Lessons From a Senior Warden
I became senior warden the same day that our rector announced to the congregation that he was called to another church. This meant that my whole year as senior warden was a period of transition and thus a challenging time. I have come to learn that any term as a warden will contain challenges as well as some great joys. Here are some of my takeaways from my experience.
Roles and relationships
I’ll first say that it is important to understand and clarify roles. The rector of a parish is the equivalent of a CEO in the business world. She or he would be in charge of daily operations, staffing and vision. The vestry is like a board of directors, focused on governance, mission and support of the rector as needed. Traditionally the senior warden is chosen by the rector which is why you may have heard it referred to as the “rector’s warden”. The senior warden is like the chairperson of the board, leading the vestry meetings and being a primary resource/confidant for the rector. The junior warden is usually elected by the vestry and often is the go-to for facilities issues. Increasingly, however, these roles are becoming more collaborative with shared responsibility between the two. It is good practice for the rector and wardens to meet and discuss roles and expectations at the beginning of the new term. This will help avoid misunderstandings down the line.
Focusing and prioritizing responsibilities
Good communication between the warden and rector will continue to be important throughout the term. One of the primary responsibilities of a vestry is to be a pastoral presence for the rector. Is he taking care of his mental/physical/spiritual health? Is she maintaining a healthy life/work balance? Wardens need to keep tabs on these things and offer support when needed. Also remember that in order for your clergy to be able to confide, you must provide absolute confidentiality. You should never discuss these conversations with anyone, even after your term is complete.
Managing the vestry will be a big part of your job. I decided to have our vestry write a vestry covenant during our first working retreat together. The Episcopal Church Foundation is a great resource for these documents and the key is to come up with norms that all agree to abide by. From being on time, to starting and ending with prayer, these are the behaviors you will live by and hold each other accountable to so that your time together will be both productive and fulfilling.
It is so important that you provide your vestry with the tools to do their job. Your parish should have policies, procedures and other governance documents with which you and your vestry need to be familiar. Remember that each of you are acting as a fiduciary and can be held legally liable for your decisions. Studying and referring to these procedures and guidelines will provide you the proper framework for executing your work properly. The wardens hold an orientation meeting for our incoming vestry members where we give them a notebook containing all of these documents and review other important information such as the budget. Our treasurer makes sure they know how to look at a spreadsheet and what each account listed represents. We find this to be a valuable tradition and gets our leaders off on the right foot.
Often the vestry can feel like it is always reacting to something. Perhaps the air conditioner has gone out or someone wants to initiate a special project that needs approval or something else that needs immediate attention. Our vestry found it helpful to set three goals at the beginning of our year so that we would be able to manage short and long-term strategies. We always began our meetings by looking at our three priorities and making sure we were on target for achieving them. Our goals were to hire an interim rector, to launch the search process and to pay off our debt. The first two were achieved and strategy was formed on the third goal that led to it being achieved by a subsequent vestry. Having these goals allowed us to prioritize all other matters in relationship to how they would help us achieve the three.
Communicating well and often
Communication, communication, communication. I can’t stress enough how important this is for a senior warden’s work. Information allays anxiety. Our congregation was in transition which is a stressful time for staff and parish members. As a vestry we were extremely intentional about making sure our congregants understood what was happening and why at each stage of the search process. We held town hall meetings, wrote articles for newsletters and were readily available for answering questions. We got in front of any news to keep the rumor mill at bay. We let the staff know what was happening and met often with our interim rector. We worked hard to make sure we framed news in a positive light so that we kept the congregation’s energy up and vision set firmly on the future. Even during “normal” times vestries make decisions that should be communicated well and often to their members. This will build trust and help promote buy-in. Encourage your vestry to divide up and make sure someone is at as many parish events as possible. The visibility will allow people to know you and voice questions and concerns allowing you the feedback you need to make sure you aren’t operating in a box.
In summary, here are my top five tips for a rewarding term as senior warden
- Set only three goals for the year and focus on them at each meeting
- Communicate. Do it often and be as transparent as possible
- Establish a vestry covenant and hold your vestry team accountable to it and each other
- Be very familiar with parish governance and policy documents
- Do everything you can to ensure an orderly leadership transition at the end of your term by providing a good orientation to the new vestry leadership
Though my term was challenging I found the experience of being a senior warden rewarding as it deepened both my spirituality and my connection to my fellow parishioners. I got to see the many gifts God has bestowed on my congregation as people often offer their very best. It is hard work but the collaboration between your vestry and rector can be so rewarding. God bless you as you embark on this important ministry.Anne Rudacille Schmidt is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas. She currently works as a search consultant, guiding search committee’s through the process of calling a new rector. Anne is co-chair of the CEEP Planning Committee and a board member of Forward Movement. She is married to Walter and has 2 teenagers and enjoys running and yoga in her free time.
- Roadmap for Senior Wardens by Demi Prentiss, Vestry Papers, January 2014
- Senior Warden Ministry: Mission Impossible? an ECF webinar led by Anne Schmidt and Christopher S. Ayres, former and current Senior Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, TX
- You're a New Warden: Now what? by Donald Romanik, Vestry Papers, January 2009
- Wardens as Stewards: A Call for Excellence by William Herrman, former Senior Warden at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York, NY
- Vestry Covenants and Norms, includes examples of norms and covenants from various Episcopal congregations
- Vestry Resource Guide, an ECF publication on vestry service and leadership (Forward Movement, 2015)
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