January 2009
Ministry of Wardens

You’re a new warden: Now what?

So you’ve just been elected a warden in your parish. You may be thinking: What now?How does this differ from being a member of the vestry? What is the difference between a senior and junior warden? What is my relationship supposed to be with the rector?What are the expectations of the parishioners? Why did I ever agree to do this?

These are all good questions. As someone who has served as senior warden (or the functional equivalent) in both a family size parish and in a program size cathedral, and in both situations during times of clergy transition, I offer these suggestions on how you exercise this important ministry in the life of your congregation.

First, the role of a warden differs from parish to parish, depending on the traditions and culture of the congregation, the personality, and leadership style of the rector and the needs of the community at a particular time.

The canons of the Episcopal Church say very little about wardens other than their responsibility to ensure that worship services are continued in the absence or disability of the rector or parish priest. The term itself dates back to seventeenth century England because of the individual’s responsibility to unlock the church doors for worship and other events. The distinction between “senior” and “junior” warden or “rector’s warden” and “people’s warden” depends on the diocese, the parish and even geographical or regional customs and practice.

An open and trusting relationship
Putting canons and customs aside, the primary role of the warden is to serve as the lay partner of the rector or priest-in-charge in articulating the mission and vision of the parish, managing its day-to-day operations, identifying and nurturing leaders, and empowering members of the congregation to live out the Gospel in their daily lives. The role requires an open, honest and trusting relationship between warden and rector — and it is virtually impossible to fulfill if these key elements are missing or impaired.

The warden does not always need to agree with or “rubber stamp” the opinions or decisions of the rector, but major issues of disagreement need to be discussed and resolved privately — and not during vestry meetings or in front of the congregation as a whole. An openly contentious relationship between the warden and the rector is unhealthy, unchristian, and can destroy or at least permanently damage the mission and vitality of a congregation.

If difference or disagreements are irreconcilable, one of the parties to this key partnership needs to resign, which usually means the warden needs to move on. Obviously, if the rector is engaging in illegal, immoral or inappropriate conduct, the situation is different; the warden has a responsibility to address these issues immediately with the bishop.

Provide the “glue”
In some situations, wardens serve as liaisons or primary contacts between the vestry and members of the congregation. While this role can be appropriate and necessary, wardens should avoid creating or nurturing triangulation and encourage individual members to have direct conversations with vestry members or other parish leaders with whom they have questions or concerns.

Except in cases of misconduct, a warden must always encourage a parishioner to speak directly with the rector when there are issues of disagreement or concern.

The role of the warden is especially critical during times of clergy transition from the time the current rector announces his/her departure to the six to twelve month period after the new rector arrives. While the bishop’s office and professional interim clergy are essential in ensuring a smooth transition, the warden often provides the continuity in leadership and the “glue” that keeps the congregation focused during a very challenging and emotional time.

An open mind and sincere heart
Serving as warden of two Episcopal parishes was an incredibly rich and rewarding time in my spiritual and faith journey and helped me nurture and develop leadership and “people” skills that have been invaluable in my life, career and ministry. If you are called to serve in this important but somewhat confusing role, my best advice is to approach it with an open mind, a sincere heart and a willingness to be shaped and directed by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Donald Romanik is president of the Episcopal Church Foundation.

This article is part of the January 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Ministry of Wardens