The leadership structure or “governance” of an Anglican congregation can be very confusing for those who are new to Anglicanism. Its hard to know who is in charge of what and why. If you are either a new member of Good Shepherd or considering becoming a new member, I thought it might help to explain some of the basics. This article is part of our “new member” series of articles, podcast and videos designed to ease your transition into Good Shepherd.
Here are three terms and definitions for three distinct leadership roles at Good Shepherd (and most Anglican congregations). You have almost certainly heard one or more of these if you have attended on a Sunday.
Rector: The word “rector” comes from the Latin word “regere” which can mean ruler or teacher. The office of “rector” is roughly equivalent to that of “Senior Pastor” in evangelical churches. In New Testament terms, the rector is the ordained “presbyter” or elder who holds chief spiritual authority in a given parish. He is the spiritual head of the congregation who is ultimately responsible for all worship, music, and staff decisions as well as everything taught, preached, and published by any minister or teacher in the congregation.
Wardens: The word warden comes from the middle-English word “wardein” which means to “guard”. The wardens are the elected lay-guardians of the parish. There are two wardens at Good Shepherd and this is generally the case in most Anglican congregations. Wardens hold the highest non-ordained elected authority in the congregation. They serve for a term of 2 years. The Senior Warden is the warden who has served the longest amount of time in the capacity of warden. The Senior Warden is sometimes called “the Rector’s Warden” because one of his chief duties is to advise and support the Rector. Should the rector become incapacitated, leadership in the eyes of the law would fall directly to the Senior Warden. The Junior Warden is the warden who has served the shortest amount of time in the office of warden. The Junior Warden is the warden responsible for the care and oversight of church property. He organizes and shepherds changes, repairs, maintenance, etc…to the property of the church.
Vestry: The vestry is a group of elected members of the congregation roughly equivalent to a board of non-ordained elders in an evangelical church. Vestrymembers serve for terms of 3 years. The term “vestry” refers to the room where clergy “vest” or put on their robes before the service. Centuries ago, a group of lay-leaders held parish meetings in the vestry room of their church, probably somewhere in England. Over time the name of the room became the name of the group. The name stuck and spread. The vestry is responsible for all financial decisions of the parish. All expenditures, acquisitions, property sales, etc…must be approved by a majority vote of the vestry.
The rector and wardens are members of the vestry along with anywhere from 10 to 6 regular vestrymembers. Each vestry member including the rector and wardens is permitted one vote. The rector has the right to vote but generally only exercises that right in order to break a tie.
How the structure works:
Anglican parishes in the United States are governed through a very careful system of checks and balances. These checks and balances serve to ensure that 1. the rector has the authority necessary to lead effectively as spiritual head of the congregation without becoming a tyrant and 2. the vestry can exercise fiduciary responsibility over the parish without running over the rector.
Balance is achieved by giving vestry authority over the way all money is spent while giving the rector authority over the spiritual life of the congregation including preaching, teaching, music, and all other aspects of church leadership including staff.
This does not mean that the vestry is uninterested or uninvolved in staff and spiritual decisions. It does mean that the rector has the authority to make final decisions about these matters.
In the same way, this does not mean that the rector does not pay attention to money–he is after all a member of the vestry. It does mean that the vestry, not the rector, has final say with regard to how money is spent.
Functioning properly as, by God’s grace, it does at Good Shepherd, this system encourages and produces a deep bond of trust and cooperation between rector and vestry as each party finds it necessary to think through the ramifications of decisions from the others’ perspective. A rector must consider the budget consequences of any mission and/or ministry plan, keeping in mind that he must craft a strategy that the vestry will be able to fund. Smart rectors will work with vestrymembers and wardens before setting goals and creating programs. The vestry on the other hand cannot simply think like a business and focus on the bottom line. Vestrymembers have to consider the consequences, both spiritual and financial, to the rector, the congregation they have been elected to serve, and the community they are called to reach when voting to fund or cut funding for any program.
