May 2009
Vestry 101

Vestry #101: Encouraging hearts & souls

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord...” 
We sing about it. We hear about it, and we pray about it...the firm foundation on which our faith rests. It is the foundation of faith and of Jesus Christ himself. It is the foundation for the whole Christian community and particularly for its leadership. However, at this moment there is some significant seismic activity. Things are shaking and quaking in a time of accelerated cultural and ecclesial change. We worry about cracks in our foundations as we face new economic and institutional challenges.

The vestry is in the midst of all this. Vestry leaders are responsible for building on the foundation and for stability of the life and health of the congregation they lead. These leaders must be grounded themselves, solidly connected to and resting on the foundation of faith. Their souls need to be rooted in the Gospel and its faith, hope, and love so that together they may create a Christian community of hope, not fear, and unity, not discord. Where are we to find strength? How are our hearts and souls encouraged? What can we do?

Here are ten practices and dispositions that can help vestry leaders today:
  • Be in touch with your caring for the congregation and its mission. The reason you are serving as a vestry leader is because you care for the community of faith and its particular purpose and call. Connect with that caring and use it as a resource for your decisions and work. Engage the values and beliefs that are the foundation for your congregation’s mission and keep a perpetual eye to that mission.
  • Know your congregation’s heritage and history. Congregational history is a powerful grounding for present decision making. You will learn about decisions and leadership that inform the life and mission of your congregation today. There have been tough times and decisions before. Recall those leaders and moments. Learn from them, and use that learning in the present moment.
  • “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer connects us to God and strengthens our hearts and souls for leadership. The individual practice of prayer is important on a daily basis for vestry members, and the communal practice of prayer is necessary too. Each vestry gathering and meeting needs to be grounded in an experience of prayer that is more than passing and per- functory. Prayer can also infuse the special and occasional gathering of the vestry in retreats and other such settings.
  • Name the good. The growing use of the group process called Appreciative Inquiry is strengthening vestries. Even if not used in a formal sense, its spirit is essential for vestry members to appreciate and name the good that is happening within the congregation. Vestries that plan and make decisions based on strengths rather than weaknesses move the congregation further along in its mission.
  • “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” Vestries have to make hard decisions, especially in these times of change and challenge. Use the gifts and best expertise that you have. Don’t shrink from a disciplined approach to making decisions, setting priorities, and assigning resources. And, at the same time, do this with charity, innocence, and compassion.
  • Believe that God is in charge. Too often we suffer from what can be called “functional” or “practical” atheism. We are suspicious of God’s effectiveness and feel that we have to make everything happen ourselves. That’s simply not true. God is in charge, and we will be stronger and make better decisions when we root our work in God and perceive God’s presence and purpose in us and around us.
  • Have “miles and miles of heart.” To have heart is literally to be “en-cour-aged” (“coeur” is the word for “heart” in French). Vestry leadership takes a lot of heart, that is, the courage to lead. Individuals and the community of leadership itself need to take heart and act with conviction. This inevitably means taking some risk and doing some new things. A community will wither if its leaders are “dis-couraged.” It will grow in strength through “en-couraged” leadership.
  • Hold fast to your hope. Vestries are responsible for the vision and future of their congregations. In a time of stress and change, it is possible to lose hope and stay stuck in the present moment and challenge. It is essential to congregational vitality and to the spirit of the leadership to dream some dreams, to develop a hopeful vision for the congregation, and to do the work of establishing a plan and strategy for making that vision a reality.
  • Practice forgiveness and reconciliation. Conflict and dissonance are all around us in our world today and in the life of the Church. Vestry leaders cannot avoid or deny disagreement and conflict in their congregation. Rather, their charge is to be realistic and work through meaningful negotiation of disagreements. Vestry members need to discover forgiveness in their own souls and model reconciliation for their congregation. 
  • Keep connected with the people you serve and lead. Leadership shrivels in isolation. Have regular and consistent conversation with your congregation and people in the wider community too. You will learn a great deal and be connected to their hopes and perspectives relating to the congregation. will hear some marvelous stories of personal faith that encourage your faith too.
The hearts and souls of vestry leaders can be strengthened and nourished in these ways. These are dispositions, practices, and means that help us to lead faithfully and effectively, building on a foundation of faith and of Jesus Christ. How very firm and solid it is.

The former dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, the Rev. James Lemler is priest-in-charge at Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut.
This article is part of the May 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry 101