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Coerced vestry spiritual development 

In general, we think it’s best to avoid having spiritual formation as an agenda item for the vestry - whether explicit or implied. It’s more fruitful to offer formation opportunities to any parishioners who want that, and over time they’ll maybe join the vestry. Such an increase in spiritual maturity will take place over the years, be more organic, and be grounded in the overall maturity of the parish. 

You want people to make free choices based on valid and useful information. 

So, to the extent participation in formation is voluntary and chosen, parishioners are more likely to own what comes out if it. That means the vestry is not the best starting place, since people are likely to feel coerced. They signed up for the vestry, not spiritual formation. 

And if you think vestry members should want spiritual formation and should believe it to be an important part of their service to the parish, we agree that’s ideal, but wishing it were so doesn’t make it so.  What we know is that coercion or pressure around spiritual life is something to avoid. If you catch yourself using “should,” it’s a good bet whatever you’re trying to accomplish won’t be voluntary and chosen.

It is certainly appropriate to do some work with the vestry that helps build the group’s capacity to work together. For example, you can make it a rule of thumb (in your mind, not the vestry’s) to have one occasion during each meeting when they make use of some simple process to make it easy for everyone to participate and thereby generate a bit of energy along with a mix of ideas. For example, go around the circle to respond to some issue or report. As in, “let’s go around the room, beginning with Martha, and hear a brief response to the possibility of repaving the parking lot.” The parish priest is responsible for vestry development in areas such as team work and competently dealing with financial and property matters. And such development is usually best done by introducing simple methods for better accomplishing the group’s work.

It’s also appropriate for the vestry to say Compline together at the end of its meeting. Any gathering of the baptized for operational or social purpose might do that.

However, we hear more and more stories of rectors trapping vestry members in spiritual growth activities during vestry meetings.  While we appreciate the impulse, we also think it’s inappropriate and counter-productive. Here’s more on why.

The work of Chris Argyris, a behavioral scientist, suggests that if we are to achieve a high level of internal commitment in any sphere certain conditions are necessary. We’re applying his work to the matter of spiritual formation. 

We want the baptized ready for a more apostolic way to develop a pattern of spiritual life that is sustainable, owned, and open to change based on new conditions. A Rule that will serve them over time and under stress. We seek what Argyris calls “internal commitment.”

He proposes that a significant level of internal commitment rests on two building blocks.

The bottom block is “valid and useful information.”  So, if we were trying to assist people in being able to use Lectio Divina as part of how the live the Rule of the church, how would we help them get such valid and useful information?

The best way to do that is for them to use the method a couple of times. First being coached in it, probably being walked through it step by step. The coaching-priest might then invite them to try using it for a period of time. They might use it daily for a week. Or before the Sunday Eucharist for a month. Then the people being coached would gather again and reflect on its use now having experienced it. The priest would ask them to share, if they wished, what they’d like to do in the coming months. 

The process would provide them with the valid and useful information needed for them to make a free choice. That it would be a free choice would be encouraged by having been offered several ways in which they might experiment with the practice and by the coach-priest’s tone. 

In assessing free choice Argyris looks for an exploration of options, that what is being done is voluntary and not from habit or coercion. 

And, it would be free choice because those participating had made a free choice to attend for the purpose of developing a spiritual practice competency.


Michelle Heyne, OA & Robert Gallagher, OA