January 2019
Vestry as Team

Church Partnerships and Collaborative Leadership

As financial pressures ratchet up for our smaller congregations, the benefits from collaboration and partnerships with other congregations increase. There are many ways for churches to collaborate: sharing staff, sharing space, co-sponsoring programs. Since clergy commonly comprise the greatest cost for a small congregation, the most impactful collaboration is often sharing clergy. There are several models for doing this:

  • Congregations can remain independent and not in relationship. The clergy person is essentially employed part time at each congregation.
  • Congregations can work together on some aspects of their ministry, for example, sharing staff or common programming and perhaps occasional common worship.
  • Congregations can be more tightly integrated, including worshiping together regularly, while maintaining their separate identities.

Worship, governance and finances call for teamwork

For each type of collaboration, it is critical for the respective vestries or bishop’s committees to work together as a team. There are three main areas for the team to consider: worship, governance and finances. With worship, the key thing is to work out service times that don’t conflict and that allow the clergy person to spend meaningful time at each congregation before and after the service. If the clergy person is required to rush off to the other church immediately after worship, the earlier congregation can feel short-changed, as though they never get to spend time with their priest. For two churches with Sunday services, this often means moving one service earlier and one later, which can be a bone of contention among the members. Building a collaborative team from the two vestries or bishop’s committees is key, along with understanding that partnership requires some give and take.

As an example, in New Hampshire we have one pair of congregations that chose to divide their worship by rite and style. There is an 8 am service in one church with a spoken Rite I Eucharist, then a Rite II Eucharist with music and choir at 10 am at the other church. The churches are five miles apart, making it easy for parishioners from either congregation to go to the service that suits them.

In the area of governance, it is important that the two vestries or bishop’s committees maintain separate identities, yet encourage as much teamwork and collaboration as possible. The best way to foster teamwork is to have the vestries meet jointly. Votes can be taken by congregation where necessary, when approving a budget, for example, or major expenditures or calling clergy. One of our shared ministries meets jointly, and then the two bishop’s committees break off separately to discuss and vote on items specific to their churches.

Things get more complex with finances

Collaborations get trickiest when it comes to finances, an area where teamwork is crucial. Each church is still its own legal entity and as such needs to maintain its own accounts. It is very important early on in the relationship to establish which congregation is paying for what. One church may have a rectory and provide the clergy housing. In return, the other congregation takes up a larger salary portion or covers other expenses, such as health insurance. This reduces the need for transfers or reimbursements between the two congregations.

One challenge arises when a parishioner wants to pledge to the partnership rather than one church or the other. It is important to have a system that designates how such pledges are to be split – which congregation will receive the funds and how the balance will be transferred over to the other church. Or alternatively, there may be a person who wants his pledge to go to just one of the congregations. Again, it is important for the vestries to decide ahead of time how they are going to handle these situations and to put appropriate systems in place.

Given the complexities of maintaining separate governance and finances, we have had congregations ask “can’t we just merge everything?” Unfortunately, since the churches are canonically and legally separate, you can’t. Even if you set up a new account to handle the combined funds of the two churches, the account has to be owned by one of the churches in the partnership. Likewise, canonically, each congregation has been admitted separately into the diocese. Partnering congregations need to continue to participate and vote separately and to pay separate diocesan assessments.

While the details of the process of merging are beyond the scope of this article, it takes substantial time and resources to dissolve the existing entities and to re-form a joined entity, which would then need to be legally recognized and canonically admitted to the diocese. Once undertaken, a merger is not easily undone, so it is important that the vestries establish a true and lasting partnership before making the arrangement permanent.

Case Study: The Seacoast Shared Ministry

Christ Church Portsmouth and Trinity Church Hampton are about 10 miles apart and a 20-minute drive on the New Hampshire seacoast. Trinity has an ASA of about 40, and Christ Church’s ASA is approximately 30. In 2011, Bishop Gene Robinson invited the two congregations to form a shared ministry, where they would work in partnership with a shared full-time clergy person. This shared ministry partnership has grown over the years and continues today. Not only do the congregations share clergy, they also share a parish administrator, a music director and a bookkeeper. Services are held at Trinity on Saturday evening at 5PM, then again at 8:45 on Sunday morning. After having a little time at coffee hour at Trinity, the vicar and music director jump in the car and head to Christ Church for a 10:30 service.

Christ Church has a rectory on its property, which provides the vicar’s housing. In exchange for providing the housing, Trinity church pays for the vicar’s cash salary. They split expenses such as health care, pension and mileage evenly. The parish administrator, music director and bookkeeper are split 55/45, with Trinity paying the larger share. The bishop’s committees meet together monthly, with each group splitting off for part of the meeting to discuss matters particular to their congregation.

The two churches collaborate on a substantial list of outreach programs, although each program is housed at one congregation or the other and maintains its identity as such. They also share a pledge campaign committee. They worship together occasionally during holy week, Episcopal visits and for the pledge campaign kickoff. The two congregations have established a covenant that they renew every three years.

In 2017, a group formed to discern the future of the shared ministry. They looked at all options, including a merger, and after a yearlong discernment, decided not to merge. Instead, they chose to continue and grow the partnership they have built over the years. These two congregations offer a great model for the concept of vestries working together as a team.

Benge Ambrogi serves as the Canon for Mission Resources/COO for the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. In this role, he is responsible for the operations of the Diocese, including financial oversight, the Bishop’s staff and Diocesan properties. He began service with the EDoNH in 2002 as a volunteer with the Mission Resources Committee and later became a part-time Missioner for Congregational Initiatives. With Bachelors and Masters degrees in engineering from MIT, in the secular world Benge has 30 years of experience in the defense, medical, and robotics industries.


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