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Year of Leadership: Congregational Leadership

The leader of a church is the priest, right? Yes and no. At the heart of the Episcopal Church’s identity is a governance structure that blends hierarchy with democracy, tradition with modernity, and clerical authority with lay participation. At the local church level, this structure is a testament to the empowerment of laypeople and illustrates a profound respect for the authority of all believers. 

Leadership and ministry come in many forms.  

At the forefront of church leadership is the priest-in-charge, who serves as the primary spiritual leader. The priest-in-charge embodies the theological and sacramental heart of the church and is tasked with the pastoral care, worship, and overall spiritual guidance of the congregation. This position, however, is not one of solitary authority but rather the intersection of a broader governance structure that involves significant lay participation.

Central to the governance of the local Episcopal church is the vestry (also called the Bishop’s Committee, in some contexts), a body that represents the laity of the church. Elected by congregants at the annual meeting, the vestry works in close collaboration with the priest-in-charge to steward the church’s resources, oversee its finances, maintain the property, and support the church’s mission and ministry. 

The vestry typically includes a senior warden (sometimes called the Bishop’s warden), junior warden, treasurer, and secretary, ensuring that a diverse array of perspectives and talents contribute to the church’s decision-making processes. The election of vestry members is an expression of the congregation’s trust and an acknowledgment of the critical role lay members play in the church’s mission.

In 2018, as priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in San Marcos, the Rev. Canon Gwynn Lynch worked with the vestry to outline the responsibilities of the priest-in-charge, the vestry, and the congregation. They established a Mutual Ministry Agreement that laid out expectations– things you’d probably expect – the priest does the preaching, the vestry takes care of the property, and the congregation steps forward for outreach and service. 

But there were some things you might not have thought of: The priest keeps the congregation in touch with the Diocese and the broader church, the vestry is the source of historical knowledge, and the congregation prays for the bishop, the clergy, and the vestry. All have a part to play.

The success of a church relies on a collaborative effort of the clergy, the vestry, and the congregation. This spirit of teamwork and shared commitment is exemplified in the annual meeting, where the whole church community comes together to reflect on achievements, make decisions, and set goals for the future.

Participating in the annual meeting is a vital component of church. It offers a forum for transparency, accountability, and member involvement. Here, congregants receive reports on the state of the church, elect vestry members, and discuss important issues. It is an example of our shared purpose and empowers the congregation to shape the direction and priorities of their church.

Churches do not operate in isolation but are integral parts of the larger diocesan structures of the Episcopal Church. This broader engagement ensures that local churches contribute to and benefit from the collective resources, wisdom, and mission of the church at large. Through financial support, participation in the Diocesan Convention, and adherence to diocesan canons, local churches are connected to the broader, international Episcopal Church, enhancing their ability to serve their congregations and communities.

While the governance structure of the local Episcopal church is designed to be inclusive and democratic, it is not without its challenges. However, these challenges also present opportunities for growth and renewal. Engaged, meaningful lay participation is necessary to maintain a clear and healthy path toward the church’s mission.

The leadership and governance structure of the local Episcopal church is just that–leadership and governance. The church exists to share the love of Christ in the world, and this system of governance is designed to aid in that effort. By empowering lay people to take on significant roles in church governance, the Episcopal Church affirms its commitment to all, ensuring that its mission and ministry are grounded in the collective wisdom and dedication of its entire community.

To learn more about church governance, whose voice is heard in the church, or about how you can develop as a leader in the church, click the article links above or email Rev. Canon Gwynn Lynch at glynch@edsd.org.  


Category: #Communications

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One reply to “Year of Leadership: Congregational Leadership

  1. Elaine Turnbull | on March 20, 2024

    Great article. This is a good resource for our parish as we work through the APP process.


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