Before entering Moore College, I worked for six years as a management consultant for the world’s largest management consulting organisation. Life was an endless series of meetings where time was very literally money. If you put six people in a meeting for two hours, you had just spent at least $3000.
At the same time I chaired the Council of Elders for a church during a long, painful period where it dismembered itself over theological differences. This was a time of meetings filled with conflict and passion. It was a time where some people wanted to railroad decisions and others were desperate to avoid making any decisions at all.
But God’s word encourages us to act wisely (Eph 5:15), make hard decisions (Eccl 11:4), take advice (Prov 13:10) and speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15, 29). We want our meetings to reflect the way we are called to live at all times as Christians.
The mistakes I made and lessons I learned from experience form the basis of what follows. I hope you gain something from my pain!
The problem and some solutions
There is no getting around the fact that parish ministry involves various meetings of the ‘business’ variety. There are leadership meetings, staff meetings, the house party committee meeting, the evangelism committee meeting, the women’s ministry committee meeting…
There is also no getting around the fact that all these meetings seem to somehow consume huge amounts of time that could perhaps be spent more productively (like preparing talks, sharing the gospel with non-Christians, having dinner with the family, going to the beach). Sometimes our meetings just don’t seem to repay all the time we put into them.
We talk round and round in circles about things that are not that important.
We spend ages failing to make decisions.
We make decisions, and then nothing actually happens… or we spend the first 20 minutes of the next meeting trying to agree what it was that we had agreed on last time.
Some meetings never ever get to the important stuff.
Some meetings just seem to go on, and on, and on...
Sometimes they get ugly as disagreement escalates. Sometimes they start ugly and go down hill from there.
Many of these problems can be somewhat mitigated if we are willing to go back and dust off the two oldest, daggiest, most boring tools that we have available to us:
- an agenda
- a set of minutes.
Used poorly, these are a bureaucratic waste of time. Used properly, they are gold for the pastor or leader who wants to make their meetings effective.
- Use this to make sure everyone (including yourself) is clear on exactly what the objectives of the meeting are, and therefore what discussions are appropriate and which belong in other forums.
- Think about the order in advance, dealing with the things that are most important first.
- Use the right verbs. I actually think this is our secret weapon in making a meeting effective. You pick the right verb to make it crystal clear what the outcome of the agenda item is (a decision, a list, a plan, a document, etc.) so that you can drive to an end point:
- Agree, decide, determine, prioritise, plan—these are good verbsbecause you know what you need to complete this item (e.g. an agreement, a list of priorities, a set of dates and tasks etc.).
- Discuss, consider, examine, review—these are death because you can do each of them forever in ever expanding circles with no clear end point.
- Consider the approach needed to complete each of these agenda items. It is helpful to have at least thought in advance how to make this decision, how to go about ranking these priorities, etc.
- Time-check your agenda (can we realistically do all of these things in the time available?), and time-box those items that have the potential to lead to extended discussion. This means allocating a certain proportion of the meeting to that item and monitoring the time during the meeting
- Circulate the agenda in advance and get agreement from key stakeholders. This increases the chance that people have had a chance to think about the objectives of the meeting and avoids last minute changes, which can be a hassle.
Minutes make sure that effective meetings are followed up by effective actions.
- Make sure that someone else takes them, because this is simpler and saves time. Make sure that the other person is competent and reliable.
- Include the date and attendees (no-one can never remember later).
- Focus on outcomes and action items. You generally don’t need to document discussions, only what you agreed, including what you each agreed to do for follow-up. Every ‘to do’ item raised in the meeting should be assigned to someone for action with a completion date. This should happen before the meeting ends, so that everyone has committed to their action items and completion dates. Look below for a sample of minutes used for a staff meeting.
- Review them shortly after the meeting, and circulate to all team members. Use them as the basis for following-up to see if people are working through their action items.
- For 2016, review decision not to include an ad for Christmas meetings in the Gazette's 'Christmas Church Services' feature.
- We need to discuss the viability of a 2016 AFES Mission, given the current planned staffing.
- We need to confirm Joe Bloke's role in the 'split' mission.
- Added to calendar: The Smiths are speaking at churches on Jan 15 (we think?).
- Conduct CE Review - VB - 14/12
- Arrange Julia's farewell at services - Pastors - 18/12
- Write 150 words on 'Five books that have impacted my Christian life' - Pastors - 30/12
- Write 'church profiles' - Pastors - 30/12
In part two we'll cover some good facilitation techniques.
Photo credit: Bernie Anderson