The Vestry Handbook

The Vestry Handbook

by Christopher L. Webber


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Everything you need to know about vestry membership in one volume.

This updated classic manual reflects changes in canon law and includes discussions on additional subjects such as sexual misconduct and safe-church training.

The author consulted diocesan administrators, other clergy, the Church Deployment Office,
and the Church Pension Fund for this revision. Canons, resource listings,
financial information, continuing education, technology issues, plus how to deal with current tensions in the Anglican Communion and a myriad of other spot revisions can be found throughout this completely updated edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819224392
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/28/2011
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 506,546
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER is an Episcopal priest, who has led urban, rural, and overseas parishes. He is a graduate of Princeton University and General Theological Seminary. In addition to Welcome to the Christian Faith, he is the author of many other books and several hymns. He lives in San Francisco and gives workshops and lectures on his writings.

Read an Excerpt

The Vestry Handbook


Morehouse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Christopher L Webber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8192-2439-2

Chapter One

The Role of a Vestry Member

Canons and Customs

The vestry of an Episcopal church has three primary responsibilities. The first two are managerial: to take care of the parish finances and parish buildings. The third responsibility (though all or part of it may be assigned to the parish meeting in some dioceses) is to choose individuals to fill various positions of parish leadership and representation: the election of a rector, the choice of delegates to the diocesan convention, and the selection of other individuals as the diocesan canons and parish bylaws may stipulate. All these responsibilities are defined by the laws of the Church that are called "canons."

Beyond this, most vestries quickly find that they have a wide variety of duties ranging from the assignment of ushers at services to making plans for the parish's future. Some of these responsibilities may be spelled out in vestry bylaws or result from specific parish decisions. Others may simply be the result of generally accepted parish customs: "We've always done it that way."

In addition to the canons and local bylaws and customs, there are sometimes state laws that define the responsibilities of religious corporations and that may be different for each denomination. In the case of the Episcopal Church, these laws may specify election procedures and even the date when the annual meeting is to be held. It might also be pointed out that, contrary to the common mythology about "separation of church and state," the clergy must conform to state law when they perform marriages because in that role they function as officers of the state. The laws that regulate a church's operations are not, of course, intended to restrict or inhibit the church but only to provide some ultimate referee should that be necessary.

It is important for vestry members to be familiar with the laws of church and state under which they operate and to be certain that they are in conformity with them. Parishes often fall into habits that are out of keeping with these laws and thereby expose themselves to the possibility of serious problems if someone feels mistreated or if the parish becomes involved in controversy over, for example, the sale of a building or the use of its land. Such issues can become very emotional, and, if proper procedures are not followed—even in the election of the vestry members who made the decision—complex and expensive legal actions can result.

Many parishes have brought together the Church's canons, the state's laws, and whatever local customs they feel are important and formally adopted them as "parish bylaws." Such a compilation can be very helpful and should be reviewed from time to time by someone with legal training and experience.

Every new member of the vestry should be provided with such a set of bylaws. Every vestry member should review the bylaws regularly and be familiar with their provisions. Copies of the diocesan canons and national canons should also be available to vestry members, perhaps in a parish library or other convenient location.

Every vestry should also, from time to time, review the responsibilities it is attempting to carry out and ask whether it is more appropriate for the vestry or some other group to deal with each assignment and, if it does seem best for the vestry to accept the responsibility, to ask whether the vestry is properly structured to perform the task.

Bylaws and structure may not be subjects of great interest to all members of the vestry, and reviewing them may seem a waste of time. But where they are neglected there is a greater possibility of wasting time and creating conflict. Clear organizational lines are a first priority in getting the job done.

Narrow legalism and a concern to defend one's "turf," however, can also obstruct progress. Canons, laws, and bylaws may assign the rector, wardens, and vestry members specific roles to play or jobs to do, but none of these individuals can perform those duties adequately without the help, support, and understanding of the others. The vestry is responsible for finances, for example, but the rector's leadership will make the necessary fund-raising easier. The rector, conversely, is responsible for worship, but an informed and supportive vestry can help him or her make wise decisions and interpret them to the parish. St. Paul's analogy of the Church as "one body with many members" is always helpful. No member can say to the others, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor. 12:21). Where those with specific responsibilities are clear as to what their duties are but open to the contribution others can make and eager to work together, the church will "make bodily growth and build itself up in love" (Eph. 4:16).

