Introduction & Disclaimer
The following is a short guide to help orient Vestry Members and Rectors to the roles, responsibilities, and procedures of governing a parish in the Episcopal Church. This guide is strictly educational and deliberately vague, as every Diocese and local parish will have its own laws, customs, and culture. This guide was put together with a combination of official documents such as the Canons of the Episcopal Church, pieces of diocesan canons largely from the Diocese of Virginia (where the author currently serves), Robert’s Rules of Order, and the author’s lived experience as a parish priest. While the author hopes this will be a helpful guide, it is by no means comprehensive.
Always consult the Constitutions & Canons of the Episcopal Church, the Constitution & Canons of your Diocese, and the bylaws adopted by your local parish for official policies and procedures.
-The Rev. Joseph G. Butler
Works Consulted & Recommended Resources
For more comprehensive information and further study, consider the following resources:
- The Vestry Handbook by Christopher Webber
- The Vestry Resource Guide by The Episcopal Church Foundation
- Many Parts, One Body: How the Episcopal Church Works by James Dator & Jan Nunley
- The Constitution & Canons of the Episcopal Church by General Convention
- Robert’s Rules of Order, 12th ed. by General Henry M. Robert
- Robert’s Rules of Order in Brief, 3rd. ed. by Henry M. Robert III, Daniel Honemann, Thomas Balch, Daniel Seabold, & Shmuel Gerber
- An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church edited by Don Armentrout & Robert Slocum
“Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
-The Book of Common Prayer, p. 818
Roles & Responsibilities
What is the Vestry?
The Vestry is a body composed of elected lay members of the Parish, who in partnership with the Rector, govern the Parish’s common life.
Who can serve on the Vestry?
Lay persons who are confirmed adult communicants in good standing may serve on the Vestry.
Lay ‒ not a member of the clergy (priest, deacon, or bishop)
Confirmed ‒ having been Confirmed and/or Received into the Episcopal Church
Adult ‒ aged 16 years or older
Communicant ‒ having received Holy Communion at least three times in the past year. (Unless for good cause prevented)
“In good standing” – “All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.” -Canon I.17 sec. 3
How are Members of the Vestry Elected?
Lay members of the congregation nominate and elect vestry members at the Annual Parish Meeting.
How long is a Vestry Member’s Term?
Dioceses or local parishes adopt canons or bylaws that determine Vestry Member’s term length. Terms are usually between 2-4 years—3 years terms are common throughout the Episcopal Church.
How many Vestry Members are there?
Dioceses or local parishes adopt canons or bylaws that determine the size of the Vestry. Usually the number of Vestry Members is broadly proportional to the size of the Parish. For example: a parish with approximately 200 members may have a Vestry of 12, meaning 1 Vestry member represents about 17 members. A parish with approximately 75 members may have a Vestry of 7, meaning 1 Vestry member represents about 11 members.
What are the responsibilities of the Vestry?
- Serve as the legal representative of the Parish on all matters pertaining to its corporate property.
- Help define and articulate the mission of the Parish.
- Manage resources and finances.
- Ensure effective organization and planning.
- Select the Rector.
Who are the Officers of the Vestry?
The Rector ‒ Presiding Officer (or “President”), calls and presides over the Vestry meetings.
The Senior Warden ‒ Leads the parish between rectors and supports the Rector. Often supports the Rector in organizing Vestry meetings, managing parish staff, and serves as a mediator between the laity and clergy in the parish.
The Junior Warden ‒Leads the management of the parish property and buildings.
The Clerk (or Secretary) ‒ Keeps the record of vestry meetings, actions, and resolutions. The Clerk may or may not be a member of the Vestry but must be elected by the Vestry.
The Parish Treasurer ‒Keeps the record of the Parish’s finances and supports the Vestry and Rector in the practical management of the Parish’s finances. The Treasurer may or may not be a member of the Vesty but must be elected by the Vestry.
Who is the Rector?
