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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Leadership in a New Place

Last week we looked at proper leave-taking, this week we look in the other direction, at how to begin well, specifically when it comes to leading meetings. How do we lead in light of the expectations and structures that are already there? How do we decide when it's time to challenge those expectations or change those structures? Our question this week is a specific one, but it has to do with these broad issues to which all of us can relate. (We were not able to address this question in time for the meeting to which the question refers, but we hope our responses might be helpful for future meetings.)

I am chairing my first vestry meeting this Sunday. The parish traditionally holds it straight after the Sunday Eucharist. I want to use the Eucharist service as a time of prayer for the coming meeting and would welcome some ideas of prayers, intercessions, or any other good advice!
Because I am new to the parish, I tend to do things differently (more through ignorance than anything else!) so people get a bit unsettled though there is no overt criticism.
This may be my first chairing of such a meeting but I have been to many in my life and some have been absolutely horrendous.

Muthah+ responds:
You are the new kid on the block, so pay attention to WHY they are having their vestry on Sunday immediately after the Eucharist. I never have had vestry or council meetings regularly on Sundays because I precisely wanted the parishioners to detach worship from the business meetings. An irregular or emergency meeting is one thing but regular meetings is something else.

The parish I attend now has their meetings on Sunday afternoon which allows people to go home and have lunch, change their clothes, read the funny papers - including the rector. So there is a gap between worship and business.

Did you sit down with your vestry when you first came and ask how they did things? Always a good move. And if this is your first vestry meeting with them, this is the time to do so. If it is "we have always done it that way" then perhaps you need to ask them if it is convenient for them or if it interferes with the way that they worship. Be willing to share what you would like changed. If you are a brand new priest and doing things you are unfamiliar with, discuss with them how it would be if you tried some things. A parish is much more willing to try new things if they know that they are helping their new priest get settled. Everything should be negotiated.

I understand that this is now advice-after-the-fact. No matter. Unless the parish is badly conflicted or there has been a difficult interim, the parish is going to allow you to make mistakes as long as you are willing to learn for the first 3 years. After that then you will have to negotiate changes. All changes need to come with discussion with the body you are dealing with. And for Gawd's sake, don't move the Altar until it is a request of the Vestry! 8>) (personal experience)

What I have done when I have entered a parish is sit down with the Altar Guild and the Acolyte Master and then the wardens first of all and ask how they do things. If you can live with that or have other ways of doing things, discuss it then. As long as they know that you are willing to work with them and respect their customary, then you are able to make some changes that work better for you. Any time you find yourself imposing your will, you need to check your motives - you may be right, but this isn't about what is right or wrong. It is about getting to know may be right, but this isn't about what is right or wrong. It is about getting to know folks who offer you lots of care and work in return for their devotion.

Blessings on you in your new parish. I pray that your ministry will be ultimately as joyful as mine has been.

Ruth offers:
Reading this I would offer a few bits of practical advice:

Leading meetings straight after a service is tiring – try to look after yourself. Is it possible to get someone else to share in leading worship so you’re not too wiped out at the start of the meeting?

I like your idea of linking worship & the meeting – I tend to use lots of prayers for the Spirit to guide us!

I sometimes ‘do things differently’ through ignorance rather than my ‘own deliberate fault’ - and find that if you tell people ‘please talk to me if I do it in an unexpected way, I may make mistakes’ - people will often give you the benefit of the doubt, or at least talk to you so you can explain your thinking behind how you do things, if it is a deliberate departure from tradition.

The best advice I have ever been given about horrendous meetings is that if you think someone is going to be difficult, talk to them before hand – then at least you know their arguments in advance & you aren’t caught on the hop – hoping it won’t happen isn’t a strategy!

Perhaps very general advice but helpful, I hope.

Thank you so much, dear matriarchs, for this very thoughtful advice. What about the rest of you? Do you have some thoughts to share? Feel free either to respond to the specifics of the original question or to  offer your thinking on the broader issues of negotiating expectations and initiating change in a new setting. Join us in the comments section!

And as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot[com].

-- earthchick


  1. I think Muthah+'s coments are good. I will add that I was a layperson in a parish that had Vestry right after the service because that was just about the only time that everyone could be present. If it were me leading it, I'd need lunch. Seriously.

    As for not doing things exactly the same, when I arrived here I did ask the questions of the altar guild etc. about how things were done and no one seemed willing or able to tell me with very much precision. It was only some months later that I realized that because the previous rector had been here a very long time, many people thought the way he did things was the only possible way to do them (literally) and so of course I would automatically know those things--they couldn't understand why I would even ask.

    I can also recommend "How to Hit the Ground Running" for offering some useful advice for new rectors/heads of staff/solo pastors.

    As for your specific question, there is a "prayer for the parish" and I think one for parish meetings that could be adapted to fit a vestry meeting in the BCP or what about adding a specific intercession in the Prayers of the People? (and yes, I'm assuming Episcopalian from your vocabulary but I could be wrong.)

  2. Thanks for your comments. And I am Anglican (South Africa) so your reading of my language was correct. Actually the vestry went very well. I made sure the Eucharist preceding it soaked it in prayer - special intercessions and prayers throughout the liturgy and I preached on commitment and working together as a body. I am fortunate in that the parish loathed their last rector (many left) and there was no interregnum so they are just happy to have someone who loves them and aren't overly critical. Some who left have even begun to return. I have made very few changes and where I have I have given good theological or liturgical reasons for it, and they seem, by and large to have accepted that. The person I was really worried about standing as warden stepped down before the meeting (without my intervention) and the person I had hoped for (a previous Warden) stood again. The whole meeting was done in 45 minutes!
    We KNOW God answers prayer, why are we so surprised when he actually does it and does it so smoothly?!?

  3. Pat, I am so glad that things went well. The more that we negotiate with our parishes, the more that we will find that folks will find Christ in our efforts and that is the point, isn't it?

  4. Thanks for letting us know how things went, Pat! I'm so glad they went well!

    And thank you for the helpful comments, all.


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