Beyond Business as Usual: Vestry Leadership Development

Beyond Business as Usual: Vestry Leadership Development

by Neal O. Michell

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This book is full of resources for forming the vestry as a learning community. It deals with the “soft” side of leadership that enables the pastor and vestry to journey together along the leadership path. Each chapter can be read and reviewed during a series of vestry meetings, or as part of a vestry retreat, and includes questions for group and individual discussion. Includes resources for vestries, based upon different preferred learning styles, for the formation part of the vestry meeting or retreat.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780898698145
Publisher: Church Publishing Inc.
Publication date: 09/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 648 KB

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Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2007 Neal O. Michell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89869-569-4



Defining Reality Our Churches Are in Decline

"Houston, we've had a problem." —Astronaut Jack Swigert, Apollo 13

Parish ministry these days is increasingly complex and dynamic. That is because our society is increasingly complex and dynamic. The conditions today in which church leaders operate are much more demanding than they were fifty years ago, and they require a different approach to parish leadership.

Cultural Changes

In the late 1950s Americans began to be concerned about culture shock. In 1970, Alvin Toffler popularized and made readers aware of the phenomenon of "Future Shock," which is the challenge for people to cope with the unprecedented changes brought about by the new technologies. We now hear about the problem of information overload. With e-mail, twenty-four-hour news, and bloggers, we see the battle being waged between "old media" and "new media." A recurring question is: who is in control of the flow of information? The answer is: no one. Now anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can be a news reporter and have the world as an audience.

Suffice it to say, much changed between 1960 and the year 2000. This is true in all areas of politics, government, and education as well as everyday life. Similarly, running a business has become much more complex, with added requirements, warnings, safeguards, methods of operations, permits, reports to be filed, and government regulations to be satisfied.

This increased complexity affects the local church as well. In 1960, a church with an average Sunday attendance of 250 could function quite ably with a fulltime priest, a volunteer Christian education staff person, a part-time secretary, a part-time organist/choir director, and a part-time sexton. Today that same church will likely have two full-time ordained persons, a full-time secretary, and a full- or part-time administrator, Christian education coordinator, organist/choir director, youth minister, and possibly a new member evangelism coordinator.

Additionally, the increase in numbers of denominations and non-denominationally affiliated church networks has added greater complexity. Denominational distinctions are more blurred now, with Baptist and Presbyterian churches celebrating Holy Week, Methodist churches offering "Anglican style worship," and Episcopal churches having praise bands and projecting words for music and liturgy on overhead screens. Further, the ecumenical movement has made it easier and more common for people to shift from one denomination (or non-denominational church) to another.

As a result of the changes in our culture and the proliferation of worship styles and choices as well as the blurring of denominational identity and the general information overload that many people experience, it is difficult for the average church to set itself apart from other churches in the area. Churches must do more than tasteful liturgy, good theology, and decent pastoral care in order to minister effectively in the twenty-first century. Your parishioners can turn on the television and hear really excellent preaching. While the average Episcopal priest may not agree with the theology informing the preaching, there is no arguing that these televangelists are compelling preachers. This excellent, easily accessible preaching has put even greater pressure on all local churches.

Decline in the Episcopal Church

A review of the membership numbers of the Episcopal Church since 1965 reveals that, except for a few years in the late 1990s, the Episcopal Church is a denomination continually decreasing in membership. The year 1965 was the high-water mark for baptized members in the Episcopal Church. From 1965 to 2003 our denomination lost nearly a third of its membership. Further, the average size of our churches has declined as well. In 1960, the average Episcopal church reported 450 baptized members. In 1965, the year of our highest membership, the average was 480 members per church. The average membership in our churches has declined to 32 percent (310 members per church) in 2005.

Although specific statistics have attempted to draw conclusions about the growth and decline of churches according to size, these studies are inconclusive. My own observations from studying Episcopal churches over the past fifteen years is that while some of our very large churches have gotten even larger, a greater number of middle-sized churches have decreased in size, resulting in more of our churches having fewer members than in years past. In 2002, 60 percent of Episcopal churches had an average Sunday attendance of 100 or less; in 2003 61 percent of Episcopal churches had an average Sunday attendance of 100 or less; and in 2004, this number increased to 62 percent. Similarly, the median average Sunday attendance in 2002 was 79, in 2003 it was 77, and in 2004 the median attendance was 75. Can you feel the creeping decline?

In short, many, if not most, of our churches have not responded well to the changes that have occurred in American culture since 1965. The result is that we have fewer churches than we did in 1965, and those church that we do have are generally smaller than they were in 1965. Today, the typical Episcopal church is basically a single-cell, non-complex organization in an increasingly complex culture. Consequently, this means that being a lay leader in the church, such as serving on the vestry, is an ever-increasing challenge.

