Vestry as Team
How We Gather ’Round the Table
As I dashed down the stairs to the undercroft of the church to be the first in line for coffee hour treats, the first thing I noticed was the way the chairs and tables were positioned. Set in a big square taking up almost half of the room, the arrangement could only mean the bishop’s committee meeting. I smiled, because when the bishop’s committee meets two great things happen: great food and time to play with my friends!
The table’s at the center
In some congregations, the leadership (vestry or bishop’s committee or any other) meets in a specifically designated room; in others, in the library; and still others meet in their fellowship hall. Regardless of where they meet, they share one thing in common – tables and chairs configured to create the greatest capacity for seeing and hearing each other. While functional, the setup is also iconic of what is taking place.
As eucharistic people, the table is functionally and symbolically the most important piece of furniture for our communities, next to the baptismal font. As such, a central question for us all is: who is at the table and who is missing? Faith communities are often very good about asking who is missing from the eucharistic table, but miss the mark when it comes to who is sitting at the table of leadership. And there is another critical question: how do those around the table relate to each other?
In the fourth chapter of Ephesians, writing to the faith community in Ephesus, Paul makes the case for the importance of fully utilizing what we now refer to as the ministry of the baptized: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” He goes on to suggest, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4: 4-7, 11-13.
Representation, gifts and collaboration at the table
Who is at our leadership table? Or more importantly, who is missing? Do those sitting around the table represent the fullness of the ministry of all the baptized? The healthiest leadership tables are those that are intentional about three key components: demographic representation, gift discernment and shared collaborative leadership.
Does our leadership table look like the complete make up of our faith community, including those we we seek greater participation from or who have been historically marginalized? Engaging in the comprehensive work of understanding the full representation of the faith community is critical to having the broadest base of leadership.
Have individuals in the faith community been given opportunities to participate in some form of gift discernment exercise? Having an in-depth understanding of the variety of passions and gifts of all of the baptized is the work of the Holy Spirit that makes the missional vision come to reality.
Does the leadership table create a clear desire for shared collaborative leadership? When we acknowledge, affirm and respect the unique gifts that each of the baptized brings, the leadership is able to operate as a team for building up the body of Christ.
Changing the table transforms the leadership team
In the faith community where I previously served, we set about to intentionally transition the functioning of our leadership table. One of the things most helpful things in accomplishing this involved the physical location for our meetings. For years we had met in the library of the church. Four times a year however, we would spend a Sunday afternoon together for a mini retreat at one of the members’ homes.
These meetings were not only incredibly productive, but had a completely different vibe than when we met at the church. We would begin around the dining room table, sharing a wonderful meal. It was a great opportunity to check in with one another, and even those who had gone to church together for years moved into deeper relationship. This connectivity was instrumental in gaining clarity about each other’s gifts and passions and built a significant amount of trust. The bonds that were formed increased both the health of the leadership table and created a greater sense of working as a team.
Shifting from the ‘boardroom’ table to the dining room table completely changed the leadership’s functioning. In my experience, people would often arrive from their hectic business lives to the leadership meetings at the church and continue to function as if they were at work. Opening prayers and reflections were helpful, but many still brought a corporate perspective, rather than a Spirit-led, collaborative approach to the holy work to which we were called.
The difference in how the leadership functioned and related to each other was so obvious that they abandoned the boardroom table in the church library and decided to hold all leadership meetings around each other’s dining room tables. The end result was that the leadership functioned with greater intention about who was at the table and who was not, with much deeper relationships and greater clarity about the gifts and passions of others – and in a much more shared, collaborative way.
The icon that most clearly depicts for me God’s dream of our leadership table is Andrei Rublev’s Trinity. God’s beloved, uniquely created and uniquely gifted – all collaborating with the Holy Spirit and with each other in engaging God’s mission.
The Rt. Rev. Brian N. Prior is the IX Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Before becoming Bishop, he served as the founding Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Spokane, WA, Executive Director of Camp Cross, the Director of Education and Development for the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane. He also served as Chaplain and Vice President for the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies and on the Executive Council for the Episcopal Church. He is currently Vice Chair of the Trustee for the Church Pension Group, Vice President of Province VI and Chair of the Visionary Council for the Episcopal Camp and Conference Centers.
- Seats at the Table by Alan Bentrup, an ECF Vital Practices blog, May 9, 2017
- There’s a Place for You at the Table, an ECF Vital Practices tool submitted by Doreen Rice
- Church as Base Camp by J. Fletcher Lowe, Vestry Papers, March 2014
- Who Should Be at the Table by Miguel Escobar, an ECF Vital Practices blog, April 12, 2012