Canonical Roles of Vestries and Clergy
August 25, 2014
By Canon Andrew Gerns
[Taken from a discussion on Bakery]
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 are at best the hired help. 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 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 compete 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 partners.
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 church will make the best vestry members. Because ideally 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 perspective.
As for the original question, I would suggest 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.
Back from the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth by Gerald W. Keucher also from Church Publishing. Keucher has brought together most of the best thinking about congregational development and put it together with his experience in the stewardship and management challenges of parish ministry.
I also recommend another book by Keucher that helps vestries and clergy understand their proper relationship: Humble and Strong: Mutually Accountable Leadership in the Church.
Finally, I appreciate the bringing together of Benedictine spirituality and intelligent organizational wisdom found in Bob Gallagher's Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church from Ascension Press. I have trained with Gallagher and have found his approach to be most useful and accessible to congregations.
I hope this helps clarify things a bit.