Becoming Vital Teams

“Father Knows Best,” the title of a popular 1950s television series, is an apt description of the way many Episcopal congregations viewed their clergy and life together in the last century. Despite changes brought about by the ordination of women and emerging respect for the role of the laity, the clergy were still expected to “know best.” It was a heavy burden for them and missed the gifts of the laity and the responsibility we all share for the life of the church.

Enter the 21st century, when hierarchies are out and our churches face changing economics and decreasing membership. It is time for a new paradigm, and ECF’s Vital Teams Pilot, now in its third year, is out to change leadership formation in The Episcopal Church. “I believe that we are being called to reimagine the type of leadership that is needed for today’s Church," said ECF President Donald Romanik at the launch of this pilot project. "As one of the only lay-led, independent institutions in the Episcopal Church, ECF has a unique voice and role to play in promoting strong lay and clergy leadership teams."

Over the past two and a half years, Vital Teams leaders Miguel Escobar, Kate Adams, and the Rev. Ronald Byrd have listened to the church, established partnerships and designed training curriculum and tools, and put the word out that clergy and lay leaders, working together, can help congregations grow in faith and mission.

Advocacy and Partnership: First bring folks together
“We started with a strategic contact plan,” says Ronald Byrd, “identifying individuals across the church that we thought would be interested in the work we were doing and able to provide feedback and support to us.” That list included diocesan executive officers, canons to the ordinary, congregational development officers, bishops, deputies to General Convention, and leaders of major seminaries.

In what Byrd calls “a trip on planes, trains and automobiles,” Vital Teams leaders went on a listening tour to dioceses in the Northeast and talked with folks across the country in phone and video interviews. The goal was to build relationships with the people involved in leadership formation and to make the case for prioritizing the skills clergy and lay leaders need to work collaboratively.

Concurrently, the Vital Teams concept and plans were communicated in articles and webinars published in ECF’s Vital Practices and Vestry Papers.

A milestone in this advocacy and partnership component was the first Vital Teams Leadership Colloquium in May of 2015 for church leaders responsible for educating seminarians and lay leaders. The goal of the gathering was to introduce the Vital Teams concept and form partnerships with seminaries and alternative learning institutions. A second gathering this month, will expand on what was begun in 2015, with representatives from General Theological Seminary, Bloy House, Virginia Theological Seminary, Kemper School for Ministry, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Bexley Seabury, the Dioceses of Colorado and Minnesota, and ChurchNext attending.

Vital Teams leaders were surprised at how many participants were meeting for the first time. “I believe this is telling,” says Miguel Escobar, “that here we are in a leadership crisis, and many of us with leadership development in our job description have not actually been speaking to one another.” Building relationships that enable those responsible for leadership formation to share common challenges and opportunities has been a gift and a sign that the Vital Teams idea is gaining momentum.

Leadership Team Training and Tools: Build, test and build again
Vital Teams’ first curriculum dealt with things like strategic thinking, leading change, and developing a more outward focus. But when it was tested with vestries at churches in the Dioceses of Alabama and Michigan, the feedback from participants and presenters was clear. It wasn’t basic enough.

Vital Teams leaders went back to the drawing board, reviewing everything they’d learned from their listening tour, the first workshops, and their advocacy and partnership efforts. They created a new curriculum—Vital Teams 101—that addresses building strong relationships and focuses on clear processes and on results.

[Want to learn more about whether a Vital Teams training is right for your leadership team? Contact the Rev. Ronald Byrd at rbyrd@episcopalfoundation.org.]

“The need for working at this very basic level is amazing,” says Byrd, who has been presenting, promoting, and introducing Vital Teams 101 to vestries, leadership conferences, and gatherings of diocesan officers. “For me, the biggest surprise is to see the laity come alive and really get excited about topics in our curriculum.”

Episcopal Peace Fellowship board members in an April 2016 training.

To meet the goal to make Vital Teams training available to all Episcopal congregations, regardless of size or budget, Vital Teams is sharing costs with congregations and dioceses, as well as testing a Vital Teams Academy this fall that will prepare congregational development specialists to offer the training back in their dioceses. In addition, several ECF consultants are being trained to lead the 101 workshop, increasing ECF’s internal capacity to respond to requests.

Byrd’s calendar is filling up as vestries and other groups with strategic oversight for vision and mission, request Vital Teams 101 training. “That’s why I’m so proud our partnerships and advocacy efforts,” he says. “The word is out. This notion of collaborative leadership is catching fire.”

The Vital Teams Interview Tool is already available online to help search committees identify clergy leaders with strong team leadership skills. Discussions with diocesan transition ministry officers and testing in congregations in the Diocese of Michigan are underway to provide additional feedback on this first tool.

Vital Teams will complete the pilot phase in the months ahead, becoming a full-fledged ECF program in 2017. Three years can seem a long time to bring an idea to fruition. Until that is, you consider the time given to listening and spreading the word, building partnerships, creating, testing and revising workshops and tools, to making sure the effort is effective and sustainable.

It is time well spent, in “the patient and persistent work of changing how we form and identify leaders in the Episcopal Church.”1
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1 “Why Vital Teams,” by Miguel Escobar, Managing Program Director for Leadership Resources and Communications and Marketing at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF). Vestry Papers, March 2014.