This might be a bit like one of those Christmas letters you get, which start, ‘I can’t believe it’ a whole year, since…’. But it was March of last year, when I last did one of these slots (‘could do better’, as my school reports used to say, ‘and be more regular’ as Matron used to add). So here’s a whistle stop tour of what the Vestry has been up to…
I’d thought about doing this chronologically: “In March we did this, this and this, in April, we did that, that and that”, but we would have been here all day. So, first, a brief reminder of how the Vestry works.
It’s not, as I’ve often said, a committee that just deals with drains. We are, in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s current description, an elected eldership of spiritual leaders of the congregation. So everything that we are, and everything that we do, as Vestry members is, so far as we can, with God’s help, make it discussed, processed and decided upon with careful spiritual discernment.
This has been described as ‘trying to notice what God is doing, and joining in.’ We rarely vote on things. Rather, we discuss, pray, consult with others and discuss again, by which time we have almost always reached a consensus. This takes longer, but is recognised in more places than this as a sound decision-making process; better than the “all in favour…all against” method, though sometimes we use that method, too. As you’ll see there was quite a lot of stuff going on and that there was relatively little about drains. Items tend to come up several times for consideration and discernment before they are finally decided on.
So, in no particular order…
There was a lot of discussion, consultation, including the SGM in March, and planning to do with reordering within the church. The major noticeable feature of that, was the decision (and here’s an occasion we did vote), made at the SGM in March, to apply for permission to replace the front five rows of pews with chairs and to experiment with the use of a Nave altar, including bringing the choir more into the body of the Kirk. Although that was an occasion when we did vote, that was partly because of the numbers involved and because it’s a requirement of the Diocese before we can apply for permission to do this. Various people said that the SGM was very long. As the minute-taker I was well aware of that, but we were also exercising an important principle, taught us by John Bell of the Iona Community, of the importance of allowing everyone to have their say. In the end, the vote on those two major things (chairs and Nave altar) was 60 favourable; seven unfavourable; five abstentions, from a constituency of 72.
The Magazine has been reviewed and celebrated. We talked about the following aspects:
Striking a balance between inward and outward-facing material (in other words, between things that would be of interest only to ourselves, and those with a wider appeal) and that the weekly Service Sheet has evolved to fill some of the gaps in dealing with more immediate news
Noting that it makes us look ‘like a credible outfit’
That perhaps not many people know about how to contribute voluntarily to the cost of the magazine which is deliberately provided free of charge. While the
coffee fund is well supported, maybe people are less aware of the opportunity that exists to contribute to the cost of the magazine via donations in the jars at the time of distribution or annual donations in an envelope.
External Communications: There is a growing need to communicate to the rest of Dumfries and beyond the complex organisation that is St John’s. We’re not ‘the English church’, the ‘County’ church, or some people who dress up and process about on a Sunday – but that’s still what a lot of people think. So we need to get ourselves noticed. That includes the use of social media. Lots of us, including me, don’t really ‘do’ that. But we need to beware of being like the Edwardian gentleman who wouldn’t have a telephone apparatus in his house for fear that it would enable other people’s servants to know what he was having for dinner. Anyone here have no phone at all? Are you having trouble with other people’s servants?
We looked at legacies, will planning, etc. We have been blessed a lot, in the past, by legacies left to St John’s, but we need to encourage those who are still with us (that’s you and me) to address it, too. Besides, irrespective of St John’s, we owe it to those who are close to us to have this in order. I’ve been involved in dealing with the estates of two close family members in the past few years and, trust me, at what can be a difficult time for everyone, it helps to have clear and up-to-date instructions. It inspired me to get my own will updated and to tidy up the other arrangements. It’s easy to ‘be inspired’, but I have, actually, now done this.
We considered the charities we support, including Let the Children Live, First Base, Bhopal and so on. It’s quite a complex picture that has built up over the years and we now have a Vestry member, in the person of Deirdre Holding, whose function is to have an overview of all of these; to make sure that money raised for particular causes is properly accounted for and timeously passed on to the recipients; also keep under review whom we support and whether there should be additions or substitutions. That includes accounting for the things we provide in kind, such as, for some things, free use of the hall or church building. Did you know that an additional sum, which matches at least 10% a year of the income St John’s itself receives, is raised for others?
We completed and published our second year Mission Action Plan (MAP 2), which, as you know, is, effectively, the church’s business plan. It’s a somewhat wordy document, so there’s also a digest leaflet, which sets out the main points. We had a so called MAP Facilitator; effectively a critical friend, to guide us through the process of putting the Mission Action Plan together. For several years, that was Anne Tomlinson, but she is no longer available, being now Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute (the new name for our Theological College which is the beneficiary of this year’s Bishop’s Lent Appeal). The Dean has been consulting about a new Facilitator for us and that should be announced shortly.