The Rector is the priest in charge of a parish. The rector is the ecclesiastical authority of the parish, subject to the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution & Canons of the Episcopal Church, and the pastoral direction of the Diocesan Bishop.
What are the (governing) responsibilities of the Rector?
- Lead the spiritual care, formation, and worship of the Parish.
- Manage the parish staff & additional clergy (staff & additional clergy serve at the discretion of the Rector).
- Call and preside over Vestry meetings and the Annual Parish Meeting.
How do the Vestry and the Rector govern the Parish together?
Metaphorically speaking, the Rector serves as the Executive branch governing the Parish, and the Vestry as the Legislative. The Rector is charged with spiritual care, formation, and worship of the Parish, manages the staff & additional clergy, and presides over Vestry Meetings. The Vestry represents the laity, manages the property & finances, and defines the mission of the Parish.
How are Vestry meetings conducted? ‒ Rules of Order
Vestry meetings broadly follow the parliamentary customs of Robert’s Rules of Order. Though as in the case of all adoptions of Robert’s Rules, there are unique customs and bylaws adopted by the Vestry to fit its needs. The customs of Robert’s Rules help keep meetings orderly, facilitate discussion, make final decisions clear, and help the Clerk record the decisions that are made.
Calling a Vestry Meeting
The Rector calls the Vestry to meet, giving due notice to all Vestry members. If the Rector fails to call a meeting when requested to do so by two Vestry members, such Vestry members may themselves call a meeting, giving at least three days’ notice of the time and place to the Rector and to each Vestry member.
The Rector presides at all meetings of the Vestry. In the absence of the Rector, or at the Rector’s request when present, the Vestry may elect a substitute presiding officer. If the church is without a Rector, meetings of the Vestry are called and presided over by one of the Wardens or, in their absence, by a Vestry member selected by the Vestry.
Having Enough Voices to Make Decisions ‒ Establishing Quorum
A simple majority of Vestry members (not counting the Rector) constitutes a Quorum; but any Vestry may by resolution fix a smaller number to act as a quorum at future meetings. If quorum is not reached, no decisions may be made and the meeting immediately adjourns.
Praying & Spiritual Formation
Once quorum has been established, the Rector leads the Vestry in prayer ‒ typically one or several appropriate collects followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
After praying, the Rector, or speaker invited by the Rector, may lead the Vestry in a brief study of an appropriate topic: Bible study, organization & governance of the Episcopal Church, etc.
Being Informed ‒ Reviewing Previous Meeting Minutes & Reports
The Minutes from the previous Vestry meeting, a Financial Report from the Treasurer, and other reports are presented to the Vestry. The Vestry reviews the Minutes from the previous meeting to ensure the record accurately reflects the decisions made ‒ specifically the final language of any resolution that was adopted. The Clerk applies the corrections to the Minutes as needed. Once corrections have been made, or if the corrections are very minute (such as basic grammar or spelling), the Vestry votes to adopt the Minutes. If corrections to the Minutes are substantial, the Vestry may refrain from adopting the Minutes until reviewing the corrections at the next meeting.
If the other reports have been sent prior to the meeting (preferably at least 24 hours ahead of the meeting), and the Vestry seeks no clarification or corrections on the reports, the Vestry may vote to accept the reports on a Consent Agenda ‒ approving all the reports simultaneously with one vote.
Making Decisions ‒ Motions & Seconds
To begin the process of making a formal decision, a member of the Vestry offers a proposal by making a motion, “I move that…”. A Motion is a formal proposal by a member, in a meeting, that the group take a certain action (Robert’s Rules 3:22).
Before considering a motion, it must be Seconded by another member of the Vestry. This shows that at least two members want the proposal considered. To “Second” a motion, another member simply has to say “Second!” (Note: there are no “thirds”, “fourths”, etc. two members are all that are needed.). If a motion has no seconds, it fails and is not considered by the Vestry.
Debate & Discussion
Once a motion has been moved and seconded, the Rector will state the question: “It has been moved and seconded that…” and repeats the exact words in which the motion was made.