When this balance is disrupted there can be big problems.
In one Episcopal Church a rector simply called up and organ company and ordered a $50,000.00 pipe organ for the parish without bothering to consult the vestry. She informed them after the fact. They were, rightly, furious and her tenure ended very soon afterward when the vestry, by majority vote, called in the bishop. In this case, rector had overstepped, by far, her authority in the church.
In extreme cases such as this, when the rector acts in ways that significantly undermine the financial and/or spiritual health of the congregation, the vestry, by majority vote, may call in the bishop who, having been called by the vestry, has the authority to remove the rector from office or mediate the conflict.
Another example. There is a non-Anglican church in the region that has gone through about 4 different pastors in the last 6 years. Why? Well, in that particular denomination the board of Deacons and/or Elders holds authority not only over financial expenditures, but also over the spiritual and staffing decisions of the congregation. When a new pastor preaches or teaches something the board does not like or, perhaps, wants to change aspects of the congregation’s common life or worship (and the church is dwindling fast and must change or it will soon die), he is told in no uncertain terms that he can do nothing at all apart from the board’s approval. And the board never approves. This particular congregation has lost some excellent pastors in the last few years who simply could not stay because the board did not allow any room to actually lead.
In some congregations that follow this model, the board even seeks to control what the pastor can or cannot say from the pulpit. In an Anglican church, should the vestry seriously overstep its bounds and attempt to dictate decisions or policies in the spiritual realm, the rector too may call in the bishop who, having been called, has the authority to replace the entire vestry or mediate the conflict.
In both cases, the necessary boundaries, the checks and balances, between rector and vestry/board authority were ignored and in both cases, the congregations involved are faced with serious problems.
What does this mean for you?
I hope that this will help you understand how decisions are made in the church. I also hope it will help you understand who to approach with any questions and/or problems.
If you are needing spiritual guidance or care, have a question about theology or scripture, want to know what Good Shepherd believes about a given topic, want to talk about music selection, have an inquiry or concern about a teacher, leader or minister, wish to serve as reader, acolyte, Lay Eucharistic Minister, teacher, etc…then you would come to the rector or a minister/leader/staff person appointed by the rector to serve in that particular field.
If you have questions about the way money is spent and why, the upkeep of property, what happens to your offerings and pledges, how the budget is created, how much the church is paying staff and clergy, the total amount of your tax deductible contributions for the year, how much money has been budgeted and or collected for a given program or ministry or any question related to the financial health and life of the congregation…then you would want to ask a vestrymember or warden.
Some random but somewhat important notes:
1. Any baptized member of Good Shepherd who meets the requirements for elders in Titus 1:6-8, regularly attends Sunday services, regularly attends a bible study or class during the week or on Sunday morning, tithes or is working toward a tithe, and who is willing to sign Good Shepherd’s statement of faith may run for vestry.
2. All vestry meetings are open to every member of the parish.
3. Vestry and warden elections are held every year at the Annual Meeting.
4. Committees of parishioners are sometimes appointed by the vestry to study the feasibility of certain plans or to think through the problems associated with various programs or decisions and report back to the vestry.
5. The rector presides over vestry meetings but usually does not vote.
6. In the rector’s absence, the Senior Warden runs the vestry meetings.
7. Wardens must be confirmed as well as baptized.
8. Youth ministers, music directors, secretaries, assistant priests and other clergy all serve under the leadership of the rector who is responsible for all that they do and say.
9. The rector serves in obedience to a bishop who serves as the head of a number of congregations.
10. The rector, wardens and vestry of Good Shepherd are equally bound to believe, obey, proclaim, and teach the word of God as it is revealed in the inerrant scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and, by our lives and ministries, to model Christ as he is revealed therein. All believers who attend Good Shepherd have both the right and responsibility to test our words and lives against the measure of the bible and to question us when/if you believe that we may have strayed from it.