The Priest and the Vestry; or, The Stewardship of Temporalities
By the Rev. Henry Tatlock
Rector of St. Andrew's Church, Ann Arbor, Mich.
[The following Paper is a revised form of a Paper entitled The Office of the Rector, which was read before the Southern Convocation of the Diocese of Michigan, and printed by the Convocation for distribution in the diocese.]
WHAT duties belong to a settled clergyman in the matter of the temporalities of the Church?
To obtain true views on this subject, it is necessary to distinguish between the priest and the rector, and between the congregation and the parish. A priest of the Church who is the rector of a parish has two distinct offices to fulfil. He stands in two different relations to the people to whom he is to minister. As priest he is the pastor of the congregation; as rector he is the head of the parish. The congregation is the local Church. It is a spiritual body, existing for the purpose of nourishing the Christian life of its members and of giving the knowledge of Christ to those who are without it or who have it imperfectly. The parish is a corporation, a society having a legal status, and existing for the purpose of holding certain properties and of managing the financial concerns of the congregation.
The work of the priest is spiritual. He is the minister of souls. In this capacity he knows no such thing as the parish or corporation. His work would be the same if no such corporate society existed. In his conduct of the public services of the Church, and in his private ministra-tions among his people, he serves the flock not as rector, but as priest and pastor. The parish with its rector is not an absolute necessity. The congregation may exist without it. The priest and pastor may gather and feed the flock of Christ without a rectory, or parish building, or church edifice owned by the society. St. Paul could do his work in the house of Justus or in the school of Tyrannus, as well as in the Jewish synagogue. He was never a rector. And throughout the centuries zealous and devoted men have followed the example of the first great missionary, and carried the Church from house to house, from city to city, from country to country, from continent to continent, without church buildings to preach in or vestries to pay their salaries.
The parish, with its property, is not a necessity. The congregation is before the parish; the priest and pastor is before the rector. The parish is merely an instrumentality designed to aid the congregation, or local Church, in the performance of its several functions. It is a means to an end.
But while the parish is not a necessity, while the Gospel may be preached and the Church may be established without such an organization; yet for the maintenance of the Church, for her growth and expansion and the effective prosecution of her work, the agencies which are provided by the parish are a means of high value; for her complete well-being and the development and exercise of her fullest power, they are, in fact, a necessary means. A settled ministry, which allows the priest to live among his flock and devote his whole time and strength to their spiritual up-building, church edifices which are set apart for the worship of God and the religious training of His people, edifices, indeed, which, in beauty and grandeur, express the love and gratitude of Christian believers to tin Giver of all good gifts, and declare to the world that the interests of religion are the highest and most important of all the concerns of human life, these and other auxiliary institutions which, practically, with us, only a well-organized parish can provide, are necessary instrumentalities for the full nurturing and true expression of the Church's life.
The parish, therefore, is an agency which may not be neglected. Its purpose is to minister to the welfare of the congregation considered as a spiritual body; and being a means of such importance and power, it is the duty of the rector, as its head, to see to it, so far as in him lies, that its affairs are so conducted that it shall accomplish that purpose to the fullest extent; that it shall be, in other words, the most efficient servant of the Church for whose well-being it exists.
There are those who hold that the clergyman should have little or nothing to do with the affairs of the parish. Some would deny to him participation in those concerns on the ground of expediency, others on the ground of legal right, and still others on the ground of the spiritual character of his calling. It is contended that the administration of the parish devolves entirely upon the vestry, and that, when the rector concerns himself with its affairs, he goes out of his sphere and enters one which belongs to others. This view virtually destroys the office of the rector. There is no rector excepting in name.
