to each other, representing different preferred services and different ministries within the life of the congregation, and then, by helping people get to know one another. For this work, I have found the oft-employed icebreaker the least imaginative and least helpful way of getting to know each other.

Getting to know one another, as I am envisioning it here, depends on getting to know what each person values. This is the place of real human connection; this is the well that you will want to return to later on when the going gets rough. One way to do this in your first gathering is to ask each member of the vestry to introduce themselves and to say what brought them to the parish in the first place and what made them stay. Stories about finding welcome for personal conviction and room for lingering questions, about the reputation of children’s ministries, about the beauty of music programs or the pageantry of the liturgy all begin to build camaraderie among the new vestry members as folks realize that what I value about this congregation is similar to what you value about it – or, perhaps even better, we build a list of things we value about this congregation that is so extensive that our work can begin with a celebration of who we are.

Imagining an ideal vestry
The second priority for a new leadership group is to help people learn their role. A colleague of mine used to say that people want to know what it looks like when they are doing their work “correctly.” Some of your vestry members will be old hats at the work and responsibility of this ministry, but as we have an increasing number of people in our pews who were not raised in the church, the vestry can seem like a mysterious body with secret handshakes and unknown customs. Those who are new can use some help understanding the balance of speaking for self yet serving on behalf of the entire congregation. Rather than leaving it to chance (or worse still, to the most misanthropic of your incumbent vestry members mentoring the new folks into bad behavior), as senior leaders, take some time to talk about what vestry ministry looks like when it is alive, thriving, and effective.

Stating expectations
The third priority in forming a vestry at the beginning of its work together is to define common expectations. I often hear clergy and wardens complain about vestry members that they have decided are underperforming or misbehaving. My question in reply is always, “what did you tell them before they were elected?” If expectations are unclear, then we cannot fault the person who is not living up to our imagined but unstated expectations. Early on, define how you will be together. If attendance at vestry meetings is presumed, which I cannot imagine that it wouldn’t be, then state that explicitly. If the expectation of vestry members is that they will make a pledge to the church’s budget, state that clearly, as well. Beyond those two examples also consider what the expectations are for vestry member behavior – how will we treat each other? How will we disagree? How will we make decisions? Clarity around these matters is just as important as clarity around attendance.

One final note, one gift that the vestry’s senior leadership can give is to describe how vestry service is a way that each person on the vestry answers Christ’s call to discipleship. Sharing in responsibility for the welfare of the church, which is another way of saying stewarding the life of the congregation, is an act of faith. In the hail of revenue and expense statements, insurance reviews, diocesan askings, and mediation of staff conflict, it can feel otherwise, but the reason we serve on vestry is because Jesus says, “follow me,” and we answered “wherever you lead.” To that end, early on, it is important that we talk about and demonstrate how these years of service can be a spiritually-enriching experience, how they can nurture (or refresh) a life of prayer, how they can awaken hope and confirm faith, how they can incline our hearts to love God and our neighbor in new and deeper ways. Why else would we do this?

Before the pre-existing agenda takes hold of our time and imagination, I plead with you to invest in the gift of one another. Get to know each other. Help people learn their role. Define mutual expectations. And keep before us the persistent and transforming call of God to serve. Then, let’s get to work.

Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is the managing director of Alban at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. In this role, he designs educational programs, facilitates leadership development opportunities for clergy, denominational and institutional leaders, works with publisher Rowman & Littlefield to publish Alban books, and consults with senior church leaders around the United States and abroad. He has degrees from Wake Forest University and Duke University Divinity School and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Durham in Durham, U.K., studying trends and patterns in clergy formation. He was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church on Dec. 20, 2015, and serves as assistant to the rector at Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC.

  • Vestry 101, January 12, 2017, an ECF webinar on the basics of vestry leadership and service

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This article is part of the January 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Leadership