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Beyond Vestries? Is it time to change parish governance

Beyond Vestries? Is it time to change parish governance

Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices (ECFVP) asks is it time to get rid of vestries?

A friend recently quipped “I don’t believe vestries are needed for the church today.” He said it as a hyperbole, something to spark conversation, and if for no other reason than it might do that – actually spark a conversation and actually lead us to seriously re-consider our conventional working model – I’ll go along with it. If you’d like a more palatable post, though, let me say that vestries, alone, are no longer needed for the church today.

The … organization can keep the title ‘vestry,’ and the canons of the church don’t have to be revised nor does anyone need to talk about dissolving and merging ‘parish boundaries’ or any other such thing. Those are probably ‘third rail’ issues, anyway. The latter organization can be called, say, the ‘parish council.’ Both can equal claim to the power structures and ways in which budget(s) are established and mission is financed. Both can argue from positions of relative strength, and neither would seek to tear down or disenfranchise the other.

What it would do is create a system of real checks-and-balances on the ground whereas, in reality, our 18th century church has never really had much balance in its local, lived expression. We’ve had plenty of ‘checks’ on the ground. Because our dominant model of church is all about maintaining corporate property and keeping up the establishment, we’ve effectively figured out how to shut down anything that might risk that model: The Episcopal Church in its local, lived expression is very good at stifling new ideas and suffocating relational groupings if it appears that such movements will threaten the establishment. Creating these checks-and-balances between Vestry and Parish Council, then, will lead both groups to become partners in the work of ministry, one paying greater attention to relational matters, the other to those more functional (and necessary) concerns of what it means to be church. Doing so will come with its own hardship and headaches, and this model requires a greater degree of priestly leadership and authority in maintaining balance and keeping everyone accountable to a higher mission, but I believe it can be done.

Read it all here and add what do you think of this idea in the comments.


posted by Ann Fontaine


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Bruce LeLacheur

‘Beyond Vestries’ points up the tension between preservation and innovation. Previous commentators note that additional structure may actually tend to distract from mission and ministry but also reference the difficulties that parish vestries and clergy frequently have with leadership role definitions, much of which may stem from misconceived expectations and outdated structures. Understanding how we got this way may help.
Greg Syler’s post is a good reminder that parish vestries were originally structured to be the ultimate authority for both civil and ecclesiastical affairs in specific geographic territories at a time when there were no other effective civil authorities at the parish level. My own parish was established in the mid 19th century in Virginia together with neighboring parishes situated less than ten miles apart from each other. At that time, a parish vestry would have known everything it needed to about the parish, largely because they would have lived in the parish and probably would have grown up in the parish. Today, even though civil authorities still need some parochial supplementation, parishioners travel from much farther than five miles away, having moved here from much farther than that. In suburban and even exurban parishes, few of us have the opportunity to become deeply rooted geographically. Deanery regions and diocesan configurations don’t necessarily reflect 21st century reality either.
In past centuries when the local gentry constituted a typical parish vestry, they knew the parish on every level and would have had a righteous sense of parish tradition. Fifty years ago, my parish’s vestry still consisted of young men who were all born and bred in the parish. Innovation typically came from incoming clergy who brought outlandish, innovative, and non-parochial ideas. More recently, our vestry members have tended to be more seasoned and more diverse, but relative newcomers to the parish who are often unaware of both parochial history and Anglican polity. Consequently, our clergy have been obliged to intuit appropriate preservation efforts while they innovate. Establishing a healthy balance between preservation and innovation is difficult, and seems to sap energy from mission and ministry.
We need to apply our venerable traditions in new ways, without getting bogged down building new structures. Sometimes it is the leadership of various ministry groups within the parish that stifles innovation. Documenting existing structures or completely restructuring parish leadership won’t necessarily help unless vestries and clergy work together with other parish leaders to comprehend and preserve parochial interests in the context of innovative mission and ministries.

John D. Andrews

In my local parish the role of the vestry is inconsequential since the priest has taken authority over both spiritual and temporal matters, which is contrary to the historical roles of the priest and vestry. Therefore, it wouldn’t really matter if their was another layer of governance. Where the priest allows the vestry to exercise their oversight over temporal matters, another body would not be needed, as the vestry could call for parish input through parish-wide meetings to help them to make better informed decisions.

John Korkow

I have just left our parish vestry after 3 years of service. My total years of vestry service in the last 16 years, are 14, with 11 at a small church “within” my current church. I don’t think a bicameral revisioning will accomplish very much, it is difficult to find enough leaders to populate one council, let alone two, in most of our churches. It is about a different vision concerning the purpose and personnel on our vestries. Term limits are a good idea, smaller vestries (I like 6-8 total folks, including the wardens), and mentorship of new vestry members are essential changes to making the church leadership truly responsive to church needs. We are in a time of change in the Episcopal Church nationwide, as envisioned by TREC, for example. We have many mistakes of the past that we can learn from, with refusal to change topping that list. Change naysayers need pastoral care, they do not need leadership roles if we are to survive in the new millennium.

Jon White

” If you put those persons together with their counterparts from neighbor parishes in a new body, a third organization beyond the established vestries, they will in time form a new majority, and they will find a new collective strength. ”

So, a deanery council? Perhaps if those “neighbor parishes,” weren’t all 20-30 miles away. Another layer of “leadership” doesn’t strike me as helpful. Besides, this looks like a solution in search of a problem. Lots of vestries provide real leadership in areas outside of buildings and other property.

Rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all solution, we should look at ways in which the canons limit creative adaptation in local contexts and change that.

Richard Edward Helmer


I was thinking just after I posted my comment that more formal organization might be helpful for the greater complexity of larger parishes and cathedrals. Thanks for the example!

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