One of the biggest issues facing Episcopal Vestries at the beginning of a new year is how to best welcome and incorporate the newly elected vestry members.
Most Vestries operate by electing 1/3 of their members each year at the Annual Meeting. My experience is that these Vestries do not pay close enough attention to the inclusion of the new members. Simple steps can help new members more quickly become fully participating leaders. Over the years, Vestry members have told me that usually it takes about a year for them to feel free to speak up and understand all that they are called to do. Here are a few suggestions that I have for making this transition go faster and better.
1. Tell nominees up front what you expect of them. This year at the Cathedral we created a nominating form that states clearly the expectations and requirements of vestry members. We asked both the nominator and the nominee to sign the statement, which includes the nominee’s agreement to support the mission of the Cathedral as stated in our mission statement.
2. Bring the new members on board right at the first meeting. Here is my favorite question to ask new vestry members: “Could you share with us why you were willing to allow your name to go forward for election to the Vestry at this time? Or, “What concerns do you bring to the Vestry as a new member?”
3. Orient them to unfinished business. Take time to have a warden or longer-term member share what the on-going matters are before the Vestry. For example, we do our Stewardship in January at the Cathedral, so we spent time at our first meeting with the new members explaining both the rationale and the assumptions we made in our budget and the on-going challenges we faced. In addition, three major facilities renovations are in process. We explained these and allowed for questions.
4. Debrief previous challenges. When appropriate, I ask the current Vestry members to share what they see as the greatest challenges the parish has faced during their tenure. It is also stimulating to ask them to share what has been their greatest sense of accomplishment during their time on the vestry. Even when there has been substantial conflict in the past, these questions allow all the members to gain some perspective on the issues.
5. Have the Rector share her or his experience with Vestries. Most clergy have had considerable experience with Vestries. Take advantage of this early on. I always like to share what I perceive to be the greatest problem a Vestry faces; namely, a Vestry member with a sole agenda who is unwilling to sacrifice this agenda in the best interest of the entire congregation. I have lots of examples after 40 years!
6. Share on how to bring feedback from congregational members to the Vestry and Church leaders. Explain “triangulating” and how to avoid this. It is always best to do this before issues arise.
7. Talk about how decisions are made. Most vestries work by consensus until “something really important or legal” comes along. Discuss what decisions with take a simple consensus, which ones require a vote, and which ones would require a ¾ majority. (Yes, there are some really important ones that do!)
8. If you have Vestry committees, describe these and give the new members an opportunity to participate on the committee of their choice. We have four at the Cathedral, and we give new members a description and ask them to indicate their first two choices. The Senior Warden and I then assign them to a committee based on these two preferences. (We do not worry if the committees are equal in number.)
It was the lack of good orientation for Vestries that led my last Diocese (Texas) and my current one (Dallas) to provide a Vestry Leadership Day. Our newly elected Vestry members find these very helpful. Take the time to bring new members on board and you will reap plenty of rewards in your life together.