Meetings are like baking.

You need to know what you’re cooking (i.e., the reason why you’re meeting). You need a recipe that specifies the required ingredients (the agenda). You need to have all the makings and tools at hand (gathering the information, people, and resources necessary to make good decisions and implement actions). You need to stay at it until you’ve created a tasty treat (or—in the case of meetings—keep working until you’ve reached a conclusion to your discussion that justifies the time and energy invested).

And you need some skills.

Baking is more than ingredients and ovens; there is technique as well—you have to know how to let dough rise and rest, how to use a rolling pin, how to beat egg whites, how to clarify butter. In the same way, meetings are more than agendas and conference tables. There are skills required to cook a successful meeting, procedures to follow, habits to develop. Just as bakers learn “culinary disciplines” in order to produce pastries, elders must learn “meeting disciplines” in order to conduct effective meetings.

Other articles in this series address the importance of good leadership, clear vision, fervent prayer, thoughtful agendas, etc.—the ingredients that make for effective meetings. This article focuses on process—not what we talk about so much as the habits required for talking effectively.

Let’s begin with the Seven Sins that, though wickedly tempting, are the death of effective meetings.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Meetings:

1. Undervaluing meetings. Many elders don’t take meetings seriously enough. They skip meetings, arrive late, leave early, answer their cell phones, engage in side conversations, and otherwise fail to fully engage in the meeting process. An absent elder (whether absent physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually) changes the dynamics of the elders’ meeting, limits the decision-making abilities of the group, and undermines the integrity of the group process. While I’m firmly convinced that “The meetings are not the work” (there is vastly more to shepherding than meetings!), I do think that meetings are an important part of shepherding work. When elders don’t take meetings seriously, they cripple one of the most critical functions of church leadership.

2. Chasing rabbits. You’re marching along in orderly fashion, attacking the agenda, getting things done. Suddenly—there on the side of the road—a rabbit jumps up from a clump of grass. (Some “By the way” comment is made. A fellow elder brings up a difficult interaction from last Sunday. One of your compatriots has “just a quick question” about a ministry.) Immediately, everyone around you throws aside the agenda, abandons the intended path, and rushes off in hot pursuit of that “wascally wabbit.” By the time every bush has been beaten and every rabbit hole explored—and the exhausted troops finally gather again to resume their journey—the sun has set, the energy is drained, and the important matters you had planned to discussed must be postponed once more. Rabbits are such soft, cute creatures. But they kill more meetings than any other beast in the forest.

3. Over- and under-participation. Every group of elders has their strong, silent types … and their strong, talkative types. I’ve known entire meetings to go by with some elders uttering not a mumbling word … and other elders waxing eloquent and long on every subject raised. There are elders who won’t speak up even when they feel strongly about a matter … and elders who insist on having the first (or last) word on each topic discussed. Some technique for “leveling the playing field” must be employed in elders’ meetings or personalities and passions, temperaments and tendencies, will allow some elders to dominate and other elders to avoid the risk of sharing their views. The result is biased meetings that give the illusion of consensus, but lack the full participation—the communal wisdom—that shared leadership requires.

4. Group Think. All of us are prone to lazy and illogical thinking. But groups are especially vulnerable to this because such thinking tends to be modeled, reinforced, and legitimized by the group itself. It is difficult (for instance) for highly cohesive groups (like elderships) to hear critical, dissenting, and cautionary voices—we’d much prefer to avoid conflict and enhance group harmony. This ‘hunger for harmony’ is but one of a long list of thinking errors to which groups are particularly prone. As a group, elders can easily slip into some (or all) of these bad thinking habits:

  1. generalizing single data-points (“He doesn’t like this” becomes “Lots of people don’t like this”);
  2. either/or thinking (“Either he’s scripturally qualified or he’s not; and based on what I’ve seen …”);
  3. poisoning the well (“He’s a youth minister and you know how spiritually immature they are”)
  4. straw men arguments (“I don’t want a praise team. Anyone who needs a worship crutch like that has deeper spiritual problems”);
  5. begging the question (“We tried that 20 years ago. Didn’t work then, won’t work now”);
  6. slippery slope objections (“If we encourage clapping in services, we might as well move in the drum set”)

Poor thinking leads to poor decisions and failed policies. People end up getting hurt. Ministries lose traction. And the church never moves beyond the illogic of its leaders.

5. Not respecting time—Just because you meet with other elders in a room doesn’t mean you can bend time. Yet we often meet with the expectation that time is a flexible, stretchable thing. We don’t start on time. We have unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished in the course of one meeting, trying to cram too many matters into a single discussion. We waste precious time talking about minor matters and run out of time for discussing important questions. We extend the length of our meetings without regard to the impact of attention span, fatigue, and exasperation on effectiveness. Individual elders take up the available discussion time with rambling, think-as-you-talk comments that—in the end—muzzle other elders and limit discussion. Time marches on. And elderships that do not master time will be mastered by it.

6. So what? After all the words have been spilled and everyone has had their say and the dead horses have been thoroughly beaten, what is the result? Believe it or not, discussions in elders meetings do not take place for the purpose of airing opinions and unburdening minds. They are meant to lead somewhere: to reach some definitive decision, to take some specific action, to make some appreciable difference. Yet I’ve watched elders discuss and debate a topic, worry and wrangle some hapless subject, without ever reaching a “So what?” Either we talk a matter to the point of exhaustion (when we’re simply too weary to bring the talk to a conclusion) … or we are overwhelmed by the complexity of an issue and find ourselves suffering from the “paralysis of analysis”  … or we decide there is safety in ambiguity … or we realize we don’t have enough information … or we show a preference for procrastination over purposefulness … or a decision is made that no one “owns” or follows through on. There are dozens of reasons not to decide, not to conclude, not to act. And elders are likely to reach for any of them rather than invest a little more effort in order to make all the dialogue culminate in a point.

7. Not remembering—A great deal happens in the course of most elders meetings. A variety of topics are discussed, numerous issues are raised, a few decisions are nailed down, assignments are made, talking points are rehearsed. And, if elders are not very careful, very little of it is remembered—or remembered in the same way. Meetings are meaningless if there is no collective memory of what goes on in them. In part, this “amnesia” is a direct result of failing to take regular, detailed minutes—recording the events of a meeting on paper so that decisions and plans are captured for the memory-impaired. In part, though, “amnesia” is a result of a lack of accountability. Why bother remembering you said you would do this, visit with that person, make some call when no one else remembers that commitment and holds you responsible for it? The results of this memory loss are meetings that cover the same ground repeatedly, assignments that fall through the cracks, issues that never quite reach closure, and follow-up that doesn’t happen.

Good meeting habits:

If elders are to avoid these “seven deadly sins of meetings” (and I believe elders—especially—ought to avoid sin of every sort!), there are some good meeting habits they can develop. These habits require a level of intentionality, discipline, and commitment that will prove challenging to some groups. They will not develop easily or without pain. But with a little effort and leadership and humility, these habits will encourage more efficient, focused, and effective meetings.

I should warn you—prepare to be overwhelmed. I’ve listed twenty good-meeting-habits below. But I don’t expect you to implement them all tomorrow. In fact, more effective meetings are only one habit away. Pick a few. Concentrate on a handful. Start with one or two. Your meetings will be blessed as a result.

