Friday, February 19, 2010

Vestry on retreat, the values of prayer and discernment decision making

I am heading off today with our St. Paul's Vestry for a retreat, and we will not return until Sunday afternoon.

It is my hope and prayer that this truly will be a retreat; a time when our parish leaders can step back and be in prayer and discernment together, and build themselves as the "Body of Christ." Please keep the Vestry in your prayers this weekend.

We will spend time in prayer and in conversation about what it means to be a circle of spiritual elders called to guide the life of the parish. We will be discerning who is called to be our wardens, treasurer and register -- the officers of the Vestry.

We will discuss how to take seriously the Book of Common Prayer's (page 854) proclamation that "Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church," and what that suggests to us as servant leaders of a parish.

For starters, it means that the Vestry is something more than a board of directors. The tools may look the same -- budgets, meetings, minutes and motions -- but the role is different. We aren't really in charge.

That brings me to the waters of the recent Vestry election whereby a nominating committee composed primarily of outgoing Vestry members proposed a slate of nominees that were the same number as the available openings. A number of people felt it was "undemocratic" and I heard some unkind comments that it was "sham election." While I see their point, I must acknowledge to you I am disturbed by the harshness of some comments, particularly those that were left anonymously.

I was not on the nominating committee, although I was aware of its work. I can also tell you that the Vestry as a whole discussed the nominating procedures over several meetings, and did not arrive at this process lightly or easily.

Yes, this process felt uncomfortable to many, and members of the nominating committee took some heat. But this process was not unprecedented for St. Paul's. In talking with Rector Emeritus David Poist, a single-slate was nominated periodically during his tenure. I can also tell you the way we did it this year is common practice for many Episcopal churches, although I don't have statistics on that.

It was not a sham election. In fact, in a very important sense, it was more open than the previous year. Let me explain:

The previous year the nominating committee recruited double the number of nominees as it had open seats, and thereby set up a contested election. But once those nominees were chosen, the nominations were closed. Once the contested election slate was announced, there was no opportunity for anyone else to say "Wait a minute, I don't like any of these people" and then put themselves on the ballot. It was a closed election that looked like it was open.

Moreover, a number of those people who were recruited were never warned that they were running against each other. They thought they had been recruited for the Vestry, and then some were rejected by the parish. The values of an election contest trumped the values of discernment.

The nominating committee this year was not charged with creating a contested election, but with discerning who would be good servant ministers on the Vestry. They did their task with considerable work and conversation and prayer, and great thanks goes to Paul Bushrow for his tireless work and his focus on the task as discernment. They recruited the number they needed, and then there was an OPEN opportunity for others to self-nominate and put themselves on the ballot. No one did.

The fact remains it is difficult to get people to serve on the Vestry. Service on the Vestry requires long hours, night meetings, attendance at retreats, representing the parish at community and diocesan events, and special projects. Most important, service on the Vestry requires a certain vulnerability to the Spirit, and to working with and hearing each other on the Vestry.

One other observation, and this is a bit subtle: The values of our American political culture -- contested elections, partisan politics, primaries, campaigns, etc. -- are not the same values as Church's mission to raise up servant leaders. The New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles talks about how early church leaders were chosen through prayer, discernment and drawing lots. The value was placed by the first apostles on servant leadership and finding ways to give the Holy Spirit room to speak through each servant leader. Now, I know we are not the early church, but those values should still be our values. And those values are not necessarily best expressed in an artificially created contested election that we might like because it reflects the values of our political culture.

You are free, of course, to disagree with anything or everything that I have written here. I do hope you will disagree openly and respectfully. And I am certain the Vestry will revisit this issue again, and sooner than it did last year. On that you can make a safe bet.

In my experience, the Holy Spirit can be heard in small circles, in quiet moments, in prayer, and with dedicated people working together to discern the Spirit, and reminding each other that that is their task. All of that, I believe, happened with this year's nominating committee. And I believe they have raised up a strong group of servant leaders for this year's Vestry.


Leslie said...

Jim - I so appreciate this explanation and perspective on the Vestry election process, and in particular this distinction between our contemporary political processes (which I'd be hard-pressed to say are close to our Found Fathers' original vision) and Vestry eletions.

I am wondering if some of the grumbling would have been eased had this explanation of the process been clearly communicated in a variety of ways and venues to the rest of the congregation. Perhaps not, and perhaps it is just as well that the grumbling comes to the surface, because at least there, the Light may be shined upon it and us.

With that in mind, I would to encourage you and the Vestry to find a way to publish Vestry minutes in a timely fashion for our congregation.

Thank you to Paul Bushrow and all of the Nominating Committee for the hard work of this last season.

May you and the new body of elders have a nourishing retreat.

Ginger Greene said...

Re vestry: I don't quite understand why you called it an "election". The committee just told us who the new members were. Why did we bother to go through the unneeded "voting" process?

Ginger Greene said...

Re vestry: Why was it called an "election"? They just told us who the new members were. I don't understand why we went through the "voting" process at all.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Leslie, I am with you on the need for more communication. And more and more. And getting the minutes posted on a Vestry bulletin board, and on the website, and in a timely way. Help with making that happen would be appreciated. I do think Paul Bushrow and Mildred Robinson made great attempts to explain the election process; snow storms and small attendance did not help.

Ginger, thanks for your comment and question. Not all elections are contested, either in the secular world or in the church, but they are still elections. A vote for Vestry members is still required by the canons whether there is one candidate or 100 candidates. The ballot contained a box next to each candidate, and had a candidate received less than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate would not have been elected. The Vestry and nominating committee would have been faced with a new election to fill the seat. That made this more of a confirmation election, but an election nonetheless. And, again, had there been additional nominees beyond those nominated, there would have been more names on the ballot than seats to fill.

d00dah said...

Kudos to the Nominating Committee - especially Paul and Mildred for their work in guiding the new process.

Although the change was a surprise, there seemed to be plenty of publicity about this in the newsletters, etc., and I certainly had time to speak with current vestry about their decision. Nonetheless, as you mention, Jim, the weather put a real crimp into the efforts to reach people.

I am glad the election process has been changed - for a couple of reasons. First, having a committee of both retiring vestry and members at large provides a broader perspective on the current needs of the church - a primary focus of the vestry. Second, if there were more names than necessary to fill the slate, this group sought to discern the best balance of individuals to represent the congregation with talents needed for managing the business of the church on our behalf.

Does this limit or make a sham of the election process? Hardly. If anything, it saves the process from being a game of who's who among those approved by the rector - a criticism I have heard in years past.

Rebecca said...


Thanks for your straightforward explanation of how the vestry nomination and election process worked this time around. We are lucky--no, blessed--to have the hardworking, thoughtful, and good-humored members we have.

Rebecca Barns