In her book Meditations for Vestry Members, Colleen McMahon delves into the challenges and joys of vestry life and provides spiritual and emotional support for vestry members. Her writing draws deeply from personal experience - Colleen had resigned from her congregation’s vestry, rather than service out her second term due to exhaustion, concluding that being on the vestry was interfering with her growth in God.
Years later however, she was able to reflect and see that, despite the pitfalls, there was much joy to serving on the vestry. Her book offers meditations centered around five themes: the call to service, the job to be done, getting along with each other and the rest of the parish, the importance of prayer, and life after you leave the vestry.
In the following meditation from her book, Collen shares the importance of prayer and spiritual practice. She warns about falling victim to the “Martha syndrome” - being consumed by the many worldly tasks vestry service presents, and in the process losing sight of what is most important – our relationship with God.
Martha, Martha, you are troubled by many things
For most folks, going to church offers a respite from the cares of the world – a quiet place where they can breathe a little more slowly, think a little more clearly, and pray a little more reverently. They come in once a week, say hello to the usher who hands them a bulletin, take a seat, close their eyes, cross themselves, and wait for the familiar beauty of the liturgy to waft them heavenward, lost in wonder, love, and praise. They make mental comments on the sermon and the anthem, feed on bread, wine, coffee, and donuts, catch up on a little local gossip, and head home after picking up the kids at church school. So what if the plaster in the parish office is falling over the secretary’s new computer, pledges are down, and no one will volunteer for the hospitality committee. That’s someone else’s problem.
You, of course, know whose problem these things are – yours. You won’t be in office long before every visit to the premises takes on the trappings of a business trip. You can’t look up without seeing the wet spot on the ceiling, and you can’t hear the music without remembering that the organist said something about needing new leather on the pistons, whatever that means. And when there’s nothing else to take your attention off the Lord, rest assured that Mrs. Jones will grab your elbow to complain about what you have done and to remind you of what you have left undone.
You are Martha reincarnate, with ample reason to complain to Jesus about all those Marys out there in the pews. It’s your hard work and worry that allows them to worship in bliss, isn’t it? And he has the temerity to tell you that they have chosen the better part? Really!
Martha is a much misunderstood figure. Her problem is not that she has a job to do and does it – after all, if she did not, no one in her house would have food to eat or clean clothes to wear. Martha’s problem is that she gets so carried away by her work that she can’t see the obvious, which is that the Lord has dropped in for a visit. She’s gotten so bogged down in her job that she becomes unable to set it aside for a few minutes, as Mary can, to receive the simple, beautiful grace of God’s presence in her house.
Vestry members carry a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Therefore, you are in danger of falling victim to the Martha syndrome. Remind yourselves that where God is concerned the first order of business is cultivating that relationship. Prayer is more important than fixing the roof or paying the bills. That’s not to minimize the importance of the vestry’s special calling; you will appreciate why it is so important: Doing it glorifies God. And you are less likely to burn out before your tasks are complete.
The great abbot St. Benedict made this truth the cornerstone of his monastic rule, which is still followed by many monks, nuns, and laypersons today. Benedict recognized the importance of work in the quest for spiritual perfection. At the same time, however, he insisted that physical or mental work be interrupted periodically for the more important work of prayer – which put God at the center of everything.
So when you come into your church – not just on Sunday morning, but every single time, and especially when you are about to tackle the holy work of the vestry – take a moment with Jesus to refresh yourself. After all, he was very clear: Mary, not Martha, chose the better part. Don’t make the same mistake.
Colleen McMahon is a judge in the New York State Court System and is active in her parish and diocese. She writes regularly for the Episcopal New Yorker and served on the vestry at her home parish, Christ Church.
- Meditations for Vestry Members by Colleen McMahon (Morehouse Publishing, 1999)
- Models for Vestry Leadership of Faith Formation, an ECF webinar led by Lisa Kimball and Kyle Oliver, Center for the Ministry of Teaching, Virginia Theological Seminary
- Vestry Discernment Process by Janie Kirt Morris, a resource to help create a prayerful process for raising up healthy, faithful leaders for the congregation
- The Lord Broke Through by Richard H. Schmidt, Vestry Papers, November 2007
- A Blueprint for Change by Birdie Blake-Reid as told to Nancy Davidge, Vestry Papers, March 2014
- Forward Day by Day, free daily meditations by Forward Movement
- Brother, Give us a Word, free daily medidations by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE)
- Getting to Know the Daily Office by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices blog post
- Daily Invitation by Anne Ditzler, ECF Vital Practices blog post
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