Thursday, February 12, 2015

Three Questions to Enhance the Effectieness of Vestry Meetings

Effective Vestry Meetings are essential to healthy Congregational life.  Here are three questions to make them more effective.  
After 42 years of ordained ministry and 10 of these spent on a Bishop’s staff, I have attended far more Vestry meetings than anyone would wish.  Believe me when I say that I have seen “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of Vestry meetings.  I’ve also seen to many boring ones.   Since Vestry meetings are an essential part of parish administration, I learned early on to try to learn how to run effective ones.  Over the years in Vestry Workshops, I’ve offered a number of practical suggestions to make Vestry Meetings more effective.   In this blog, I want to share three questions that should be asked at the end of every Vestry meeting.   

1.        What have we decided? 

Interestingly, Vestry Meetings can go on for hours with lots of discussion, even conflict, with very little actually decided.  Some Vestry Clerks are able to record in the minutes an incredible amount of detail.  I’ve seen Vestry Minutes that go one for as many as ten pages.  While such detail may be interesting especially to Parish Historians, they make clarification difficult.  Even when a resolution has been made, one often has to search the minutes for a long time to locate what a Vestry has actually decided.   

I learned this tip from an Executive Secretary of the Board of General Mills.  Board or Vestry Minutes should start with the place and time of the meeting followed by a list of those in attendance.  Then there needs to be an executive summary of actions.  Here is a sample; 

These Vestry Minutes Contain the Following Vestry Actions:
1.       Approved the December Minutes
2.       Voted to authorize the Junior Warden to replace the old hot water heater in the Parish Hall
3.       Approved a 10% increase in the paper budget for the current year
4.       Appointed a long-range planning committee to address the question of adding a Sunday night service 

Note that the summary lists only the actions and decisions of the Vestry.  Discussions of items can be found in the minutes when needed.  The summary does not need to include the official resolution.  This too can be found within the minutes.  This kind of summary is very helpful when Vestry Members wish to look up a decision make months before, i.e.  “Didn’t we already authorize a new hot water heater last year when we began to have problems?”  A quick review of past Vestry Minutes can locate any past action.  This is especially important given the normal rotation of at least 1/3 of the Vestry each year. 

2.        Who is responsible for carrying out or overseeing the decision? 

I warn clergy that if a decision is made and no one is given responsibility for executing it, then the assumption will be that the Rector is responsible.  This is poor and often problematic assumption.  To help the collective memory, I find that actions should also indicate the responsible person when appropriate.  (See #2 in the example above.)  When a Vestry is not clear as to who is the responsible person, then confusion, frustration, and hard feelings often result.   

3.        How should we communicate these decisions?

I have advocated the first two questions for years now.  Recently I read an article by Bob Sutton about effective meetings where he shared what he learned from the Human Relations person, Patty McCord, of Netflix.   

Toward the end of our conversation, we asked Patty about senior team meetings at Netflix and elsewhere. Patty was vehement that, in the best companies, executive teams really are teams and that they make the hardest decisions together. We were especially struck by what she said next: “The most important role I played at Netflix was, at the end of every executive meeting, to say ‘Have we made any decisions in the room today, and (if we have) how are we going to communicate them?’” 

This third question is important and has become even more so for Vestries in the past three decades.  When I was first ordained, most Vestries operated more as “Trustees” of congregations.  Their decisions were seldom questioned because institutional loyalty was a standard for the G.I. generation.  To question a decision was often seen as a criticism of the integrity of the Vestry Members.  However, the change in generations has brought a new standard.  It started with us Boomers.  I like to say it this way, “Boomers consider any decision, no matter how good, made without their participation to be a bad one.”  Younger generations have gone further in expectations regarding the standards in communications and participation. 
So, if I were to give a Vestry Workshop today, I would add this third question and underscore its importance.  It is fundamental to leadership today to be effective communicators even to the point of redundancy.  Good businesses like Netflix have learned this.  Good parishes should learn this.  And we could hope that government at all levels would learn this. 
Want to enhance the effectiveness of your Vestry Meetings?  Add these three questions at the end of every meeting to build organizational effectiveness and transparency.  Yes, the Church is not a business, but this should never be an excuse for poor leadership practices.  After all, the Church is about the work of God’s Kingdom and this demands a higher standard than that at Netflix.