A big change at St John’s over the last year or so has been the departure of Steve Butler, our Associate Minister. In order, partly, to deal with the kinds of things Steve used to do, and to address some others, the Vestry decided that, rather than try to appoint one more or less full-time person, we would appoint a number of people to carry out various tasks on a part-time basis. One such is the job that I’m doing, one day a week, as Pastoral Administrator, doing, well, various administrative things and also, for example, beginning to meet with the large number of groups of volunteers, like the Holy Dusters, the people who deal with Soup lunches and the like, partly to express the appreciation of the rest of us for what they do, and also to see if there’s anything that can be done to make things a bit easier for them. And there’s Simon Lidwell, who is doing various forms of outreach, including some school chaplaincy; Peter Johnson, who is overseeing and carrying out various janitorial and fabric maintenance tasks; Mike Tyas, has just begun a short-term project to develop our external communications in the local press and social media (getting us noticed), and so on. Robin has talked several times about the concept of stipend and stipendiary roles, so I’m not going into that again here, but, if you want to know more, ask Robin, or me, or any Vestry member. St John’s is a big truck, and it takes a lot of people, both volunteers and stipendiary, to keep it on the road.
And we also lost our wonderful Treasurer (and he was much more than ‘just’ a Treasurer), Lea Wilson. It has taken a group of eight people to replace what he did as Treasurer:
Carol Finlay as day-to-day Finance Officer;
Deirdre Holding to look after our Charitable Giving,
William Clark-Maxwell as Chairman of the Finance Committee,
Paul Tofield looking after our complicated set of energy contracts,
Ian Livingstone acting as Consultant and advising Carol on the software we use
Muriel Jefferson, dealing with stipends and PAYE
We’re also seeking someone to oversee insurance matters
So we’re not ‘without a Treasurer’ as someone suggested to me the other day, any more than we’re ‘without an organist’, now we no longer have Tom Carrick; you’ll remember Ecclesiastes, ‘a rope made of three cords is hard to break’; we’re working towards a model where nothing is dependent on any one single person.
Bells: You won’t have failed to notice that they’re in, and they work. The Vestry is monitoring the reaction (generally pretty favourable) of the community and the arrangements for recruiting, training and managing ringers, though the day-to-day management is looked after by Debbie Johnson. There will be a formal inauguration event in due course, once all the systems are in place.
We considered, in some detail, the Cascade process (the way the Scottish Episcopal Church is responding to the questions surrounding same sex marriage) in some detail; the experiences of those attending and how the process, though considered a masterclass in how institutions approach the question, had nonetheless been hard for many involved. It had nonetheless demonstrated the principle John Bell had emphasised to us: the importance of letting everyone have their say.
We looked at questions surrounding which versions of the Lord’s Prayer might be used, and when, and how. You’ll note that both versions are printed in the liturgy booklet currently in use; the celebrant picks one introduction, but that anyone is free to use the version they prefer, with sensitivity to those round about them.
We responded positively to Dumfries Civic Pride’s proposal to site benches round the War Memorial.
Jesus’ charge to ‘go and make disciples of all people’ is interpreted, at St John’s, in our aim to be a Church for Everyone; that encompasses hospitality and ecumenical welcome to those who come here, as well as service to the community at large. Rather than going out to the High Street and telling people they’re doooooomed, St John’s is increasingly becoming involved, as are other churches, and listened to, in the field of spiritual care within the Health Service and in the integration of Health & Social care and the addressing of issues of poverty, and the Vestry is keen to resource all of that, as best we can. It’s a job for all of us.
At the same time, we are conscious of the need to care for members of our own Congregation; both in terms of their spiritual growth (House Groups, Lent Groups and the like), socialisation (hence the popularity of the soup lunches, both on Fridays and Sundays) and we are looking at a project at the moment, to make ourselves and our buildings more Alzheimer’s and Dementia-friendly. We are also considering what arrangements we might make for newcomers, and how we might better manage the transition of our children to our teenagers and beyond.
We reviewed St John’s investment policy and made a few tweaks, on the advice of the Finance Committee, to tidy it up and ensure that it complies with St John’s ethos.
We spent time designing the Review of Giving letter, which goes out annually; deciding how much information we could get in without making it unreadable.
We kept an eye on the situation to do with the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (what used to be called Child Protection, though PVG has a wider scope). Rachael Thompson Smith has been looking after that for us for several years, but she is now handing over to Alicen Byers
And, lastly, we welcomed, over a period of three or four months, our Ministry Student, Jenny Holmquist, who did a lot of very valuable work in St John’s and its community and beyond. She also provided us with a great deal of valuable insight. Following Jenny’s return to Sweden, we’re hoping to welcome Kymm Byers both to undertake some of the roles Jenny undertook but also to be co-opted on the Vestry to fill a vacancy created by Lauren Johnson taking up the role of cleaner. Kymm has already, and very competently, taken over a number of the things Jenny used to do.
We’ll try and make these updates more regular, and shorter. Sorry if some of you are sitting there, thinking, ‘I knew all of that’; compared with a lot of the places I’ve worked, and the churches I’ve been part of, I think communication at St John’s is quite good; but there’s always room for improvement, and this is an effort to address that. In the meantime, I think that’s long enough, don’t you?
David Kerr, Vestry Secretary