We’re All In This Together

“We consider Vital Practices (www.ecfvp.org) the front door to ECF,” says Charis Bhagianathan, Editor of the broad-based, online resource that grew out of a monthly print publication. It’s a meaningful image. Vital Practices is indeed an entrance to a place where readers meet folks from all over, people like themselves, who care deeply for their congregations and the life and work of the Church in the world. Those readers are wardens and vestry members, church treasurers, parish communicators and administrators, clergy and lay leaders from congregations and dioceses and church organizations of all shapes and sizes, sharing their expertise and experience, their hope and their belief that in Christ all things are made new.

Why people follow Vital Practices

Vestry Papers articles by experts and peers… a digest of previously published articles on a theme…weekly blogs on faith and leadership…webinars for online learning…articles in Spanish...tools for stewardship, communications and more…opportunities to share stories and examples – all are published monthly on Vital Practices. “We are communicating with our audience and sharing resources all month long,” says Charis.

That’s a lot of material. We know that people in and out of the church are busy. So why do they take the time to read Vital Practices?

Jim Murphy, ECF’s Managing Director for Endowment Management, Planned Giving and Donor Solutions, works with dioceses and congregations around the country. At workshops, he always asks those who use Vital Practices to raise their hands. He sees a lot of hands go up regularly and always picks someone to ask what he or she thinks of the site. He finds that these responses tend to focus on how great and useful ecfvp.org is, how the speakers love the articles and their real life examples. And consistently, they encourage those around them to sign up.

Judy Godfrey is a vestry member at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas, and a newcomer to Vital Practices. She first learned about the site’s articles, webinars and tools in September at a Congregational Leadership Initiative (CLI) conference held at Camp Allen. “I really like the way they focus on one specific topic,” she says. “It’s so user friendly. The articles are short and accessible, and I can get something from every one of them. It’s my daily go-to, like the Daily Word.”

Hope Eakins, Priest Associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut, writes, “One of the features of Vital Practices that functions well in the parish setting is the set of excellent indices, allowing interested folks to scan various commentaries on topics that interest them.” She appreciates the way articles are positioned “as sparks to dialogue rather than the complete and definitive authority.”

Suzi Robertson, priest in charge at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Granbury, Texas, credits Vital Practices resources for yearly increases in the number of people pledging and the total amount pledged. “It has been our guide for the development of a stewardship program, which was non-existent five years ago.”

Bill Stanford, rector of St. Christopher’s in Fort Worth, Texas, shares pertinent Vestry Papers with vestry members each month. “It helps me as an administrator to be able to share current best practices and have them as a background to what we do."

Diocesan administrators Anne Vickers, Canon for Finance and Administration, and Martha Goodwill, Director of Congregation Support, in Southwest Florida are enthusiastic about sharing ECF’s print and online resources with church leaders and routinely encourage new vestry members to subscribe to Vital Practices. “In the past," says Anne, “people saw church resources as more like medicine you were supposed to take, whereas now, the ECF stuff is very engaging, interesting and not too long. People want to read it!”

From print to the web

When Donald Romanik arrived at ECF as president in 2005, Vestry Papers was an award-winning, subscription-based, print publication for church leaders, edited by Lindsey Harding Freeman and published monthly. “E-publications were just coming out,” he recalls, “and Rebecca McDonald, then marketing director, wanted ECF to get into online publishing.”

He pulled a team together and remembers telling them, “I know nothing about e-publications, but is there any way we could take Vestry Papers and make it into one? Come back to me with an idea, a plan and a budget.”

“They came back with Vital Practices,” he says. “It would be a resource for lay leaders and congregations of all shapes and sizes.”

The new online publication launched in 2010 and quickly developed a following and began garnering awards. “From there, it just grew and kept on growing,” says Donald. He likes to compare it to the Guttenberg Bible, making information and materials accessible and available to any and all.

“We bring on people who we believe have things to say, and they’re not hampered by an elaborate approval structure,” he says. “Vital Practices is one of those tools that’s available for anybody, even if they may not be able to retain our services. It can be used by other denominations, too. We’re very proud of it.”

How it all comes together

Vestry Papers articles and blogs, webinars and tools are not the product of just one person’s vision. “The Leadership Resources team at ECF is involved,” says Charis. “We meet every two weeks to go through ideas – and because it’s seven people, there are many ideas about stories and people to write them. Sometimes we do a callout on social media, too, to get information on a topic.”

Each year the team gathers for an in-person meeting to discuss themes for the coming year, equipped with the results of a reader survey designed to identify people’s interests and needs. “We brainstorm all day,” says Charis, “and decide on the themes for each month and what the angle will be.”

Vital Practices from a writer’s perspective

Richelle Thompson, Managing Editor for Forward Movement and previously Communications Director for the Diocese of Southern Ohio, has been a Vital Practices blogger since 2010. “I really have always been able to write from my experience and from what I see as a diocesan communicator, a parishioner and clergy spouse, and now in church publishing,” she says.

“There is a lot there that is practical, but it is also a place where we can talk about how we treat each other and how we can take our faith into the world and how sometimes it’s hard to do that. When I’m reading Vital Practices articles, I appreciate the frankness, the encouragement and honesty. It offers a can-do and empowerment model for the church.”

Still growing and changing

In 2017, Vital Practices got a new look and new functionality. Readers now customize for their interests. They save and easily access articles and resources they find particularly useful. The En Español section provides easy access and an index for articles in Spanish. It’s easy to share articles through Twitter, Facebook and email. In the Tools section, readers are invited to add new tools that they’ve found useful in their ministries.

This year’s focus on millennials in May and June Vestry Papers articles, a new approach, grew out of the VP team’s annual brainstorming meeting. “There was a lot of desire to talk about millennials in the church,” Charis recalls, “but the question was, how do we bring something that’s honest and real to that topic?”

The idea they came up with was to just highlight millennials – their experiences and their ideas, using only millennial writers. “We put the topic out on social media and saw a huge jump in readership for those months,” says Charis. “And we got to know some new writers.”

“In all our surveys, it’s always Vital Practices that comes up on top. It’s the thing that people love and have come to know and trust. We never want to charge for it, but want to keep it as a free resource.”

In essence, Vital Practices is about community, from initial planning to gathering and sharing its stories. It’s a little like the song by Avery and Marsh that we sometimes teach our children – I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world. Yes, we’re the church together.

Click here to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices for articles, tools, and resources by and for congregational leaders. With this subscription, you'll receive 12 issues of Vestry Papers and a monthly digest of resources along with the option to receive regular blog posts, all for free.

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in it's 23rd year and published by Forward Movement.