Once the question has been stated, the motion is “on the floor”, meaning discussion and/or debate about the merits of the motion can begin. Only those with Voice may speak when discussing a motion. All Vestry Members and the Rector have Voice. Others who may be present for the meeting, such as a committee chair giving a report, may answer clarifying questions by members but cannot speak on their own unless they are granted Voice by the Vestry or the Rector.
The Rector manages the discussion by ensuring members have opportunity to speak, limiting the discussion to only the motion on the floor, maintaining order, and ensuring that the motions considered are within the bounds of the Constitution & Canons of the Episcopal Church, the pastoral direction of the Diocesan Bishop and Constitution & Canons of the Diocese, and the bylaws agreed upon by the Vestry.
Refining Decisions ‒ Amendments
During the debate or discussion of a motion, if a member or several members want to alter the motion in some way, an Amendment may be proposed. Amendments modify the wording—and within certain limits the meaning—of the motion (Robert’s Rules 12:1). Amendments must say exactly how the change to the motion, and precisely what words to use.
When an amendment is proposed, it must be seconded before being considered. If an amendment is proposed and seconded, debate on the motion stops, and the Rector states the question of the amendment. The amendment is then discussed in the same manner as the motion, but with the discussion being limited to only the amendment to the motion.
After discussion, the amendment is restated by the Rector and voted on. If the amendment is adopted, discussion returns to the now amended motion.
Finalizing Decisions ‒ Ending Debate, Voting, & Adopting Resolutions
After a motion has been discussed, if no members seek to continue the discussion, the Rector Puts the Question. Putting (or “Calling”) the Question formally ends discussion and begins the voting process. Alternatively, if debate is ongoing but a Vestry Member or the Rector wishes to end debate and begin voting, they may “Move the Previous Question”.
Moving the Previous Question is a motion to end debate and immediately vote on the motion being debated (Robert’s Rules 16:1-28). Moving the Previous Question must be seconded and adopted by a two-thirds vote. If a Vestry Member or the Rector wants to pause and pick up the debate at another time (such as the next vestry meeting), they may make a “Motion to Postpone”. A Motion to Postpone pauses the debate (Robert’s Rules 14:1-7). Moving the Previous Question, Moving to Postpone, or any motion to end debate must be seconded and adopted by a two-thirds vote.
Only Members of the Vestry and the Rector may vote on a motion. It is advised that the Rector, as chair of the meeting, make every effort to appear impartial; generally refraining from directly participating in debate and only voting when the vote is by ballot or to break a tie vote.
There are generally three types of voting, ordered broadly from the lowest threshold to the highest: Unanimous Consent, Simple Majority, and Super Majority. Before voting, the Rector will once again state the motion that is being voted on.
Unanimous Consent ‒ When over the course of the discussion there seems to be general agreement on the motion, when the question is put to vote, the Rector will ask, “All in favor say ‘Aye’”, then “Any oppose, say ‘No’”. Those in favor say “Aye” and those opposed say “No”. Usually, the outcome is obvious, overwhelmingly “Aye”. If the outcome is obviously in favor, the motion passes. If it is not obviously in favor, then the vote may be moved to a Simple or Super Majority vote.
Simple Majority ‒ Greater than one-half (or 51%) of voting members vote in favor of the motion. For example: in a Vestry of 12 Members and the Rector, a motion passes when 7 vote in favor.
Super Majority ‒ At least two-thirds (or 60%) of voting members vote in favor of the motion. For example: in a Vestry of 12 Members and the Rector, a motion passes when 8 vote in favor.
Once voting is complete, the Rector announces the results, stating if the motion passes or fails. If the motion passes, it is adopted by the Vestry, recorded in the minutes as a Resolution, and enacted as appropriate.
When the business of the meeting is concluded, a Vestry member or the Rector makes a motion to Adjourn. The motion to adjourn is then seconded and voted on by unanimous consent. If the motion to adjourn passes, the meeting ends and is closed in prayer.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances.”
‒ Psalm 119:105-106