Monday, May 24, 2010

Effective Congregational Meetings

"We (in the church) tolerate bad behavior in the name of Jesus."
--Church consultant, Peter Steinke (author of numerous books on congregational systems)

(Full) congregational meetings often digress into forums for bad behavior precisely because leaders fail to set conduct guidelines. The failure is rooted in reasoning that Christians should be able to get together and conduct productive meetings because Christians are naturally good people with good intentions. Congregational meetings fall to the least common denominator quickly. An ill-prepared grand stander or an angry member can quickly derail meeting goals and objectives. Leaders and members generally cower at confrontation or respond with heightened emotion, like throwing gasoline on a fire. The destructive speech or action ends up being tolerated because Christians should be kind and include others perspectives (so the reasoning goes).

Faithful process does not exclude people from participation. Faithful process gives people equal opportunity to speak, sharing perspectives and ideas. However, a meeting environment altered by rancor excludes diverse perspectives, ideas and opinions. A rancorous meeting environment communicates to the congregation that the meeting is not a safe environment to speak publicly. For some people, the fear of public speaking is worse than death. What can a congregation do to conduct good and faithful congregation-wide meetings?

One implicit concern of congregations and their meetings is that conduct guidelines can somehow minimize the "family" atmosphere of a congregation (I am concerned about the "family" identity for congregations, but that is for another post). On the other end of the "family" atmosphere continuum for meetings is that congregations distance themselves from a bureaucratic ethos. Conduct guidelines are appropriate for Synod/Presbytery/judicatory meetings, but not for congregational meetings. Guidelines for congregational meetings show a higher degree of respect for members and participants because guidelines communicate that each person's contribution and time is valued, and that their contribution can be shared in a place that will not bring public ridicule or intimidation. Another concern is that intelligent people should be able to conduct a civil and productive congregational meeting without conduct guidelines. Regardless of the concern, relationships without expectations and boundaries are moving down a destructive path.

After working with Peter Steinke's "Bridgebuilder" process for severely conflicted and stuck congregations, I found that the guidelines Steinke offers for the public grievance portion of the process (aka "listening post"), can also be effective for congregational meetings. The key point to conduct guidelines is that the congregation agrees to the guidelines. Here is a list of common guidelines adapted from Steinke's work with brief explanations:

1. The meeting will last _______ minutes (choose an appropriate and realistic time frame. Don't go over 90 minutes).
Hold those leading the meeting accountable to preparation for the meeting. Respect the time of people in your congregation. Time is a valuable resource. Respect goes a long way.
2. By 2/3 vote of those present at the meeting, the meeting can be extended one time for 30 minutes.
Empower the congregation through choice.
3. Each member present at the meeting may speak for 2 minutes. If everyone speaks who wishes to speak in the original time boundaries, a person may speak for one additional two-minute period.
This guideline makes meeting leaders accountable for providing a meeting agenda and information about topics with adequate time for members to prepare their research and thoughts. Thus participants are also accountable to prepare their statements because they have a limited time to speak.
4. Members are encouraged to use "I" statements when speaking (for example "I think," "I feel," "I notice"). 
This kind of statement contrasts with the nebulous "they" or "a group of us think." This guideline helps speakers clarify their thoughts and provides a path for direct communication.
5. No verbal attacking, blaming or abusing will be tolerated.
6. Members will be asked to refrain from applause, cheers, boos or similar expressions.
#5 and #6 are other measures offer participants a safe space to publicly communicate.
7. Other ground rules may be incorporated by the members at the discretion of the chair of the meeting.

In higher levels of congregational conflict, a facilitator from outside the congregation can be helpful. If a pastor or congregational president is perceived as taking a particular side dealing with an issue, a professional may be hired or volunteer to facilitate the meeting. Neighboring pastors or congregational leaders can exchange facilitating duties in each respective congregation. In contentious situations, objectivity and attention to good process allows the congregation to come to a clearer, more representative decision when a representative decision is called for.

Congregational meetings are often seen as a necessary evil to move a congregation forward. Boundaries and guidelines for meetings help each member to clarify their relationship and mission while empowering its members to contribute to the creative process. Leaders need to remember that the anxiety of a congregational meeting stirs a desire to defend positions, but the meeting is an opportunity for leaders to learn about the congregation. Conduct guidelines provide the space for a greater cross section of the congregation to present their ideas using the mind that God gave each of us.

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