The laws in the several dioceses differ somewhat in their definition of the prerogatives of the rector, but they all agree in making him a part of the vestry so far, at least, as to make him its presiding officer and with few exceptions they give him the right of casting the deciding vote in the case of a tie. Within certain limits, they prescribe that, before a meeting of the vestry can be held, due notice thereof shall be given to him. In many of our dioceses the laws give the rector larger powers than this minimum, but for the purpose of this paper it is not necessary to describe them. For the doctrine here maintained, the most restricted legal rights which are awarded to the rector are sufficient. In seeking to learn what are the duties of the rector in reference to parochial affairs, the important thing to consider is the object for which the parish exists; and all laws and enactments concerning the rectorial office, whatever they may be, must be interpreted in the light of that object. If the rector has no right to concern himself in the affairs of the parish, it will be consistent with his duty to suffer the parish to be so administered as to hinder the welfare of the congregation, consistent with his duty to acquiesce in such an administration without making any effort to reform it; a conclusion needing only to be stated to show how preposterous is the proposition upon which it rests.
But the rector may not act without the vestry; still less may he act against it. By the laws of the Church, the care of the temporal concerns of the congregation is entrusted to the vestry; in the vestry is lodged the power to manage its financial affairs. It is the policy of the Church thus to commit the administration of her temporalities to chosen laymen for two manifest reasons:
First, it is important that business affairs should be looked after by men experienced in such affairs; and secondly, as it is the part of the laity to provide the financial means for the Church's work, it is proper that the labor of securing and administering those means should be assigned to representatives of the lay order. Beyond dispute, it is the duty of the vestry to care for the financial concerns of the congregation. But this does not mean that the rector is estopped from taking an interest in those concerns, that he is debarred from cooperating with the vestry, and forbidden to give them the advantage of his knowledge, the stimulus of his zeal, and the aid of his personal influence.
The rector must not act apart from the vestry. He must act with and through the vestry: but when he so acts, his right to act is commensurate with his wisdom and personal power. Within these limits, everything is right for him to do which is demanded by his highest efficiency as priest and pastor and by the truest welfare of the congregation, and nothing is right for him to do which weakens that efficiency or injures that welfare. The rector and the parish are always subordinate to the priest and the congregation. But when a clergyman so conceives of his rectorial office as to administer it in a manner detrimental to his work as priest and pastor, he reverses the order of the two offices and makes the parish rule instead of serving the spiritual congregation.
The question now arises, When, in what way, and to what extent should the rector take part in the affairs of the parish, take part, that is, in the management of the temporalities of the Church?
Sometimes the necessity for action on his part in these matters does not exist. There are parishes whose vestries are composed of men of such sympathy with the Church as a spiritual institution, of such zeal in seeking her highest welfare, and of such wisdom in practical affairs, that there is no need of labor or care on the part of the rector in parochial matters. The Constitution and Canons of the Church presuppose that every vestry shall be thus composed. The parochial system is based upon the assumption that those who are chosen to the offices of wardens and vestrymen shall be men of such character and ability that they will admin--ister their several parishes for the best interest of the Church. This is the conception underlying the whole system. When this condition exists, the rector's duty consists in seconding the efforts of the vestry and giving them such help as his knowledge and influence may enable him to give.
But this ideal is not realized in every parish. The intention of the Church is sometimes defeated by placing upon vestries men who are not duly qualified. Their unfitness may be a moral and spiritual defect, or it may be a lack of business ability.
There are vestrymen, and sometimes whole vestries, who feel no interest in the Church as a religious and spiritual institution, and whose policy in parochial administration takes little or no account of the Church's true welfare. Such men, being indifferent and sometimes even hostile to the spiritual purpose of the Church, are governed chiefly or wholly by worldly and selfish motives; and there should be no surprise if they neglect the trust committed to them, or use it as a means for the accomplishment of personal ends.
Again, vestries are sometimes made up of men who have little or no faculty for administration, who lack skill and wisdom in business affairs. These men may be fairly well-intentioned, but they are not alert, active, and prompt in the conduct of parish business. They allow things to drag and run behind. They fail in securing the financial support which the parish requires, because they are clumsy and dilatory in their management.
