Five Things Every Vestry Member Should Know
We are living in an incredibly challenging time in our nation and in our world. Many people are disillusioned with what’s happening in wider society and are looking for some sense of meaning and connection. As local faith communities, we can help serve this critical role as we attempt to preach, teach and live out the good news of the Gospel. But in order to do this as effectively and comprehensively as possible, we need to raise up, empower and deploy faithful and committed leaders who will ensure that our congregations are ready, willing and able to engage in this critical work of reconciliation. And, in our Anglican/Episcopal tradition, the primary group of leaders charged with this task is the vestry.
Before I became President of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) in 2005, I had served on vestries (or their equivalent) in a family-size parish as well as the cathedral in the Diocese of Connecticut for almost twenty years. I also served as warden (or its equivalent) in both congregations, including times of transition. My vestry service was interesting, challenging and rewarding—and at times, frustrating, exhausting and overwhelming. Nevertheless, the total experience has shaped my overall leadership style and has been a critical formational component in my role as head of an organization that supports vestry members and other lay and clergy leaders of Episcopal congregations of all sizes and shapes. I look back on my vestry service with fondness and gratitude.
While ECF provides a myriad of tools and resources for parish leaders, especially vestries, I thought it might be helpful to articulate five things that I think every vestry member should know, whether brand new or a long-time veteran. These ideas are based on my own experience and observations as well as my contacts and interactions with faithful vestry members from all parts of our beloved Episcopal Church. I trust you will find them both helpful and provocative.
- You are engaged holy and important work. Contrary to the traditional concept of the role of vestries, it’s not just about the budget, the buildings or the boiler. Vestry service is a whole lot more. In essence, the vestry, in partnership with the rector or priest in charge, is responsible for overseeing the spiritual, missional, strategic, administrative and fiduciary aspects of the congregation. While particular individuals, especially the clergy, are charged with specific roles and responsibilities, the work of a vestry is a team effort with mutual accountability. It is holistic and comprehensive.
- You represent the entire faith community. Despite your personal involvement in specific ministries or programs, e.g., choir, altar guild or outreach, as a vestry member you must represent the entire congregation and cannot serve as an advocate or spokesperson for a particular constituency, activity or special interest group. When making tough decisions, you need to consider the total needs of the congregation from a missional and strategic point of view, especially when it comes to issues of budgets or allocation of resources.
- Don’t leave your brain at the door. When you serve on a vestry, you should bring the totality of your prior experiences to the table, whether personal, familial, spiritual or vocational. Don’t be afraid to share your expertise or insights, especially in complex or technical areas. Your feedback is important. At the same time, realize that as part of a team you must listen to other voices even those who may not have the same background or point of view as yours.
- Use this experience to enhance your own spirituality. While you have important business to conduct, your primary role is to discern and implement what God is calling your congregation to be and do in a particular time and place. And this can only happen if the vestry, as a whole as well as its individual members, engage in regular and ongoing spiritual practices that include worship, prayer, Bible study, retreats and sharing individual faith stories. Your vestry experience should be a unique opportunity to become more spiritually grounded and help advance your lifelong journey toward discipleship.
- Remember that you’re not alone. Vestry service should not be an isolating or lonely experience even when dealing with critical issues or serious conflict. First of all, remember that God is an important part of the equation. That is why spiritual practices should be a regular part of vestry meetings and other gatherings. You also have each other—fellow parishioners, who, like you, are contributing their time, talent and treasure for the good of the community. Trust in yourself and each other. You also have outside resources to assist you with your work, including other parishes, diocesan officials and yes, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF). As you live into your mission, remember that ECF is here to walk alongside you on this important journey of faith and commitment.
I also want to suggest that vestry service needs to be personally fulfilling, life-giving and fun. It is an awesome responsibility to lead a congregation, especially in times when diminishing numbers and resources often create anxiety and stress. But these are also times of incredible opportunities for innovation and new ways of being the Body of Christ. All of us have very busy lives and lots of demands on our time and energy, but if you can bring a sense of joy and wonder to your work on the vestry, you will be doing a great service for yourself, your family and the entire congregation.
Donald V. Romanik is president of the Episcopal Church Foundation. He is a strong advocate and proponent of lay leadership and the ministry of all the baptized and frequently writes and speaks on topics relating to leadership and resource development for Episcopal communities of faith.
- Q&A with Donald Romanik on What New Vestry Members Should Know an ECF online Q&A session, February 1, 2018
- You're a New Warden: Now What? by Donald V. Romanik, Vestry Papers, January 2009
- Lessons From a Senior Warden by Anne Rudacille Schmidt, Vestry Papers, January 2017
- 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)