The Vestry is a learning, praying community of spiritual leaders
who oversee, plan and guide the ministry of the parish.
Background note: This was originally posted on the list-serve of the Diocese of Bethlehem, then known as “Bakery," in response to a conversation thread about the role of the clergy, Vestry, and congregation (through the congregational meeting). I cannot remember what the original situation was, except that what was being discussed was a lack of clarity among the members of the Vestry and, perhaps, the clergy of a parish as to the proper role of the Vestry. This lack of clarity was apparently causing a persistent “pinch."
I wrote this post because the thread revealed many questions about the appropriate roles of vestry, clergy, and congregation in an Episcopal parish, which I found to be fairly common in the many parishes I've served and in others that I have come across.
There is a tendency in this country to run Episcopal
Churches according to a congregational (where the whole congregation makes
decisions) or a Presbyterian model (where elected committees and officers make
the decisions) and in both these the clerics find themselves in the role of preaching consultants
or maybe as the hired help. Sometimes, in the name of promoting lay ministry, the cleric sets aside his or her appropriate role. Other times, the Vestry (or maybe one of the officers) has taken on the corporate, material needs of the parish to the exclusion of the pastoral, spiritual, and mission work of the congregation. The situation you described is apparently one where
the lay leadership seems to have fallen into one of those models to bad effect.
It is not an uncommon problem.
There is an equal tendency to organize Episcopal Churches along Roman Catholic
lines, where the priest is in total charge and the vestry and lay leaders exist
solely to raise funds, maintain the property and carry out the priest's vision.
This can have the effect of holding lay leadership back from taking their full
place in the life of the church.
We Episcopalians, on the other hand, strive for that elusive via media. Unlike
our Catholic or Reformed sisters and brothers, we assume a partnership
between clergy and laity. In the Episcopal Church, the congregation elects the
vestry to work alongside the Rector as both partners in and leaders of ministry
and mission. This works on two axes.
The first axis is procedural. The Rector has complete use of the property for
mission, and complete oversight over worship including music and has final
responsibility for Christian formation. The Vestry has control over the
purse strings, and yet is canonically charged to see to the materials necessary
for the worship and mission of the church. That "check and balance"
suggests that the process works best when the parties work together as
The second axis is pastoral or theological. We assume in the Episcopal Church
that vestry members share in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the
parish with the clergy. We don't specify this in the canons but best practices
show us that Vestry members who attend worship regularly, give proportionally
and sacrificially to the work of the church, and participate in both the
formation and outreach of the parish will make the best vestry members. A well-functioning Vestry grounds their deliberations and decisions in prayer and study. Vestry members share in the spiritual leadership of the parish along
with the priest.
So the mission of the parish belongs to both the Rector and the Congregation
through the Vestry. In our tradition, it is the Vestry and the Clergy working
in concert that oversees, directs, manages, and envisions ministry. And
we do this in concert with the community of the diocese through the ministry
and oversight of the Bishop.
The Rector is not an employee of the congregation but is called to the
congregation. The call is made and ratified by both the Bishop--who is the
chief pastor of a diocese--and the Vestry. While the Rector has tenure, she or
he still represents the Bishop to the congregation, just as the congregation is
the living presence of the diocese in the community. The relationship in a
parish is a three-way covenant between bishop, priest, and vestry.
The rubrics and content of the celebration of a new ministry in the BCP
describes this relationship very clearly.
When there is no resident Rector, the Bishop fills that role. The terms
"vicar" means "representative" and in a mission church, the
vicar represents the Bishop who is the Rector of that parish. In parishes that
have priests-in-charge, the same applies. The difference is that missions are
generally not self-supporting parishes while congregations that have
priests-in-charge are generally self-supporting but without a Rector.
The idea of a priest-in-charge is a fairly new creation of General Convention
and (if I am not mistaken) was intended to give canonical authority to interim
clergy, who have been utilized in the Episcopal Church for many years but,
before this canon, were less than rectors but served longer than supply clergy.
While the canon has solved some problems, there have been other applications
which have sometimes worked well and other times not so much.
More and more, the Priest-in-charge canon has often been used to shorten the
search process...a priest-in-charge is appointed by the Bishop with the
Vestry's approval of a letter of agreement; and, if all goes well, then the
Vestry might nominate and elect that person as Rector. There is considerable
debate about the utility of using this canon in this way since, generally
speaking, interim pastors do not become Rectors, but many Priests-in-charge do.
In any event, the status of a priest-in-charge is similar to that of a vicar:
they represent the Bishop (who is Rector in name or in effect) and serves at
the pleasure of the Bishop. With both the Vicar and Priest-in-charge, the
appointing authority is the Bishop and the person is not "called" in
the same sense as a Rector.
Using long term supply, especially without a specific letter of agreement or with
mission plans and detailed accountabilities has all the pitfalls that Scott
mentions and, IMHO, tends to freeze a parish in place because they might get
used to moving from Sunday to Sunday. Any congregation of any size and clerical
status can slip into survival mode, for sure, but this might encourage that
Here are some very good resources that
describe this in the Episcopal context very well:
Beyond Business as Usual by Niel O; Michell from Church
Publishing. Michell offers a way forward for Vestry's to become learning
communities and to take their place in the mission and spiritual leadership of
a parish alongside their priest.