Habits that address sins of undervaluing meetings:

  1. Expect your fellow elders to fully engage in meetings: ask them to turn off their cell phones/iPads/pagers/cochlear-implant-communication-devices/SETA antennae, etc.; request that they respect meeting times by being present and punctual; invite them to give themselves fully to the discussions and deliberations at hand (no side discussions, preoccupation with other issues, inability to let go of a discussion topic and move on). A regular reminder of the importance of what God does through elders when they meet, of the kingdom matters at stake, will help elders remember why they are meeting.
  2. In our modern world, travel and scheduling are constant factors to be considered. You can bemoan that fact and try to do elder business with whoever is in town. Or you can find creative ways to make attendance possible even when fellow elders are traveling. Skype, GotoMeetings.com, FaceTime, conference calling, and other technological innovations make it possible for elders to be present even when they are absent. Making this technology available and encouraging its use underscores the value of having every elder at every meeting.
  3. Elders who miss too many meetings should be encouraged to resign. Meetings are an important part of an elder’s work. Elders too busy to attend meetings are too busy to serve effectively. Every elder is called on to field questions, defend decisions, and champion directions—whether or not they were part of the process that resulted in those decisions and processes. To speak for the elders requires being with the elders in their meetings. So set the bar for attendance, get everyone’s commitment to that standard, and then hold each other accountable to meet it. (BTW, when meetings are unavoidably missed, the absentee elder should be expected to read the minutes carefully and become fully briefed about what transpired.)

    Habits to address sins of distraction:

  4. Shoot rabbits. Develop the discipline of recognizing and labeling distractions, sidetracks, and false trails. (Sometimes it helps to anoint one of your number as the “rabbit detector” with the specific mandate to squash rabbits and all who run after them.) And—once you’ve cried, “Rabbit!”—have the discipline to stop chasing it! Quit the pursuit! Leave off shaking bushes! Get back to the agenda!
  5. Develop a “parking lot” for discussion topics that come up during the course of the meeting but are not on the agenda. Something as simple as a pad of paper and a pen can serve you well. Agendas are not crystal balls and those who make them are not omniscient. Sometimes good, discussion-worthy, needed topics arise in meetings. Treat them with seriousness. Write them down. Come back to them at the end of the meeting or put them on the agenda for the next meeting. But don’t allow such issues to bully their way to the front of the line and demand your immediate and exclusive attention. Your agenda may not be perfect, but you need to trust it as a guide to what is important rather than merely urgent.

    Habits that address sins of over- and under-participation:

  6. Learn how to raise a topic for discussion, lay an adequate foundation for conducting the discussion (information, background, context, reasons why the discussion is important), and then do an initial survey of every elder. Go around the table and ask each elder to summarize his views/thoughts/ suggestions in two or three sentences (and not compound, run-on, conjunction-infested sentences!). This quick survey will get everyone’s thoughts on the table quickly, show where there is agreement and disagreement, and resist the tendency of any one voice to sway the discussion before it even begins.
  7. As a group, commit yourselves to the ideal of ‘balanced discussion’—the notion that the more elders who speak to an issue, share their viewpoints, and suggest their solutions, the more likely the elder group is to make a good and godly decision. By ‘balance’ I don’t mean some misguided or absolute equality (each elder speaking exactly as often and as long as every other elder). I do mean that quiet elders should be encouraged to speak up and voluble elders encouraged to show restraint. Elders who won’t speak up should be called on by name. Elders who won’t shut up should be lovingly rebuked. This is a leadership function, of course, and will require a commitment of the whole group to the value of “balance.” [Obviously, the larger the leadership group, the harder it is to achieve balance. Breaking the group down into subgroups may be the best way to hear many voices rather than a few. See #9 below.]
  8. On occasion, assign a “dialogue monitor.” Ask one of your number to bring a pad, pen, and stop watch to your meeting. Have this person count how often each elder speaks up and time how long he talks. Publish this data in the minutes for the meeting—by name. This simple technique will clearly highlight over- and under-participation and encourage elders to self-monitor.
  9. Use the power of subgroups: Dividing elders into smaller groups (for prayer, discussion, brainstorming, etc.) increases participation, filters out weaker ideas, and gives people an efficient way to think through and try out possible solutions. It ensures that every voice is heard without requiring the entire group to process each voice. This is especially powerful for times of prayer, when different groups can pray intensely for specific things—there is always more to pray for than we have time to voice.