A Word about Church Growth

Church growth has gotten a bad reputation in many parts of the church today. Many of the criticisms aimed at the church growth movement are justified when focusing on church growth minimizes the call to make disciples. We are called to make disciples and not simply to gather a crowd. I like to talk more about congregational development than church growth, because our aim should be to form faithful communities of disciples rather than just getting more people to church.

However, as the saying goes, "Please don't shoot the messenger." Our dislike or discomfort with the idea of church growth should not make us complacent concerning the decline in membership in our churches. I have heard many people say that we shouldn't be so focused on numbers, that we leave those things up to God. However, each number represents a person for whom Jesus died. The Lord who left the ninety and nine for the one lost sheep would say that those are not numbers but individuals. Personally, I find it hard to believe that God is honored by an American denomination that has lost a third of its membership over the last forty years!

It is natural for healthy things to grow. This is true of both plants and people. Given a proper amount of soil, nutrients, water, and light, plants will do what comes naturally, that is, they will grow. If a plant does not grow as expected, we look for the reason why. The soil may be malnourished, or it may have the wrong mixture of nutrients. Or the plant may need more sunlight, or less; or more water, or less. Some plants cease to grow because they are root bound because the pot is too small. To discern why a plant isn't growing, look for an unseen obstacle that is hindering the growth of the plant.

The same is true of churches. Often our churches don't grow because there are unseen obstacles that have hindered the growth that is otherwise natural to the life of the church. If we, as leaders, can recognize those obstacles to growth and replace those obstacles with healthy practices, the church will grow naturally — with, of course, a life-giving gospel proclaimed and with prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.

We start with the mission of the church. According to the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, the mission of the church is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." As the church is accomplishing that mission, one has to assume that individual expressions, i.e., churches, of the larger church will grow larger rather than smaller.

If our denomination is collectively in decline, it is because many of our churches are individually in decline. So how do we arrest this decline in our churches? Who is responsible for leading our churches to engage our culture with the gospel in such a way that more and more people, as former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, "may be led to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, and follow Him as Lord with the fellowship of His Church"?

For Individual or Group Reflection

* Is your church in decline, plateaued, or growing? Make a chart of your church's average Sunday attendance for the past ten years. Also, review the ministries that have been started or ended during the past ten years.

* If these trends continue, what can we predict about the future of your church?

* What are the strengths of your church? What has caused the greatest growth or decline in the past five years?


Who Is Responsible?

"Who's on first?" —Bud Abbott to Lou Costello

There are a number of Episcopal churches that have experienced remarkable growth over the past forty years, but as our brief survey of statistics indicates, most of our churches that were in existence in 1965 are smaller in 2005 than they were in 1965. The Episcopal Church has been living with this decline for the last forty years, and at this time, things don't seem to be improving.

So who is responsible for arresting the decline in membership and attendance in our churches?

In a sense, everyone is responsible for the decline; but when everyone is deemed to be responsible, no one is ultimately held accountable. I believe that it is the local vicar or rector along with the vestry that can arrest this decline and spur our churches on to greater growth. Let me begin with a true story.

What Use Are Vestries?

In a town that I once served, there was a local Baptist church, which we'll call Hillside Baptist Church. At that time it was the largest Baptist church in town. It originated in a church conflict within the downtown church that resulted in a group of dissatisfied members splitting off from the mother church. The "split off" church really didn't do much in its first several years of existence. It was simply one more tiny church birthed out of a church fight.

One day they called a new pastor. Within several years, this church grew until it was larger than the mother church.

Being new to town and having heard this story, I scheduled lunch with this very effective pastor who had turned this church around. I asked him not to be shy but to tell me the reasons for the growth of his church.

He replied, "I'll tell you, Brother Neal. When I came to Hillside Church, they had a congregational meeting once a month to decide the affairs of the church. They were paralyzed by all the arguing and voting. So, I decided to quit calling these monthly congregational meetings. We became a staff-run church, and the church grew. Now the only time we meet for a congregational meeting is when we need to borrow money or buy real estate."

Hmmm. This church grew from an average Sunday attendance of seventy-five to over five hundred without a lay governing board? This pastor was not an obviously charismatic or dynamic person. His preaching skills were adequate but not exceptional. He was a good, solid pastor to his congregation, but he would probably not draw a crowd on the lecture circuit. So what can we learn from this?

One thing we can learn is that it is quite possible for churches to grow without vestries. I suspect that vestries more often impede growth than foster growth in the local congregation. If that is true, then what use are vestries?

Our canons require that our churches elect vestries to serve as the legal representatives on behalf of the congregation. Basically, we have to have them because they are required.

Are vestries, then, simply something we have to have, and we'll just have to cope with them as best we can?

I believe not. I believe we can do better. I believe that service on the church's vestry can be energizing for individual members and that vestries can play a significant role in the growth and effectiveness of the local congregation.

"Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way"

Although denominational policies and distribution of resources can do much to strengthen the local congregations, it is the local rector and vestry that can have the most influence on the growth or decline in our congregations. Given the forty-year decline in our congregations, our clergy and vestries do not have a very good track record. Thomas Paine, pamphleteer during the American Revolutionary War, first said, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." As a person who has been attending vestry meetings for over twenty-five years as a lay person, parish priest, and now diocesan staff member, I have sat through innumerable maintenance-driven vestry meetings. Many vestries get bogged down in the smaller issues of administration and never really get to the greater issues of vision, mission, and policy.

It is possible to grow a strong church with a weak vestry. As the story of Hillside Baptist Church illustrates, some churches might grow if their vestries would simply get out of the way. But I believe that it is impossible to grow a strong church with a strong vestry that is at odds with the rector, and continuously tries to keep the rector under close reins, or tries to micromanage the affairs of the congregation.

By their nature, vestries are conservative. They were designed as a check and balance on clergy authority. When the clergy and vestry work in tandem with each other, the parish is able to move forward. When they are at odds, conflict ensues, and the parish suffers. There are four options available to vestries in their relationship to their congregations.

1. They can gum up the works. A vestry can challenge every new initiative, hold the reins on new spending in the name of fiscal responsibility and thus stymie the growth of the congregation.

2. They can follow. If they only follow, they deprive the congregation of their insights and good judgment.

3. They can get out of the way. This is more desirable than gumming up the works, but in so doing, they become irrelevant. These vestries will eventually grow frustrated with being irrelevant and will likely rise up in protest and overreact in ways that are not in the best interest of the congregation.

4. They can lead. They can only lead in cooperation with the rector. If they try to lead ahead of the rector, then the congregation gets confused. They can hear only one voice at a time.

How can we so form our vestries that they are able to fulfill their appropriate check and balance role while not getting bogged down in minutiae, nor functioning too adversarially, nor ending up as simply the rubber stamp for the rector's initiatives?

Here's another true story. The names have been changed to protect privacy.

"He Said That He'd Never Ever Serve on a Vestry Again"

In one parish I served we were approaching new vestry elections. I was relatively new to the parish at the time, and I believed the church needed some longtime members to serve on the vestry. One of those that I considered, Bill, was a retired doctor who had been a member of the church for over thirty-five years. As I vetted his name with a couple of our current leaders, I was told that Bill would never consent to run for the vestry. When he had served on the vestry previously, he said that all they did was argue, and he swore he'd never serve on a vestry again.

I was convinced that he was a person of real influence and trust in the parish whom the congregation needed to have serve at this time, but he had pulled back from leadership in the congregation because of the acrimony he had experienced during his previous vestry service.

Having prayed about it, I finally approached Bill and told him that I saw him as a person whom a large number of the congregation truly respected and trusted and that the church needed him to serve on the vestry at this crucial time. Despite his protestations, Bill finally consented to let his name be put forward, and he was elected to serve on the vestry.

So positive was his experience of serving on the vestry that he was appointed as senior warden for the next two years and would recruit new members for the vestry by telling them that this was the best vestry he had ever served on and how much he loved serving on the vestry now.

Ask yourself, have you ever known anyone that actually enjoyed attending vestry meetings and serving on the vestry?

There is a better way.

For Individual or Group Reflection

* What is the most significant thing that your vestry did in the past year?

* What do you enjoy most about serving on the vestry?

* Have you ever had a really positive experience of serving on a vestry or a board of directors? What made it positive?


What Is Your Mental Model?

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." —Yogi Berra

It is in the order of things in this world for things to fall apart, cool down, or burn out. Cars break down, buildings fall into disrepair, a hot pan cools off when taken off the stove. In physics this is illustrative of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, energy gets dispersed, or that entropy increases. Systems increase in their disorder. When you have a pot of water on the stove, you have to keep the heat turned on to keep the water boiling. If you don't keep the heat turned up, that is, if you don't continue to pour new energy into the system, then the water cools down. In other words, energy gets dispersed and entropy increases.

Excerpted from BEYOND BUSINESS AS USUAL by NEAL O. MICHELL. Copyright © 2007 by Neal O. Michell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

Introduction....................     1     

Part One A NEW WAY FOR CLERGY AND VESTRIES TO THINK....................          

One DEFINING REALITY: OUR CHURCHES ARE IN DECLINE....................     9     

Two WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?....................     14     

Three WHAT IS YOUR MENTAL MODEL?....................     19     

Four VESTRY AS LEARNING COMMUNITY....................     24     

Five DISCERNING YOUR VESTRY'S PINCH POINTS....................     28     


Seven HOW TO CONDUCT AN EFFECTIVE VESTRY MEETING....................     37     



Part Two EXERCISES FOR MOVING BEYOND BUSINESS AS USUAL....................          

Ten BIBLE STUDIES....................     62     

Eleven TEACHINGS....................     68     

Twelve MENTAL EXERCISES....................     100     

Thirteen REFLECTIVE READINGS....................     111     

Fourteen THE VESTRY SELECTION PROCESS....................     128     

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