By Kirk Petersen
When a newcomer to the Episcopal world asks, “What’s a vestry?” the reply is often along the lines of, “that’s like the board of directors of the church.”
It’s a good enough answer for most purposes, but there are key differences. One difference is that generally a company’s board of directors can fire the boss. But a vestry can’t fire a rector.
Not that they don’t try sometimes. One of the most recent such attempts has been resolved in Connecticut, where the diocese has reached a settlement in a conflict that has continued for nearly 15 years.
The Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT, otherwise known as the Diocese of Connecticut) announced January 6 the settlement in December of three legal cases involving the former wardens and vestry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Darien.
The diocese said the former wardens and vestry had filed five lawsuits against the diocese since 2005. The three cases settled in December were touched off in 2017 when the vestry attempted to fire the Rev. Canon George I. Kovoor, who had been named rector a year earlier.
Bishop Diocesan Ian T. Douglas backed Kovoor, and the church members sued to have their rector removed. But “a vestry cannot in itself fire a rector,” Douglas told The Darien Times in 2018, when the lawsuit was filed. He explained that a rector’s contract is “a three-way agreement between the priest, the vestry and the wider diocese.”
When members of the church refused to participate in reconciliation efforts as required by church canons, the annual convention reclassified St. Paul’s from a parish to a worshipping community, which had the effect of dissolving the vestry and putting the church under the direct control of the bishop.
The diocese also sued three former vestry members and wardens alleged to have sold church real estate in violation of the canons. “This suit sought to secure the proceeds of the sale of the real estate to benefit St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and prevent the trustees from using the monies for other purposes, including to pay lawyers pursuing lawsuits against ECCT,” the diocese said.
Under the agreement announced January 6, the parties have withdrawn all pending matters, including appeals, and have agreed not to sue each other in the future. The church recovered control over the funds held in trust from the real estate sale.
“All accusations against the Rev. Canon George I. Kovoor have been withdrawn and his status as a priest in good standing in The Episcopal Church is unchallenged. The former wardens and vestry members have chosen to move forward as a separate Christian community, now referred to as New St. Paul’s Church,” the diocese said in the announcement.
Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, where the bishop appoints priests, Episcopal vestries typically interview multiple candidates and choose a rector. This sometimes leaves vestries thinking they can fire as well as hire.
But the bishop is involved in the hiring process as well. Churches interview candidates from a pool selected by the diocese, and the bishop has veto power over a decision.
Technically speaking, a bishop can’t directly fire a rector, either. But the bishop can unilaterally and without prior notice place the rector on administrative leave or impose specific restrictions of ministry. This initiates a hearing and appeal process under Title IV of the Canons of the Church, which can last for years.