Habits that address sins of group-think:

10.  Learn to delegate. Especially in the early stages of discussing some plan or topic or point of controversy, there is always the danger of “sharing ignorance.” Talk can tend toward opinions or knee-jerk-responses or viewpoints unsupported by evidence. Assigning the question to an individual or subgroup; asking for research, careful thought, and a written proposal; and allowing some time for the issue to “percolate” is not just efficient—it is wise. It reinforces the integrity of elder decisions—decisions based not on personal bias or groundless opinions but on prayer, thoughtful reflection, good evidence, and communal wisdom.

11.  Don’t be afraid of voting. I know … voting can be polarizing, divisive, and unnecessarily confrontational. Everyone would prefer to reach conclusions by consensus (which is actually a kind of vote that doesn’t require anyone to raise their hands). But there are times when a formal vote is needed. When, for instance, a small group of elders dominates discussion, leaving scarce room for input by others, a vote is a way to level the playing field and give each elder a voice in the decision. (The weight of discussion may give the illusion of consensus but a vote could indicate that opinion is less-than-unanimous.) When the decision is important and difficult and contested, a vote will allow elders to “put their name” to a decision (or indicate their dissent). A vote will also tend to quantify divisions within the group and bring up the question of trusting group decisions—how to support a decision with which you do not agree. Not every issue raised in an elders’ meeting requires a vote … but some do. Knowing the difference is an important skill in conducting effective meetings.

12.  Don’t allow anonymous people to attend your meetings. One of the finest lines elders tread is that between disclosure and confidentiality: situations that need to be talked about but people who have asked to be protected … feelings and viewpoints which the elders as a whole should be aware of but owners of those feelings and viewpoints who prefer not to be named. What are elders to do? I guess there are times when—simply for informational purposes—situations can be talked about without requiring people to be named. But as a general rule, elders should not allow reports about, anecdotes of, or threats by anonymous people to influence their decisions. Nothing poisons a discussion quite so thoroughly as, “If we do this, I know five people who will leave the church … they’ve told me so but have asked me not to mention their names.” It doesn’t help elders to hear, “There’s a marriage about to blow up, but the couple doesn’t want anyone to know.” Anything offered anonymously—whether via unsigned notes or elders claiming to speak for unnamed sources—should not be given a hearing in an elders’ meeting. If we can’t know “who,” we don’t need to be vulnerable to the “what” and “why.”

13.  Insist on good data. When you think about it, elders are asked to make decisions, set direction, and settle differences on the slimmest of evidence. (A single data point is generalized to a significant segment of the congregation. Opinion is treated as fact. One side of a conflict frames the conflict as a whole. We often suffer from a lack of background information and context. We haven’t interviewed the people most responsible for or affected by a ministry. There is no “due diligence” behind our decisions.) Although I don’t believe things ought to be studied to death (or that gathering evidence should be used—essentially—as a tool for derailing discourse), I am convinced that good data is necessary for good decisions, planning, and diagnosis. So if you don’t have data, recognize that and gather it. Interview the right people. Ask the appropriate questions. Learn the backstory. Make a site visit. Do a congregational survey (resources like SurveyMonkey.com and Adobe Forms makes this quick and easy). Data is inconvenient. It takes time and effort to collect. It may tell you things you don’t want to hear. But when the stakes are eternal, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for effectiveness.

14.  Welcome, nourish, and encourage against-the-grain thinking. Members of groups naturally gravitate to “roles” that suit their nature: the resident conservative, for instance … the conciliator … the detail, dot-the-i person. In many elderships I’ve worked with, someone has appointed themselves to play the role of “contrarian.” Doesn’t matter what is under discussion: this guy points out the problems, weaknesses, dangers, and difficulties. He doesn’t like any plan (but rarely offers his own, curiously enough!). He is consistently negative. (I once had an elder tell me, “My default answer to any proposal is “No.”) Sadly, the greatest disservice such people do to elderships is not their discouraging voice but the bad name they give to dissent. Dissent is critical to good group decisions. We need to hear cautions, warnings, and against-the-prevailing-tide opinions. When such comments come from unexpected elders, when someone who is not the resident “Negative Ned” speaks up with cautionary words, the group needs to listen and weigh. Viewpoints that counter the consensus cannot be given veto power over the group … but neither should they be treated as unwanted distractions as the herd concentrates on running over a cliff!