Representation, Leadership, and Communications

Vestry members are elected by the whole parish and should, of course, try to represent the interests of all parish members. It is worth noticing, however, that most parishes have some system for nominating candidates for the vestry and that a nominating committee will usually try to see that both men and women, both younger and older members, are included among the nominees. Perhaps specific parish groups, such as the Episcopal Church Women, will be represented. If vestry members are also members of other such groups within the parish, they should naturally make it a point to report to their groups either formally or informally on vestry matters. Such reporting will, in turn, enable them to bring to vestry meetings the concerns of others and to represent those concerns constructively. Leadership, however, involves more than representation. Former Yale football coach Herman Hickman once said that he felt it was his job to keep the Yale alumni "sullen but not mutinous." Leadership is not a matter of simply reflecting other people's opinions and so keeping them happy but of learning, educating, informing, and persuading others.

Leadership involves working to realize a vision of what the parish could be but is not. It involves change. That may sometimes involve moving people out of their "comfort zone" and leave some members "sullen" at first but, if it is done patiently and lovingly, "mutiny" can generally be avoided. Indeed, a corporate spirit can grow that will reach into every aspect of parish life.

Leadership is a matter also of prayer and Bible study. The financial and property concerns of a vestry are not something wholly separate from the church's life of worship or its mission to serve others. The decision to paint the church will leave less money available for outreach, but failure to paint or repair the church may make the church less attractive to new members and therefore less able to support future outreach programs. Such choices are not easily made and cannot be governed only by financial considerations. Decisions not growing out of prayer and Bible study and worship will be less likely to sustain and nourish the parish as it seeks to carry out its primary mission in obedience to the Holy Spirit.

Finally, vestry members have a liaison role to play between the parish members and the clergy and staff. They should help the clergy hear members who may not be willing or able to speak for themselves and help the parish understand the work the clergy are doing and the pressures they may be under. Good communications are critically important if the members of the body are to work together and support each other in love.

Chapter Two

Vestry Structures: With a Note on the Annual Meeting

The national and diocesan canons provide only minimal guidance as to parish and vestry structures. It is common for vestries to have two wardens, for the rector to be the presiding officer, and for a senior warden to preside in the rector's absence. Diocesan canons or state laws may specify some of these patterns, but none of them is provided for in the national canons of the church.

Whatever guidelines and requirements do exist still leave a great deal of room for variation and flexibility in working out the details. Probably no two parishes operate in exactly the same way. What is important is that each parish, while conforming to the minimum standards that are set, finds a style that works for that parish.

If certain issues keep coming up without being resolved, if meetings tend to bog down in details and run on at great length, if some members have no sense of involvement, if there is a growing sense of frustration, perhaps the time has come to consider structuring the vestry in some new and, perhaps, more satisfactory way. There are many models from which to choose, and time spent considering modification or replacement of the existing system could, in the long run, be time well spent.


The key to a successful vestry is undoubtedly the leadership it is given. But this is not to place the whole responsibility on the rector or wardens. Leadership (apart from personality factors) is a matter of defining issues, setting agenda, choosing individuals to carry out tasks, and keeping in touch with those to whom work is assigned to see that it is going forward. Leadership is, in large part, a matter of memos, e-mails, and phone calls.

It may be that the rector can do all this in addition to carrying out the pastoral and teaching ministry, but it will be better done if it is shared and, in large part, delegated. Rectors of small parishes may well be more skilled at operating a copier than anyone else they could call on. Rectors of parishes of any size may well find it easier to carry out particular tasks themselves than to make phone calls to find someone else able to do the same work. Wardens and vestry members are subject to the same temptations. All should keep in mind a balance between efficiency and involvement. Building parish community requires involvement, and that may reduce efficiency to some degree. Often, however, it is worth losing efficiency to gain involvement. No one can do it all. A job worth doing is a job worth sharing.

A duly constituted executive committee, meeting at regular intervals, may be the first step toward systematic sharing of leadership. In traditional English practice, the rector and wardens are the vestry. The simplest executive committee might be constituted in the same way. Some parishes might wish to add two or three chairpersons of key committees. Some parishes establish the executive committee in the parish bylaws and may also give it specific authority to act between meetings of the vestry. In other parishes, the executive committee is less formally structured—simply a matter of the rector, wardens, and others getting together from time to time to see how things are going—but that runs the risk of seeming to create an "in-group" or "cabal" that runs things without specific authority to do so or any need to report.

A properly constituted executive committee, meeting at regular intervals and reporting to the vestry, can make all the difference in the way the vestry is able to carry out its work. The executive committee can appoint the leadership of other committees and each member can take responsibility for following through to see that other committees are functioning properly.


