One great equalizer of humans, says J. Oswald Sanders, is time: “Others may surpass our abilities, influence, or money, but no one has more time.” (p. 94, Spiritual Leadership, Moody Press, 1994) We all of the same 21.6 million seconds per year. Some think that any of those seconds spent in meetings is a waste of time. This does not need to be so. Stewardship of our God-given resources demands that leaders strive to make meetings efficient.
When you waste 15 minutes of your own time, that’s 15 minutes; when you waste 15 minutes of meeting time, that’s 15 minutes times how many people were in the meeting. What if people left meetings saying, “Man, that was a great use of time?” What if meetings could become a high-efficiency investment of time that made ministry more fruitful and joyful? I think this goal is reasonable and attainable, but it only becomes reality with effective leadership.
The majority of meeting advice in print comes from a business perspective. Congregational ministry is not a business. The people in your congregation are not team members to evaluate and replace. The people “on the bus” (© Jim Collins) are your congregation. This is the peculiar nature of congregational ministry.
Every congregation is different from every other congregation, and changes yet again when any member joins or leaves. That said, there is business to conduct in the congregation. If your congregation does not run that business well, that business will run your congregation poorly. Excellence is a stewardship principle, not a business principle.
Pastors and meeting leadership
The pastor does not have to be the expert on efficient meetings, but he should be aware of his level of understanding. A pastor who understands efficient meetings can coach lay people responsible for leading a particular meeting. A pastor who knows that he doesn’t understand efficient meetings can invest in a congregational member who does, enlisting their assistance.
Wise servant-leadership will resist the urge to take control or insist on rapid change by others. Most polities (wisely) do not allow the pastor to serve as chair of the congregation or council, but many will serve as a chief elder or president of the deacons’ board. For this reason, every pastor must be capable of leading a small, regular meeting. This is his opportunity to model efficient meetings.
Tips for effective meetings
- Pray for, before, and at your meeting. I’m assuming a Christian audience on this one. Rely on Christ to accomplish His work and nurture His people. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1, ESV)
- Only have a meeting if you need one. If your meeting doesn’t move anything along, or only preserves the status quo, you probably didn’t need a meeting. Information can be distributed via email. If people walk away from a meeting thinking it was a waste of time they are unlikely to return.
- Schedule regular meetings. If the group is project-based there is an end date, but most teams or standing committees have ongoing commitments. Never leave a meeting without scheduling the next one, at least tentatively. If you only meet when there is a problem, then all of your meetings will be tense.
- Spend time with team members outside of the board room. If you only see each other in a meeting, tension is more likely to ensue.
- Start- and end- on time. Starting late punishes the punctual.
- Have a chair. The job of the chair is to facilitate, not to dominate, and to include the full body.
- Have an agenda with time limits. You don’t have to be firm, but participants should see if an item is anticipated to take 3 minutes or 15 minutes.
- Don’t have a chair. That is to say, if the meeting is brief, make it a stand up. Participants settling in for the long haul around a candy dish turns 5 minutes into 15 and 15 minutes into 45.
- Front-load the agenda with items that will require significant thought. Fresh minds think best, and easy items will be talked to death if people are fresh.
- Minutes must be taken. If it’s not in the minutes, then it didn’t happen. Minutes should be distributed as soon as possible after the meeting so participants can check for accuracy. Corrected minutes should be adopted as a regular order of business at the next meeting, but they do not need to be read if they have been previously checked.
- Minutes should not look like the agenda. If the minutes look like the agenda, then you probably didn’t need the meeting, or perhaps you came to conclusions on your own without participation.
- Assign other duties. A chair taking minutes is usually a bad idea. Vice-chairs tend to do nothing but make jokes about inquiring as to the health of the chair. Task them with harvesting action items and “who needs to know about this decision.”
- Follow your by-laws or foundational documents. If you serve in a legal corporation this isn’t optional; failure to do so is illegal, and removes legal protections from your service as a board member.
If you are interested in more, check out a 52-minute video from our January term in 2017. Dean Jennissen, one-time member at Good Shepherd Free Lutheran in Cokato and now Superintendent of the Chisago Lakes (MN) School District. Dean has a lot of meetings in his life, and he served well in the congregational setting, too. It might be worth a watch with your church council or non-profit board. Click here to see the video.
In Christ’s Service,
Pastor Wade Mobley
President, Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary