Why we have Vestries

Why we have vestries

By Bill Danaher

One of the ways the Episcopal church is distinctive as a denomination concerns the ministry of the Vestry. The Vestry – which is a name that comes from the room where the clergy traditionally put on their vestments – is an elected body of lay people who function much like a board of directors does in any nonprofit. Vestries are responsible for the governance of the parish. This means that Vestry members make sure that the church follows those rules and practices that ensure fairness, accountability, and transparency in all that we do. What is even more important, as the legal representative of the parish, vestry members need to conduct themselves individually and as a group with the highest ethical standards, particularly with regard to financial matters, as the church as a whole may be held liable for significant acts of malfeasance or willful misconduct. At the same time, Vestries are not responsible for the management of the parish. Rather, the day-to-day operations of the parish fall under the responsibility of the Rector and the staff. This includes decisions regarding the roles of clergy and the staff, the use of buildings and furnishings, the worship services, the parish programs, and Christian education. Because of this division of duties, it is imperative that the Rector and the Vestry work closely together. Particularly between the Wardens (the lay leaders of the Vestry) and the Rector, there needs to be a close relationship of collaboration, mutual respect, courtesy, and close listening. In cases where there is debate and disagreement, each participant needs to lean in to the conversation to make sure that the other side of an issue is heard and understood. However, the best way for the Vestry and the Rector to stay on the same page is by constantly keeping in mind the Vision of our parish. Both need to ask the following questions as many times as possible: Why is this program necessary to meeting our fourfold vision to meet Jesus, find Joy, share Beauty, and serve Others? What does this action or decision have to do with Jesus? How do these efforts help us grow as followers of Christ? These questions are key, because serving on the vestry is not only some of the most important work one can do at the church, but it is also one of the most exciting and joyful ministries of the church. “Healthy, effective Vestries,” a former Bishop of mine once said, “make healthy, effective parishes. When Rectors and Vestries work together as a well-aligned team, extraordinary things happen for the mission of God.” May it be so, as it has been so, thanks be to God.