Once more, it sometimes happens that a small number, or even a single member, of a vestry will acquire such power and ascendency as to dictate the policy of the parish. Such an oligarchy is not always so reprehensible a thing as is generally supposed. To what extent it is an evil, depends, in great degree, upon the character and purpose of the men or man constituting it. In its best estate, however, it is not a desirable thing; and when it ignores the interests of the congregation as a spiritual body, it is unendurable.
When a clergyman finds himself rector of a parish whose vestry corresponds to one of the classes now described, it is not his duty quietly to acquiesce in the situation. It is his duty to use every proper means in his power to change the situation, to place the administration of his parish upon true and sound principles. But what means can he employ? In -what way shall he set about to work the desired reformation?
It is only possible to say what means he may employ, what it is right and proper for him to do, provided he has the requisite skill and capacity. For not only are there incompetent vestries, but there are also incompetent rectors; and when both the vestry and the rector are unequal to the task of efficiently managing the affairs of the parish, we have a hopeless situation. There are good men in the ministry who are quite unfit for the office of rector, men who are devoted to their calling, who, under some circumstances, can do true and noble work as priests and pastors, and yet who lack in a conspicuous degree the faculty for business. But that faculty is an essential element in the make-up of the rector. He must be wise and effective as a business manager and director. When a clergyman thus qualified finds himself in the situation here supposed, his own sense and judgment will tell him what to do. No rules or detailed directions can be given, and they would be of no use if they could be given,--not needed by the man who is equal to the task, without value to the man who is not. A few general principles, however, may be stated.
In the first place, the rector must assume his position, and assume it at the very outset. He should not do this in an aggressive or disagreeable way. He should not talk about his being rector, or go about blowing and blustering concerning his rights and prerogatives. The less talking and noise of that sort, the better; none whatever is exactjy the right amount. What he should do is to act as rector, with the quiet dignity and firmness and persistence with which a man always does act in a position of which he is sure. The vestry and the whole congregation will very quickly perceive the stand he has taken and respect him for it.
Secondly, he must endeavor to inform himself and to keep himself constantly informed of the financial condition of the parish in all its details; and this he must do, in order that he may communicate his knowledge to the vestry. The most fruitful source of trouble over parochial finances is ignorance concerning their condition until it is too late to remedy it. The rector and the vestry allow things to drift along, without any definite knowledge of the relation between the receipts and expenditures; and when, at last, at the annual meeting of the parish, the facts become known, there is general surprise and disappointment, and not a little discouragement. The way to avoid such surprises, with their disheartening effect, is to keep the vestry and the congregation continually informed of the state of the finances, so that, if it be not satisfactory, the proper method of improving it may be applied in time.
Thirdly, he must take the initiative. He must not come to the vestry-meeting vacant-minded. He must come there.with a clearly-defined plan of action. Whether he shall present his plan himself or through some member of the vestry will depend upon circumstances.
Fourthly, he must not propose too much at once. By proceeding gradually, acting in a friendly spirit, and remembering that the vestry and he are co-workers, he can accomplish all in time.
Fifthly, in all expenditures he must be prudent, using every effort to keep the parish (and himself) out of debt. Whether it is ever wise for a parish to create a standing debt upon its estate is a disputed question. Under some circumstances, for the acquisition of property, the incurring of such a debt may be justifiable, but even so, never beyond the clear ability of the congregation promptly to liquidate it. In the matter of the current parochial expenses, there can be no good reason for incurring a debt, and in this department the rector should leave nothing undone to have all amounts settled and a balance on hand at the close of the parochial year.
Sixthly, in all his action, he must be sure that he has the congregation back of him. JSTo man can do very much as rector who has not won the esteem and affection of his people by faithful and devoted work as their priest and pastor. But if he has been thoroughly true and faithful to them in that office, he can trust them to stand by him as their rector; and when his reasonable propositions are favorably received and responded to by the congregation, his success will win for him the regard and confidence of the vestry.