Although an Episcopal parish usually has two wardens, there are some differences among dioceses in the way wardens are chosen and in the titles they are given. In some dioceses, one warden is elected at the annual parish meeting for a two-year term. In other dioceses, the rector appoints a "rector's warden" while the vestry elects a "people's warden." Some dioceses have a third warden charged with financial responsibility. Some parishes have bylaws that specify that the vestry designates the senior warden and that person need not be "senior" in term of service. Although the canons provide only a minimal description of the wardens' responsibilities, it is almost inevitable that the wardens will play an important part not only in the vestry itself but also in setting the tone for the parish as a whole. The wardens' prayer life, pastoral instincts, and faithfulness in worship will set an example and provide leadership more important than executive ability.

The only specific duty assigned to "churchwardens" in the national canons is to notify the bishop "when a parish is without a rector," and even this duty may be carried out by "other proper officers" (III.9.3a). Usually one of the wardens will preside in the absence of the rector, and some states and dioceses specifically provide for this. If the rector is disabled or resigns, this can, of course, become a very significant responsibility. But, for the most part, the wardens' leadership will be more a matter of tradition and chemistry. The relationships the wardens establish can bring the opportunity to exercise enormous influence. The clergy will turn to them for support and guidance; parishioners will turn to them for leadership; all will look to them as enablers and communicators whose gifts and commitment will make things happen and bring the parish together in support of common goals.

To repeat: the canons offer little guidance to the wardens as to their role. Their ministry will become effective through such ordinary means as taking the rector to lunch at regular intervals, being careful to talk to as many parishioners as possible at coffee hours and other parish events, spending time on the telephone in "follow-up," and, above all, praying daily for the parish and all its members.

Committees, Commissions, Task Forces, Parish Councils

The assigned work of the vestry is, as has been said, finances and property. Theoretically, a vestry could assign one committee to each of these areas and need no further structure. In some small parishes, the vestry may act as a "committee of the whole" with no further structure at all. The typical parish, however, will need committees of some sort to deal with everything from Christian education to evangelism. These can be organized within the vestry's structures, or these responsibilities may be given to a "parish council" that can function as a committee of the vestry or as an independent structure.

A parish council, made up of representatives of all parish organizations and open to the parish at large, can play an important role in planning and coordinating the parish calendar. It may also be given responsibilities in the areas of worship, evangelism, Christian education, and more. In the first situation, it might need to meet only a few times each year. In the latter case, it would probably meet monthly and play as significant a part in parish life as the vestry itself. In either case, it should report to the vestry regularly, and its presiding officer (who may, of course, be the rector or one of the wardens) should normally be invited to vestry meetings.

Having decided the scope of vestry activities (whether limited to property and finance or expanded to broader issues of parish life), the next question is how to allocate the work. Some parishes prefer three or four large committees with broad responsibilities, while others prefer to divide the work among a relatively large number of committees with narrowly defined roles. The first approach might be called the "commission" approach and could include one or two commissions on finance and property, another commission on parish life, and another commission on outreach and evangelism. These three or four commissions together would provide broad coverage for all the activities of the parish. Each of these commissions would then form committees to deal with the specific responsibilities in its area and would meet regularly to coordinate that work. The advantage of this method is the reduction in the volume of reports that need to come before the whole vestry. A possible disadvantage is that some members of the vestry may not have specific responsibilities. Each member of the vestry should, at least, be assigned to membership on one commission, and, of course, they might be given specific committees as their duty. It is helpful to have a chart or diagram for each member of the vestry showing clearly the structure being used. An example of such a chart from one parish is given in Appendix 6.

The committee system, conversely, may well provide a specific responsibility for each member of the vestry, but it brings with it the risk of lengthy vestry meetings if each committee is asked to report each month. In this case, it may be better to plan vestry meetings in such a way that some committees report only at regularly scheduled two- or three-month intervals.


Excerpted from The Vestry Handbook by CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER Copyright © 2011 by Christopher L Webber. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. 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


1. The Role of a Vestry Member....................1
2. Vestry Structures: With a Note on the Annual Meeting....................4
3. Finances....................17
4. Buildings and Grounds....................29
5. Insurance....................37
6. The Care and Feeding of Rectors....................51
7. The Parish Staff....................62
8. A Vision for Your Parish....................71
9. The Search Process—And Afterwards....................81
10. The Vestry Member's Spiritual Life....................88
11. The Diocese and the National Church....................93
In Conclusion....................99
Appendix 1: Summary of Relevant Canons....................100
Appendix 2: Leadership Roles....................102
Appendix 3: Sample Property Surveys....................106
Appendix 4: Sample Statements of Purpose....................111
Appendix 5: Sample Columbarium Contract....................112
Appendix 6: Organizational Chart....................116
Appendix 7: A Glossary of Church Terms....................118
Appendix 8: Resources....................119

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