There are, very generally speaking, two ways Christian congregations are governed. Some churches are congregational in governance. Others are episcopal (small “e”). The term “episcopal” comes from the Greek word, episkopos, which means “bishop”. So, a parish is governed episcopally when it is under the authority of a bishop. In addition to our Episcopal denomination, other Christian denominations have bishops and episcopal governance as well. These would include the United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, African-Methodist Episcopal and Lutheran churches. Usually, a bishop cannot be involved in the day to day life of a parish, so she or he will – in consultation with diocesan deployment officers and a congregational search committee – choose a priest to oversee a given parish. The priest-in-charge or rector is then hired by the vestry of the church and is given authority over the parish by his or her bishop. But hiring is only a small part of what a vestry does.
First, the other common form of church governance is parishes that are congregational in nature. Think of Baptists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and the Assemblies of God. This means the congregation makes the decisions, not a rector or a bishop. Such churches usually have elder or trustee boards that decide for the congregation, hopefully after much listening and prayer. God has used and blessed both episcopal and congregationally-governed churches. Often however, consensus is difficult to reach and sometimes powerful families can gain control of local congregations in some truly dysfunctional ways. Episcopal governance, well-executed, can circumvent that.
The vestry in an Episcopal parish will, in some ways, function like elders or trustees in a congregational church. They exist to advise, counsel, encourage and caution a rector or priest in charge as she or he makes decisions for the life of the parish. This is strong language, but it needs to be said: A priest is a fool who does not lean hard upon his or her vestry for wisdom and counsel. The vestry is unwise not to do the same where the rector is concerned.
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