Monday, February 22, 2021

Parish Leadership 3: Structure for the Future Not the Past

Building on my first two blogs on Discernment and Community, I now want to ask a question about Vestry Structure, namely, how then should we organize to accomplish our work?

We need to start with the current realities. If a church hired and organizational consultant who knows nothing about the church and its purposes, the leadership would learn an interesting fact about a church works.  (I am speaking about the the typical congregation with a full-time ordained clergy person and attendance between 80 and 150.)

The consultant would point out that the church seemed to be organized to do two things.  First, most of the energy of the congregation functions to provide a Sunday morning services.  That is because the consultant would have seen the altar guild, the servers, the acolytes, the ushers, the clergy, and the parish secretary working at this task. 

Then consultant would also add that observing the full-time ordained leader pointed to a second purpose. Despite the old joke that clergy only work on Sundays, the clergy person is involved in a multitude of activities related to their office.  The consultant also notes that between 40 to 50% of the church’s budget is used to support the rector.  The consultant would note that besides Sunday morning, the parish seems organized to support the work of the Rector. 

Of course, the consultant would also note that organizations like the church school, and the men’s group, and the Wednesday bible study for a smaller number of folks also happened.  Many congregations would also have some sort of organization to provide for outreach. but these other organizations and ministries would just seem haphazard.

All of this becomes even more interesting when we compare this typical parish organization to the stated mission of both the wider Church and a local congregation.  We would see the lack of congruency between the organization’s stated mission and its actual operations.  I have worked with congregations and Vestries that have complex organizational makeup but who have never stopped to ask the question “How would we best organize and structure our parish to accomplish the mission we believe god has given us?

The sad truth is that 80 to 90% of Episcopal congregations are organized based on how we have always done things.  And Vestry is made up of a committee 9 to 12 people who spend most of their time reviewing the budget and the operations of the congregation. In other words, maintaining what we have known and expect to know into the future.  This would be fine if our churches operated in the 19th century in a dominantly Christian culture but now our churches are in the 21st century among predominantly non-churched people.

How then should the vestry organize?

I said in the last blog how important it is for the Vestry to build community life and model to the rest of the parish this intrinsic value to accomplish the Church’s bigger mission.  What we need today is to stop what we are doing by precedent and take a more radical step.  This step is by necessity what new planted churches and communities naturally do to get started.  They are forced by low budget, no building, not enough volunteers, and an immediate agenda to organize directly around a mission and 3 to 5 core values. 

That is what we do in revitalization of congregations.  We start with the mission and because it has a history, we allow 5 to 7 core values instead of just 3!

Let me pause and say what this does not produce. It does not produce a Vestry made up of 7 to 10 committees or even a Vestry where all elected members act as liaisons to parish organizations.  These two forms are all over the Church and are largely, in my experience, a waste of time and energy.  The only organization of the Vestry itself that I have found effective is when the sub-committees are organized around the Vestry’s work. You will hear more about this in my next blog on practical matters.

So, I want to see that every vestry member has a notebook. On page one is the mission of the parish and its core values, and on page two are the current one to three year goals.  When I see this, I find a Vestry that is either doing its mission directly or are preparing to do so.

The Vestry’s primary work now becomes oversight of its mission and the work around those core values.  Organize around this principle and you will have what organizational consultants call Organizational Congruency!

In my next blog, I will discuss what this might look like, and in my last blog on leadership, I will discuss stewardship and the budget seen from the point of view of the mission and core values. 

Questions so far?  Do not forget you can email me at


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Parish Leadership 2: Building Community


In this second blog on parish leadership, I want to talk about building the community. The community of the leadership and of the congregational community.  Remember that one of the two core values of the Jesus movement is the Great Commandment to love one another.  These are meaningful words and almost all Christians would affirm them, but realistically, how do we build community?

Some years ago, I wrote a book, 5 Keys for Church Leaders. It is available from Church Publishing at Amazon and is also in a Kindle edition.  In it I talked about how important it is for church leaders to “Build the Team.”  What I pointed out is that to effectively carry out the mission that you have discerned, then the leadership need to work like a team. The team image is powerful because no team just shows up to play. They spend time together. They practice and they learn how to work cooperatively and not competitively.

Rather than give a series of bullet points on how to do this, I want to share with you the most significant experience that I have had in my years of ministry with a Vestry that did this intentionally. It was the Vestry of St. Luke’s in Seattle when I was the Rector. Here is what we developed.

First, we would meet twice a month.  The first meeting was about the mission and the strategy and ministries to carry out the mission. (More of this latter in my next blog.)  The second meeting was the business one where we reviewed the budget and the oversight of buildings, staff, and operations.  This was second because the first of the month made it hard for the treasurer and the administrator to put together the month information.

We would begin both meetings at 6pm with dinner.  Often members came in late because of their business hours, their commutes, or family obligations.  At 7pm we would move to our meeting room and I would begin the meeting with an opening prayer.  Then we would go around the room and check for any prayer concerns or needs.  Our deacon would keep notes of the concerns and then at the end, the deacon (and others as they felt led) would hold up the concerns in prayer.  Often members of the vestry would move to lay hands on those with needs for healing or strength. 

At the first meeting of the month, we would open the scriptures and I or one of our members would lead a study.  This was not just a bible study.  This was a bible study centered on the issues of leadership.  That was after all why we were there. It is amazing how many passages throughout the Scriptures deal with this topic. (There is an NIV Leadership edition of the Bible organized just on this theme.) We would discuss these passages and explore the applications to our community.  The second hour of the meeting, we would turn to the main thing, our mission.  Twice a year, we would review our goals and set new ones. Often at this meeting, we would bring the leaders of ministries or staff members into the meeting to discuss their work and seeking ways that we could support their areas. 

The second meeting of the month also started with a meal, gathering and prayers. We did not do a Scripture study, but now had a report from the Rector, the Wardens, our Administrator, and the more typical reports you would expect.  The meeting portion was limited to two hours.  At the end of both meetings there was informal time over coffee and dessert. Over the years, and after holding and visiting hundreds of Vestry meetings, I am convinced that everything that happens after two hours is either redundant or ineffective.  Vestry members are, after all, volunteers.

In addition to these regular events, we held a day long retreat in February to welcome new vestry members and bring them up to speed and then to say goodbye and thank you to the off-going members.  Then in June we held a longer retreat to review and focus on our mission and strategies. 

Hard work? Yes!  Worth it? Without question.  People often said that the time on our Vestry was the most meaningful experience of Christian community they had ever had. A common feedback was that the Vestry had become a second family.

Now, I am not saying that you should operate this way, but I am suggesting that you structure your life together to allow time and use strategies that will allow the Vestry to become a community. 

Lastly, let me make this observation. While every parish has some dear saintly person whose spirituality and Christian witness is exemplary, and often some small group ministry that has rich fellowship and support, the corporate spiritual life of the congregation will not be greater than the spiritual life and witness of the leadership.   As Philip Turner said recently to a group of clergy, we must become the incarnation of the community that we are called to be. Modeling this is not a way to make this happen, it is the only way to enable it to happen. 

If you want more practical steps and ideas to move toward such a community, I have some in my 5 Keys book, or your Diocesan Office and Bishop should be able to help you.

In my next blog, I will discuss strategy and structure or how to organize to accomplish the mission.  Remember, a mission without a strategy is, after all, only a dream.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Parish Leadership: Discernment


This is the first of a series of Blogs about Parish Leadership. While it is intended for new Vestry Members, feel free to share this with leaders of your congregations. 

In these blogs, I will not be writing about the canonical responsibilities but will leave this up to parish clergy to communicate.  I will be writing about the issue of leadership as we enter the post-COVID period and the role of lay leaders working in partnership with their clergy to develop healthy, vibrant, and growing congregations. I will be covering the big picture issues and the practical steps needed to lead in today’s world.

Many Episcopalians think that the role of the Vestry is to manage the business affairs of the parish.  More specifically, they believe that while the clergy manage the spiritual affairs, the lay leaders manage the budget.  In other words, the role of the Vestry is to maintain the congregation, balance the budget and see to it that the grass gets mown.  Perhaps back before the last 40 years that was central to their role, but no longer.  In today’s world, we need congregational leadership to lead the local parish into the future.

The Current Realities

The demands of leadership are greater today than ever as the number of church members in our country drops from its historic post World War Two number of 40% to today’s number of 20%.  For the Episcopal Church, the last 20 years have seen significant loss of membership and decline in attendance.  To try to maintain our churches and continue business as usual is no longer possible. We need our current leadership to move to the future in creative and innovative ways. In short, we need our leaders to lead.

Let us start with the primary question, “What is the role or purpose of a Vestry?” What is their first task?  As I said above that, while they are responsible for the operations of the local Church, this is not their primary role as leaders.

Put in Biblical Terms and in the language of the early church, the purpose of our elected and appointed leaders is “discernment.”  They are to discern the will of God for the local church.  One way to start this process is to ask what is the mission of this local body that we are called to by God and which the Holy Spirit is directing our mission.

Not Just a Mission Statement

I am not saying that our churches need to write another “mission statement!”  I often say to vestries that if writing a mission statement helps you to discover your mission, then write it. Sadly, many congregations have a mission statement, often written in calligraphy and posted on a parish hall wall, but have no clear sense of mission, our “must do” as a local outpost of the Jesus Movement.

Nether am I saying that every congregation needs to start this process from scratch. We do not need to put up newsprint or come up with some ideas about what we might be doing.  As an historic and creedal community, we have much direction put before us. 

The Mission not a Mission

What is the mission of the Church the Prayer Book Catechism asks?  The answer is “to reconcile all people to God and one another through Christ.” And we have two core values that direct this ministry of reconciliation.

          The Great Commission to make disciples and,

          The Great Commandment to love one another.

With this mission and these core values to guide us, the question every Vestry should be asking is this:  How is God’s calling this congregation to live out this mission and these core values in our local, diocesan, and world communities? 

Each congregation has a unique community of people, a unique setting, and a unique opportunity to live out this mission.  As disciples of Jesus, we do not think that we are gathered in our local setting by accident.  We are sent by our Lord to be witnesses to Jesus and live out God’s Kingdom, God’s reign on earth as in heaven. And we have been promised that we will be guided by God’s Spirit and given all the gifts we will need to accomplish this work.

The first thing, the main thing, is discernment. What is our Church’s unique calling at this moment and how do the needs of the community around us point to that calling?

Where should the lay and clergy leadership start?  We start with the right questions. How are we currently carrying out God’s mission and what more are we called to do at this moment given to us by God’s grace? 

Of course, we can only discern such an important set of questions by beginning in prayer. Then with the scriptures and our worship to guide us, we move forward in discernment trusting that as Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, once said, “God’s mission shall never lack for God’s provision.”

As we grow in this discernment should we write down our mission?  Yes, we should! We should write it on all everything; our buildings, our bulletins, our website and our hearts.  And something else. The most vibrant congregations are constantly inviting and looking for others who will join us in the singular most important work of our life together.

Remember the first work of leadership is discernment and learn to “Make the main thing, the main thing!” 

In my next blog, I will explore how we build our leadership team and how we become the community the great commandment calls us to be.  

(you may contact me at with questions or comments on these blogs.)