A Tool for the Parish's Spiritual Leaders
by the Rev. Ted Coolidge
Based on an Address at a Diocesan Workshop on Vestry Retreats
October 5, 2002
Vestries today are being called to positions of spiritual leadership. This is not apparent from the Canons, which tell us merely that vestry members are elected at the annual parish meeting to "represent the parish in all matters concerning its property and the relation of the parish to its clergy." However, since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came out, we have been learning that the ministers of the church are no longer the clergy alone but lay persons first of all, and after that bishops, priests, and deacons. This emergence of lay ministry is creating a systemic change in the church best expressed by the saying that we are going away from being a community gathered around a minister, and becoming a ministering community....and at the heart of that community is a team of people who, with the rector, hold that community's soul in trust. That is to say, spiritual leadership is no longer the province of priests alone, but finds its expression in a representative gathering where the clergy have a distinct but not exclusive role to play.
To be the community's spiritual leaders, vestry members will want to be people of prayer. "Prayer", according to the Book of Common Prayer, is "responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words" (Page 856)--not something we initiate but rather something that claims our response as we seek to think God's thoughts after him and to enter into God's mind and deeds. How do you go about praying like that? Here are a few examples. Vestries can use bible study not only as a way to open a meeting but also as a way to gain insight into issues they face. They can use contemplative practices to awaken an intuitive awareness of the way through. They can put business aside to sing a hymn or even just be still in silent prayer when a decision is in danger of being railroaded through. These are some of the tools of prayer vestries can use in assuming their spiritual leadership role.
Vestry retreats are also such a tool, and an especially helpful one. They provide opportunities for the vestry to develop and deepen its own prayerfulness, away from the distractions of daily life. They take various forms, including the following three:
(1) Prayerful Planning: This is a retreat in which the vestry wants to go about its planning for the future in a prayerful way. One hopes all vestry meetings are prayerful! But being realistic, we are busy and agenda-driven people who need times away to recover that prayerfulness. Planning for the future, which takes extended time anyway, is a good place to do that. It can also be a good place to bring in an outside leader who is familiar with this kind of retreat. Such a person can help the vestry set it up and to leave the parish priest free to join the vestry members in mutual discernment.
(2) Guided reflection: This is a retreat in which the vestry wants to address a particular issue or problem in a deeper and extend manner than regular meetings allow. Perhaps there's need for reconciliation, or healing. Perhaps the congregation is facing a critical decision in its life, a decision in which vestry leadership will be a decisive factor. So the vestry needs to get away and pray this thing through--again it may be with the help of a qualified retreat leader.
(3) Silent Retreat: This is a retreat in which vestry members want to be gathered at the deepest levels of their faith, letting go of all agendas and opening themselves to the guidance of the Spirit as the Spirit may move among them. This is the classic form of retreat, and also the most demanding. A leader is needed who can provide the necessary climate and leadership. He or she will also be available to meet with individual members as they may desire for counsel and encouragement.
Of all the three forms of retreat, the third is the one in which outside leadership is most important. This is because differences in "rank" have no place here, and because the rector or vicar should be free of responsibilities to be on such retreat with everyone else
One more word. about retreats: they are unpredictable. It may be that a retreat for prayerful planning will come to a moment of such deep awareness that words end and suddenly, and for a few minutes or more we are in stillness together before an unexpected truth. Likewise we may be in a silent retreat only to discover after that something profound has happened which has broken open some knotty problem, or clarified a future none had dreamed of before. For this reason we can envision all vestry retreats as consisting of three concentric circles moving outward from that still and silent center through times of guided reflection into prayerful planning. Even a retreat for prayerful planning will experience times of fruitful silence, and silent retreats will provide
vision and insight for future parish plans.
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