6 Lessons From Serving on Vestry

6 Lessons From Serving on Vestry

March 2, 2016 by

Last month I finished my three-year term on vestry at my church. “Vestry” is the fancy Episcopalian term for deacon board, elders, overseers—basically whatever you call the leadership body.

No matter your denomination, serving in this capacity is usually boring bureaucracy and endless committees, with the occasional moment of high-conflict, sweat-inducing politics (usually over something inane, like the color of the carpet).

Sometimes it can be church at its very worst.

If you want people to care, get them involved.

But sometimes, rarely, it can offer a glimpse of the body of Christ truly working as it was meant to. It can pull back the curtain on Sunday morning and show you how it all happens, how your pastor manages to hold all the pieces together, how your administrators get everything done on time, how people are cared for and the bills are paid.

Sometimes it’s truly miraculous.

In my three years on vestry, I learned a few things about how churches work that I think can impact how we communicate.

1. Run Your Meetings Well

Above all else, your meetings need to be run smoothly and efficiently. This is a delicate skill and requires a careful hand. You want to give people the opportunity to speak into the process, but only to a point.

Nobody wants a three-hour meeting.

I’m hardly the expert on Robert’s Rules of Order or managing a group, but I noticed that my church’s vestry functioned pretty well and I think it came down to two reasons:

Systems

We had practical systems in place. From the monthly financial reports to the ministry updates to the simple way vestry members rotated on and off, everything had a place and a purpose.

It could maybe be tweaked, but in general good systems kept everything organized and running smoothly.

Spirit

Our vestry meetings were bookended with the evening prayer service (more Episcopal weirdness, but it’s just a template for a service found in the Book of Common Prayer). Rather than feeling heavy-handed or forced, these prayer services tended to focus us on what truly mattered.

Being creative is easy. Actually getting something done? That’s a lot harder.

Since our rector implemented the services about a decade ago, vestry meetings have become more harmonious and actually shorter. That’s right—adding something actually made the meetings shorter. Go figure.

Likewise, communicators need to create systems to keep things running smoothly. We need to be invoking the Holy Spirit to lead us through our processes.

2. Get People Engaged

If you want people to care, get them involved. I was at my church for over a decade when I joined vestry. I had volunteered in a number of places over the years, but I have to admit that I was not very plugged in lately.

Seeing the financial statements every month made me realize where my offerings were going and how important my annual stewardship pledge was.

While working on our capital campaign for a building expansion I realized how paltry my one-off contributions had been and I finally ponied up my share. I couldn’t work on a communications piece asking people to give if I wasn’t invested myself.

While on vestry, I took ownership of my church like never before.

You can do the same with your church by finding ways for people to get involved. Too often I feel like church staff are always begging for volunteers, but sometimes I think the problem is that we’re looking to fill positions.

Instead, we should look at the people and find places where they can serve. We might not fill every position that way, but I think we’ll get more accomplished when people find roles that are truly meant for them.

As communicators, don’t always try to simply fill roles. But look for ways you can use specific people.

3. Plan Your Obsolescence

One of the challenges of vestry is consistency. Our staff is steady year to year, but our vestry rotates new people in every year, changing entirely every three years.

We need practices that can be consistent and work regardless of who’s in the role (again, it’s the value of proper systems).

Plan everything you do so it can run without you. This is huge for communicators. So often we dream of a vacation, but then realize the nightmare of everything that would come crashing down if we weren’t there to keep it going. Or we work twice as hard to keep enough plates spinning that we can step away for a few precious days off.

Plan everything you do so it can run without you.

If that sounds familiar, your systems are too dependent on you. You need to recruit volunteers and build in some redundancy. Have multiple people who can do the same job and share the load.

This is an area where I failed. I served as the communications liaison on vestry, basically keeping the vestry informed about how our communications were doing—by doing most of the communications myself.

Now my term on vestry is over, but those communication demands continue and I’m still doing just as much work. I never recruited volunteers or delegated work the way I should have.

4. Follow Through

Anybody can come up with bold new ideas for your church. But actually carrying those ideas through to completion is another matter.

We had lots of great ideas in our vestry meetings, but very few of those ideas actually became reality.

It takes determination, grit and a certain force of will to turn ideas into reality. That’s the difference between being productive and being creative. We put so much emphasis on creativity—but being creative is easy. Actually getting something done? That’s a lot harder.

It takes determination, grit and a certain force of will to turn ideas into reality.

Remember that as you work with ambitious ministries and pastors. You often have to be the follow through. That doesn’t mean you always need to be the wet blanket, but it does mean you need to be the voice of reason.

5. Sustainability

The twin sibling of follow through is sustainability. Coming up with an idea is one thing. Pulling it off the first time is another. But pulling it off again and again and again is the real key.

Churches are all about sustainability. We’re good at consistently creating church services week in and week out: writing sermons, creating bulletins, posting announcements, etc.

Many of the ideas we come up with in leadership meetings require that same sustainability. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize that. We dive in and commit to do too much. It doesn’t take long for the idea to come crashing down when we can’t maintain it.

Instead of trying to do everything, we tried to do a few things really well.

This is probably most poignantly felt by communicators who understand the constant demands of a repetitious publishing schedule.

Every Sunday the sermon goes online, every Monday the social media post goes out, every Tuesday the new article goes up, every Thursday the email goes out.

It’s exhausting.

As part of a leadership team, we had to recognize the demands of sustainability. Could we maintain this ministry/program/whatever long enough for it to be worth the effort? Or would we crash and burn?

While I haven’t been good at recruiting, sustainability is something I’m painfully aware of as a one-man communication committee. I’ve had a lot of good ideas I had to put back on the shelf because I knew I couldn’t deliver over the long haul. (But maybe some day!)

6. There’s Only So Much You Can Do

The final lesson I learned on vestry is that you can only do so much. You just can’t tackle every issue or solve every problem. And you’re not supposed to. The work of the church is ongoing.

At some point your time is done and you move on, leaving the work for others to take up.

That’s maybe not a lesson for communicators, since you’re probably not stepping down after a three-year term.

But I think there is wisdom in recognizing limitations for church communicators. You need to understand where your church is at and know that you can only do so much.

There is wisdom in recognizing limitations for church communicators.

This has been key to moving my church forward with communication. I’ve had to set my sights on low hanging fruit and intentionally lower my expectations. It’s not embracing poor quality or doing a sub-standard job. It’s just being realistic.

I’m reminded that excellence is not simply doing the best, but it’s doing the best you can with what you have.

For example, one of my first tasks on vestry was to redo our church website. I had big dreams. But I also had to be realistic about what we could actually do and what was sustainable.

We ended up with a very modest site. Some might see that as a failure. But it was actually a huge success. Even the modest site was a huge leap forward from what we had. By setting our expectations low we were able to overwhelmingly deliver.

Instead of trying to do everything, we tried to do a few things really well. And it worked. Three years later I still get compliments about the site.

As communicators, we need to work within our limits. You don’t have to compete with the church down the street. They have different limits than you do—they have a different budget, a different skill set, a different mission even. So don’t try to be them. Be your own church.

So there you go. Hopefully some useful lessons from land of bureaucracy and committees.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks


When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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One Response to “6 Lessons From Serving on Vestry”

  • B VanDrasek
    March 4, 2016

    Kevin, these are great insights. I especially love this one: “Our vestry meetings were bookended with the evening prayer service.” It’s a fantastic idea, that I’ll introduce if I ever get the chance. Most pastors say that their big struggle is to even carve out time for devotions at the beginning of council and committee meetings. More can only be better!
    bv


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