January 2019
Vestry as Team

There is No “I” in Team

I haven’t always been fond of this saying, but as a parish rector and now as Bishop Suffragan, I have come to relish it. As leaders, some of the most important questions we can ask of our vestries/bishop’s committees are:

What should we do?
What are the group’s feelings on XYZ issue?
What do you all think about XYZ proposal?
What are we missing?
What voices are we missing in this conversation/decision?

The Goal

Working through a tough budget or an issue requires a team approach, which means people should be able to express their individual opinions but come to a consensus on what is best for the congregation. This may seem to you like a no-brainer or like an impossible task. It takes work to get there, and early team-building is essential to equip any group with the tools they need to work well together.

The Process

Everything we do must begin with prayer. This is the first and great commandment, in my mind. Every meeting. Always. If we are not praying together, we will never be able to make tough decisions together. As a vestry or bishop’s committee starts its year, prayer and retreat are essential.
In a retreat setting, here are a few things I have found to help form an effective team:

  1. Teach Respectful Communication Guidelines and Mutual Invitation as used by the Kaleidoscope Institute
  2. Pray together and ask each member of the group to lead prayer at the retreat. Ask members to lead prayers at each upcoming meeting as well, making sure everyone has a turn. Do Bible study together. You can tie the Bible study questions to the mission statement of the congregation.
  3. Using respectful communication guidelines and mutual invitation, take time to learn something about each member, from the familiar to what will help your work together:
    a. What is something that people don’t know about you that might surprise them?
    b. What is your favorite genre of book/movie/TV show?
    c. What is your favorite food?
    d. What is on your bucket list?
    e. If you had a chance to work in another profession what would it be and why?
    f. When I am in conflict, I tend to . . .
    g. I know I am being respected when . . .
    h. I know I am being heard when . . .
    i. When I read our mission statement, I think about . . .
  4. Assign each member an area of responsibility or focus: stewardship, finance, Christian Education, worship, etc., with an eye to match people’s skills/interests with various areas of focus within the congregation, keeping in mind that this is not always easy, nor is it clear-cut.
  5. Educate all the members on the finances of the congregation:
    a. Using your mission statement as the guiding principle of your work, walk through your balance sheet and profit and loss statement. Using an annotated or narrative budget is always good to acclimate members to an area of some of the hardest decisions a vestry or bishop’s committee have to make. You cannot separate mission and ministry from budgeting – nor from your finances. They are inextricably linked together.
    b. Understand that all we have been given is a gift from God, and it is a gift that is meant to be shared. Talk about abundance – not scarcity.
    c. Understand that money is always the hardest thing for a vestry/bishop’s committee to talk about because the old adage is true: money is closer to people’s hearts than God ever is. Trust me, I was a banker for 17 years. Now reread the part on the need to always start with prayer.

When we understand each other, it is easier to listen to each other. When we can talk about money from a sense of abundance and not scarcity, we can have fruitful conversations about how we are using the resources we have been given to the glory of God. Through all this, we can understand each other’s perspectives better, and learn to work with each other. It does not mean we will always agree. It does not mean we will always like what we will hear. It does mean that being formed as a team, we will learn to work together in a healthy way, with mutual respect even when we work through hard decisions and issues.

Diversity/Cultural considerations

As in any group, a mixture of voices in the team is always key to ensuring you are making the best collective decision possible. If you are in a group where there are multiple cultures represented – gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, etc. – it is important to understand cultural norms and nuances and to be sensitive to the people in the group. In some cultures, for example, people will not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts or feelings openly. In other cultures, looking someone straight in the eye is considered rude. Creating norms such as respectful communication guidelines and mutual invitation as a means of engaging people’s thoughts and opinions is a great way to ensure everyone is invited to speak and is being heard. Not dismissing a person’s idea out of hand, even and especially if it is challenging, is essential to ensuring that people feel not only safe in sharing their thoughts, but also that their thoughts and opinions are taken seriously and respected. Invest in butcher paper when making tough decisions. Write down what people say and display it, so that all can feel – and see – that they are being heard.

Pitfall to avoid at all costs: Never load a vestry/bishop’s committee with “YES” people

It can be difficult to hear a dissenting voice on any issue, but it is important that all voices are heard, acknowledged and appreciated. How many times have you been excited about an idea or an opportunity and run into someone who, when you share it, gives you reasons it may not work or thinks it’s a bad idea? For me, these are “Holy Spirit” moments. Every preacher can tell you stories about what they thought they were saying and what people heard – and how those two things did and didn’t match up. No one person can hold all the answers. Listening deeply and not dismissing thoughts or opinions that don’t support ours is important in seeing all possible facets of an issue or idea.

It is never a good idea to form a group with “yes” people who have similar backgrounds and thought processes and agree with everything you think or say. And before you ask, yes, some groups are formed this way. Every group needs diversity – not only as a reflection of the wider congregation, but as a way to give voice to all sides of an issue before a final decision is made. This slows the decision-making process as voices share thoughts that must be carefully weighed before the final decision is made.

If everyone on your committee is of one opinion on a matter, you haven’t gotten a broad enough group together. Hearing all sides of an issue helps the group come to a better, well-formed decision. You can also anticipate potential questions or issues from the wider community, because you have included a variety of voices in the decision making process. One rule of thumb for me has always been that if there is a something controversial coming down the pipeline, and if the group I am working with is of one mind on the matter, I seek out other voices in the community to bounce the thought or idea off of. It may be that there are opinions in the wider community that your group didn’t think of – or it may be that indeed, your entire community is of one mind on an issue – creating a food pantry, for example.

Who is impacted by the decision being made?

If a group/ministry/people is impacted by a decision that the vestry/bishop’s committee is making, why aren’t they there? Why aren’t their voices heard? Even if the decision is to change or sunset a ministry, those involved in that ministry should be asked for their thoughts. Always make sure those impacted by a decision have had their opinion/voice heard.

Bottom Line

Taking the time to prayerfully listen to all voices may seem like a waste of time – but it is not. In the long run, the team building process and the use of respectful communication guidelines and mutual invitation not only saves time and energy, it ensures that the best possible decisions are made by a team of people who love the congregation and love Jesus.

The Rt. Rev. Diane M. Jardine Bruce, Suffragan Bishop for the Diocese of Los Angeles, was the first woman elected bishop in the diocese. Her areas of specialization include new community (formerly called multicultural ministries), stewardship and finance. Ordained a priest in 1998 in the Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Bruce speaks Spanish, some Mandarin and Cantonese as well as English. She holds a doctoral degree from Seabury-Western Seminary, as well as a master of divinity degree from the Claremont School of Theology and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley.


This article is part of the January 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry as Team