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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Verger Checklist Manifesto

Good checklists can really help vergers and The Checklist Manifesto puts it all into perspective

By David Deutsch, Volunteer Verger at Washington National Cathedral, [email protected]

As I read Dr. Atul Gawande’s short but fascinating book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, (2009, Henry Holt and Company, New York) I knew right away why VGEC President Scott Smith asked me to write a review. This book could be extremely helpful to many vergers.

Dr. Gawande focuses on the medical profession to explain the theory behind the checklist, its application, its creation, and its difficulties in finding acceptance. But his clear intention is to raise the possibility that many people in many professions could benefit from using a checklist.

This book is an easy read and I highly recommend that all vergers, especially head vergers, read it. While I realize many of you might already be using a checklist for services, this book is particularly useful in that it explains the difference between a good checklist and a bad one. Below are a few factoids from the book.

The checklist came into use after a prototype bomber, Boeing’s Model 299, crashed during takeoff at a critical competition in front of U.S. Army Air Corps brass in 1935. The crash killed the highly experienced test pilot and wrecked not only the plane but Boeing’s chances for getting a contract. The problem: the pilot, Major Ployer P. Hill, forgot to release a new locking mechanism for the rudder and elevator controls. The checklist was born. Boeing eventually got the contract back from Douglas and built the Model 299 which became the B-17, one of the most famous planes in aviation history.

It is important to note that a checklist is not a detailed customary explaining each step of a project. A checklist sets forth the minimum steps possible in a process and makes them explicit. Dr. Gawande writes of the years of designing a checklist to be used in surgical operations around the world. The finished product had only14 steps. Put forth by the World Health Organization, it has saved many lives in both prosperous and third-world operating rooms. Checklists are not “comprehensive how-to guides... they provide protection against failures. They remind us of the minimum steps and make them explicit.”

In order to find out what makes a good checklist, Dr. Gawande visits Daniel Boorman at Boeing, a veteran pilot who has spent two decades designing checklists:
There are good checklists and bad. Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical…They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on. Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise... They do not try to spell out everything... They provide reminders of the most critical steps... Good checklists are, above all, practical.
To summarize the book, good checklists are
  • Concise
  • Precise
  • Practical
  • Protection against forgetting procedures that are done over and over
  • A guard against the fallibility of human memory
  • A prevention against accidentally skipping steps
  • Buttress skills
  • Must be constantly reviewed and refined lest they become “ossified mandates.”
  • Allow room for judgment—judgment enhanced by procedure

Can a checklist be useful to the verger? In order to think more deeply about the use of checklists, I very much recommend that we vergers read The Checklist Manifesto. It may enhance smoother running of the liturgy during our services which, as we know, can have many moving parts.

BTW: If you use a checklist at your services, how is it working for you? Or, if you tried using one and discarded the idea, why?


I have never forgotten the installation of a new rector who I knew and very much liked. It promised to be a wonderful service which included a baptism. Installations are complicated—a one-off service, if you will—but all was humming along splendidly. Then, as the baptism began, it was discovered that no one filled the ewer with water.

Did you know that we have a huge number of shared documents in the Vergers Document Library online? See vergers.org/resources/library.

We have a whole section of Verger Checklists in the library that you might explore.

You can also submit your own checklists to Eileen Brightwell Hicks the volunteer Document Library Manager at [email protected] for possible inclusion in the library!

The 2017 VGEC Annual Conference deadline to register is Monday, October 2, 2017. We cannot accept on-site registrations! Registration is $275.00 per person.

Abstract: Do you use a checklist for regular Sunday services? Here's a book that can help you start utilizing checklists or refine the ones that you currently use. David Deutsch reviews and recommends that we vergers read The Checklist Manifesto.

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