October 24, 2012

Policy, Schmolicy

Filed under: Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 4:23 pm

Very few of us can get excited about policy. The “committee on governance” rarely suffers from over-subscription. Even I catch myself apologizing when I include it in a vestry retreat outline.

Policy isn’t just a snore. It intrudes on our sense of community. It organizes things that should be relational. It takes all the fun out of being a congregation together.

There are lots of good excuses for putting off stewardship of structure and governance:

We have policies the policies we need. At least I think we do….

Do you or don’t you? If you can’t put your hands on them, either you don’t have them or the policies you do have are not in effect in the life of the congregation. By that I mean that they are gathering dust somewhere, shoved in a file drawer, available if the bishop or the insurance company shows up on your doorstep. But in practice, working policy is made up as we go, based mostly on what seems to make sense in the moment. It’s probably time to pull things out of the file cabinet and give it all a thorough review.

We don’t get enough bequests to really need a policy. Vestry just deals with it if one comes in.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If you want people to put something in a box, you must first build a box. Then you must put it out where people can see it. This is true not just for bequests, but for financial policies in general. Invest some time in putting your policy house in order, and then educate the congregation to their existence and purpose. For to those who are faithful with little, much will be given.

We’re just a small congregation; this is more for big churches.

Even the smallest church has assets, and people, and a budget…and vision, and dreams, and mission and ministry. A given policy might be less elaborate in a smaller organization, but it’s still part of responsible leadership and stewardship of the life of the community.

We don’t have employees, just a part-time priest.

Really? I suspect what this means to say is, “We don’t have paid employees.” Chances are good that you benefit from a substantial unpaid staff, members who only work a few hours a week or even a few times a year, but who contribute significantly to the work of the Gospel in your midst.

It might not hurt from time to time to check in with those ministries that have a clear volunteer structure as well as step back and bring intentionality to cataloging the many things that people “just do.” This will give you a sense of the abundance, grace, and quiet ministry in your midst, along with a realistic understanding of your vulnerabilities and liabilities: Has there been notable turnover in any area? Are we current in Safe Church Training? Is there burnout we need to attend to pastorally? Has any area become entrenched, making it difficult for others to exercise their gifts in turn?

We could spend all our time just doing this. We’d never get anything done.

Yes, it can feel like structure gets in the way of ministry. We would all rather be doing ministry than describing who, what, and how. The good news is that for most of us, stewardship of structure and governance is a matter of reviewing and updating or reaffirming existing policy. New ministries that require policy preparation from scratch would be the exception—and what a great exception to have! If we are genuinely called to do something new, doing it well from the start is worth the effort. Ministry in fits and starts, or going back to attend to what we wish we had done at the beginning isn’t any fun either.

So what’s a vestry or bishop’s committee to do? We all want to do the right thing, but just the thought of breaking out that policy manual overwhelms us—or at the very least brings to mind about 800 things we could do instead.

If you are reading this from within the Diocese of Maine, talk to me! I have a wealth of resources, including samples and templates, which not only make the process manageable but approach it in a way that opens conversation around the ministry and vibrancy of the congregation.

And for all of us, the Episcopal Church Foundation is available for support and advice, much of it free or very affordable. Their webinars and print materials are extraordinarily user-friendly. For as broad as my stewardship library is, I can tell you honestly that the best stuff comes from ECF.

If you suspect that your policies are in pretty good shape, but also believe that regular review is important, consider the solution hatched by one vestry I worked with recently: Policy of the Month.

This vestry has very simply made a list of all the policies they have, or should have, and scheduled them into a rota. When they get to the end of the list, they simply loop back to the beginning. They chose this model to ensure that each policy gets some sort of regular attention without taking on the onerous tasking wading through it all at once. Yes, it adds an agenda item to each month’s meeting and yes, it does mean that committees will have some lead work in the month when a policy belonging to them is “on deck.” In the long run, however, their careful attention to the ministry of good management will pay off as the congregation grows in its trust of and respect for vestry leadership.

And finally, as with all things that draw upon our gifts and graces, even this most tedious facet of leadership is undergirded by prayer:

Dear Lord, help us to find grace and truth in the details. Help us to understand money, both with the insights required of those with fiduciary responsibility, but also with the self-sacrificial wisdom commended by your Son. Help us to be ethical in our handling of wealth, courageous in our stewardship of a community of faith, and humble in the face of adversity. Help us to give due respect to order, but then to venture up the mountain where divine disorder is the higher law. As we manage the business of our congregation, help us to care even more for souls. We ask this in the Name of One who taught about money and then held out an empty hand. Amen.[i]

[i] The Vestry Resource Guide, Episcopal Church Foundation, p. 73.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: