St. Swithen’s church parking lot: It is late in the evening after a long vestry meeting. The meeting went overtime due to an emotionally charged discussion about a recent bequest—a grand piano from the estate of an elderly member, an unexpected but graciously received gift. Early on it became evident that several vestry members have differing views about how the piano should be used. Sally, a long-time choir member serving her third year on the vestry, calls out to Henry as he walks to his car.
Sally: Henry, do you have a few minutes? I’m furious how this meeting went tonight. I can’t believe that our senior warden suggested donating this beautiful piano to a nursing home. What a ridiculous idea! He has no appreciation for our music program. Just because he can’t carry a tune does not give him the right to discard an incredible gift. He’s out of touch with what this church really needs. If you let him know that some people are upset, he’ll listen to you.
Henry: Hi Sally. I had no idea you were angry about tonight’s discussion. I’m not sure the warden will listen to me, since I’m a new vestry member. Why don’t I send him an email to let him know how you feel? See you Sunday.
Sound familiar? “Parking lot conversations” are as much a part of church life as the Sunday morning coffee hour. However, these informal, private conversations can do great harm. They may seem innocuous, but things begin to surface when there is anxiety in the congregation’s leadership. It is no longer about the piano but about more substantive, unresolved issues that have been festering—and sometimes for a very long time.
Unfortunately, Sally has put Henry in a sticky situation by asking him to speak to the warden about how upset some people are. It is likely that nothing will come of this conversation but hurt feelings and mistrust.
As spiritual leaders, we are often caught off-guard, finding ourselves in awkward situations and unsure of how to handle them. Practical tools and guidelines, like the vestry covenant, can help us navigate these sometimes turbulent waters in our congregations.
A valuable tool for your vestry toolbox, a vestry covenant can help members:
- Explore the dynamics of their relationships with one another
- Facilitate healthy and open communication
- Eliminate the negative behaviors that derail necessary and robust conversations
In recent years, many vestries have adopted the vestry covenant as their standard for healthy leadership. These covenants provide the cornerstone for building a trusting and viable community of spiritual leaders.
Biblical examples of leadership often involve covenants and have been around since the days of Abraham, Moses and Noah when God used them to establish a relationship with God’s people. Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the New Covenant. He is our model for leadership and how to do this good and holy work of building healthy, life-giving relationships.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus uses parables to teach the importance of loving relationships. He models what we call “good communication skills,” by being truly present and listening to those around him. Paul’s letters to struggling communities are powerful reminders of what it means to live as Jesus lives. They encourage us as leaders to be “an example to believers in speech, life, love and purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Covenants provide for accountability while building relationships based on love, trust and respect. Both are essential in creating a safe environment that fosters trust and confidentiality, whatever our differences.
So how does a vestry go about making a covenant that is not just another well-meaning project that ends up on the shelf collecting dust? Below are some suggestions to consider in drafting your vestry covenant:
- Love one another, speaking the truth in love
- Treat each other with respect, despite differences
- Deal with conflict by speaking first to the individual
- Strive for unity in seeking God’s will in all things
- Be a living example of faithfulness through study, worship, giving and prayer
- Respect confidential issues
Just as important as the covenant itself is the process of drafting the document. The entire vestry should be involved and each member encouraged to contribute his or her ideas. It is a good practice to review the covenant annually and ask for input from new vestry members. The overall goal is to create a culture of openness.
This process takes time, and there will be mistakes along the way. Persistence will pay off as vestry members experience the value of working together, setting an example for each other and the entire parish as they strive to be the living Body of Christ. And it begins with simply loving our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus taught us.
If St. Swithen’s had a vestry covenant, the parking lot conversation might have gone a bit differently:
Sally: Hi Henry. I’m not happy with the way the meeting went tonight. I think I will give the warden a call tomorrow to discuss it. This is an important issue for me.
Henry: I can see that you are upset. I am sure the warden will appreciate your letting him know how you feel. Thanks for sharing your concerns. See you Sunday.
The Rev. Susan Pinkerton is Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in West Hartford, CT. After graduating from Berkeley School of Divinity at Yale University, Susan entered ordained ministry following a successful career as a trial attorney. She has served on staff at Trinity Wall Street in Manhattan; St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill in Washington DC; the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois; and as interim rector at St. Paul’s, Peoria, Illinois, the former Cathedral of the Diocese of Quincy. Susan also serves as a transition consultant for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. As a “military brat” who has lived all over the world, Susan claims Washington, DC as her hometown. When time permits, she enjoys being with her three adult daughters and their families, including her three wonderful grandchildren. Traveling internationally, kayaking and reading are favorite pastimes.
Much of this material is taken from “Vestry 301: Communication & Vestry Covenants,” a presentation given on April 1, 2017, at the Diocese of Connecticut’s annual Spring Training and Gathering
The Vestry Resource Guide - This tremendous resource to help newly elected vestry members learn their responsibilities includes a sample vestry covenant. Published by the Episcopal Church Foundation, it is available from Forward Movement Publications. www.forwardmovement.org
How to Hit the Ground Running - A Quick Start Guide for Congregations with New Leadership. This convenient, step-by-step workbook for a new rectors, wardens and vestries in congregations in transition covers the period from one month prior to a new leader’s arrival through the first eighteen months of the new ministry. www.churchpublishing.org
- Vestry Covenants and Norms, includes examples of norms and covenants from various Episcopal congregations
- Vestry Covenants: A Great Start to 2017 an ECF webinar led by Miguel Escobar and Brendon Hunter, January 24, 2017
- No More Parking Lot Conversations by Nancy Davidge, Vestry Papers, May 2011
- Norms & Covenants: Tools to Strengthen Your Team by Nancy Davidge, Vestry Papers, January 2016
- Covenants in Congregational Life by Thomas Brackett, Vestry Papers January 2011