Vestry as Team
10 Mistakes Vestries Often Make
The vestry is at the heart of every Episcopal congregation. As the elected lay representatives of the parish, the vestry, in partnership with the rector or priest-in-charge, is responsible for the missional, spiritual, strategic and fiduciary life of the local faith community. Vestry service is holy and important work, and can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both the individual members as well as the entire group. However, maintaining an effective and functional vestry does not happen automatically. It requires a thoughtful, prayerful and deliberate process of discerning and responding to God’s call in very practical and specific ways.
Prior to becoming president of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), I served on vestries for almost twenty years. Since coming to ECF in 2005, I have had the honor and privilege of observing and working with vestries from congregations all over the country. Based on these experiences I have concluded that in order to be as effective, functional and mission-based as possible, a vestry needs to avoid the following ten common mistakes.
1. Creating a vestry that is too large for the size of the congregation
Not every vestry needs to have twelve members. Most congregations in the Episcopal Church are small with a median average Sunday worship attendance of only 57. Unless there are specific canonical requirements in your diocese, set the vestry at a number that is practical, manageable and sustainable given the size of your congregation.
2. Recruiting and electing the wrong people
Each member of the vestry must be responsive to all the needs and concerns of the congregation and able to make decisions as openly and objectively as possible. While you do not want to exclude potential vestry members who are active in a particular ministry, try to recruit individuals who get the ‘big picture’ and consider issues in a strategic and missional way.
3. Failing to provide an orientation for new members
While there is always the reality and necessity of learning on the job, there needs to be an orientation opportunity for new vestry members at the beginning of their term. It can be as simple as providing these individuals with important documents (bylaws, budget, audit, annual report) and convening for a Q&A session with the rector and wardens prior to their first meeting.
4. Not having an annual vestry retreat
In order to function as an effective team, rather than a group of random individuals, vestry members need to be able to get to know each other, share their stories and build community. The easiest way to facilitate this process is to conduct an annual retreat at the beginning of the new vestry year. While an overnight event has its advantages, it is not always practical or feasible especially with smaller congregations.
5. Not establishing vestry norms
The most effective vestries are those with clear norms and expectations on how they are going to conduct their business – starting on time, frequency and length of meetings, ensuring that everyone has a chance to talk, etc. Once established, these norms should be reviewed for compliance and continued relevancy on a regular basis.
6. Spending insufficient time on prayer and other spiritual practices
Unlike other nonprofit boards of directors, vestries are responsible for local faith communities who are actively engaged in God’s mission in the world. Consequently, God needs to be at the center of everything a vestry does. This requires ample opportunity for spiritual practices during vestry meetings beyond just an opening and closing prayer. Bible study, often using the daily lectionary, is one easy and effective way of beginning a vestry meeting in a spiritually grounded way.
7. Having an open-ended agenda without any priorities
The best way to ensure an effective vestry meeting is to set the right agenda that includes ample time for prayer and Bible study and ranks individual items based on their level of importance, the need for extended discussion or specific action or follow-up. Consider using a consent agenda for those routine items, e.g. minutes, that don’t require any discussion or for those matters that are fully covered or explained in a written report.
8. Focusing too much on the ‘weeds’
Vestries often spend too much time trying to manage the minute details of individual programs or tasks instead of focusing on big picture issues that are essential to the mission of the congregation. Vestries should set broad policy and priorities and leave the specifics to committees, task forces or other individuals.
9. Working as individuals and not a team
In order to discern and respond to God’s call, a vestry needs to function as a team and not just a collection of individuals with their own personal biases or priorities. This is the reason why opportunities for prayer, Bible study and fellowship are so important.
10. Failing to engage in succession planning
One of the primary roles of vestry members is to help select their successors. Even in small congregations, vestries should always be engaged in the process of identifying, nurturing and developing new leaders for the congregation. This requires a deliberate and ongoing process of engagement, openness and outreach, especially to newcomers.
Making your best effort to avoid these ten mistakes will help ensure a more productive and mission-based vestry experience for the entire community. Please let us know if there is anything ECF can do to help you and your vestry on this important journey.
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.
- The Vestry Goes on Retreat by Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, Vestry Papers, January 2017
- Today’s Vestry Challenge—Keep it Simple and Nimble by Randy Ferebee, Vestry Papers, January 2018
- Vestry Orientation an ECF Vital Practices webinar led by Donald Romanik and Brendon Hunter, January 11, 2018
- Who Will Replace You--Succession Planning in the Church by Annette Buchanan, ECF Vital Practices blog, August 7, 2017
- The Consent Agenda—More Efficient Meetings by Bob Schorr, Vestry Papers, January 2014
- Models for Vestry Leadership of Faith Formation an ECF Vital Practices webinar led by Lisa Kimball and Kyle Oliver, March 8, 2016