Seventhly, in all these financial matters, his principle should be, never to do anything himself which he can get the vestry to do. His aim should be to awaken in the vestry such an interest in the Church and such a desire for her prosperity, that they will take upon themselves the care and labor of managing the financial affairs of the parish. And when they come to recognize that that responsibility is theirs, and are ready to discharge the duties which it involves with fidelity and zeal, it only remains for the rector loyally to support them and aid them in their work in every practicable way.
Seven is a perfect number, and these seven principles are enough to indicate the general way in which a rector should proceed in the administration of a parish whose affairs are indifferently or badly managed.
There is one other point belonging to this subject which may be touched upon. It is in reference to the rector's salary. The matter of fixing the amount of the rector's salary is purely a business affair. The rector is entitled to such salary as the parish is able to give him; and if he feels that he is being unjustly treated in this matter, it is better for him frankly to bring the subject to the attention of the vestry than to allow himself to grow despondent and perhaps bitter through silently fretting over it. But the rector nrast not ask for an increase of salary, unless the affairs of his parish are in such a condition that the parish is able to grant the request. There are rectors, by the hundred, who neglect the duties of their office, who allow their parishes to be mismanaged by indifferent or incompetent vestries, who see the parish property falling into decay and its finances running behind, and yet who complain that they are not paid the salaries which they ought to receive. Such men are usually the victims of their own inefficiency. There are, of course, exceptions. There are dying towns and downtown churches. But in a fair field, if a clergyman does his duty as rector, and so manages his parish that it shall be able to increase his salary, it will rarely happen that he will need to ask for the increase.
Complaint is sometimes made of the meanness of vestries and congregations. There are two sides to human nature, the good and the noble side, and the bad and mean side. Clergymen have these two sides as well as laymen. It is the business of the clergyman to bring out the good and noble side of men and women. And a clergyman who is thoroughly competent for his work in all its parts, who is true and noble, faithful and wise, both in his office of priest and pastor and in his office of rector, will rarely find his people unjust, or even ungenerous. He will commonly find that they will respect his rights in the matter of his salary, and they will not think the less but rather the more of him, if they see that he respects these rights himself.
To what has now been said, a word of caution must be added. It has been the contention of this paper that there are duties and responsibilities connected with the rectorial office which a clergyman may not rightly neglect. But, on the other hand, it must be borne in mind that a clergyman may easily give too much of his thought and time to the financial affairs of his parish. A clergyman may allow the temporal concerns of his parish so to engage his interest and draw upon his strength as to weaken his work as priest and pastor. He may allow those concerns to interrupt his studies, to encroach upon his pastoral work, and to lower his whole spiritual tone. The danger of this result is especially great in the case of a clergyman who has a natural aptitude and fondness for practical affairs. But while the neglect of the duties which belong to the office of rector may diminish the efficiency of a clergyman's work as priest and pastor, the opposite fault now spoken of will speedily destroy that efficiency altogether. If a clergyman cannot fill both offices, there can be no question to which one he should devote his strength. No matter under what circumstances a clergyman may be placed, he may give of his attention to the duties of the office of rector so far, and only so far, as that giving of his attention is helpful to his work as priest and pastor.
And this leads to a closing remark. It is, that a clergyman, the financial affairs of whose parish are faithfully and wisely managed by the vestry, has in that fact an immense advantage. It is always a damage to the work of a clergyman to be obliged to give any part of his energy to the care of the financial concerns of his parish. Under some circumstances it is, in the view of this paper, his duty to give attention to those concerns. It may be less detrimental to his proper work as priest and pastor to give it than not to give it. When the conditions present the question, he must decide which is the greater evil, to let the financial affairs of his parish shift without guidance, or to look after them himself. But either way he must choose an evil. It is only when the vestry takes the whole care and labor of managing the parochial finances, that the clergyman is set free to give his whole mind and power to the work which is peculiarly his as a shepherd of the flock of Christ. Wardens and vestrymen who faithfully discharge the duties of their office render a high service to the cause of Christ; and the devotion which leads men to give thus freely of their time and talents to the prospering of the Church is worthy of all praise.