15.  Recognize, label, and resist bad thinking. Not every question addressed by elders is logical. Often matters are decided on the basis of tradition, emotion, avoidance of pain and problems, or relationships. Be aware of how and why things are decided (it’s OK, for instance, to say, “Let’s not jump off that bridge just now”). But don’t try to justify every decision as the result of logical, rational arguments. On the other hand, when logic is the basis for a decision, make sure it is good logic. The list of logical fallacies to which groups are prone is long: ad hominem arguments (where the merits of a question are trumped by the demerits of the one who raises it), slippery slope arguments (where a dubious cause/effect relationship is drawn to frighten and divert), either/or distinctions (where only the extremes are considered and no middle ground is allowed), etc.. Talk about instances of bad thinking in past elders meetings (I bet you can find some good examples). Educate each other about the kind of thinking pitfalls groups fall into and the difficulties that result. And give everyone in the group the right to “call a time out” (even give the hand-signal!) when fresh instances of poor thinking occur. … don’t succumb to group think pitfalls … most often caught after the fact as a leader reflects on and discusses the meeting just past.

Habits that address sins against time:

16.  Set meeting times and honor them. If the meeting is supposed to start at 7:00, then start at 7:00. We train ourselves to tardiness by slipping start times, waiting for late comers, delaying while coffee is made, and otherwise failing to kick off meetings when we said we would. And, even more importantly, if the meeting is supposed to end at 9:00, honor that promise—even if parts of the agenda must be postponed or dropped altogether. It’s amazing how a hard-and-fast closing time will keep discussions focused, prevent distractions, and keep an agenda moving. It’s equally amazing how a flexible end-time promotes meandering, vague, and unproductive discussion. Trust me: your fellow elders are much more likely to arrive early, work hard, and stay on task if they know their efforts will be rewarded by an on-time ending.

17.  Work the agenda to make best use of the clock. A thoughtful agenda is an eldership’s best hedge against the relentless march of time.

  • It allows you to put the most important matters first (if you run out of time, you don’t have to sacrifice matters that really matter).
  • It allows you to estimate how much time each topic of discussion should take and to plan the meeting accordingly.
  • By segmenting the meeting in this way, you can measure the pace of discussions (determining at various times during the meeting whether you need to speed up or drop something from the agenda in order to cover the planned topics).

Habits that address sins against decisiveness:

18.  Make sure that discussion leads to a conclusion, some actionable decision that moves the issue forward. That “actionable decision” could be nothing more than tabling the matter for further prayer, thought, and study. It could be an assignment or a verdict. You should be able to write a one sentence (or one word!) summary of how discussion concluded: “Matter tabled until next meeting” … “Staff directed to study and make proposal” … “[Elder Name] will set up appointment to meet with this couple.” If you don’t have something to write down as a result of your discussion, you haven’t taken the discussion far enough. Just a little more effort can result in

19.  Assign an “owner” to every issue. Ask one of the elders to adopt the subject, proposal, decision, etc., discussed by the group and “shepherd it through to a conclusion. Many issues addressed by elders are complex, affect a number of people and ministries, and require time to develop. Someone needs to “own” the issue, holding its hand from introduction to conclusion, being responsible for ensuring that matters talked about are also decided and implemented. “Who owns this?” should be a question asked often in every meeting. Remember: a job that belongs to everyone belongs to no one.

A Habit that addresses sins against memory:

20.  Let’s assume you’ve covered the “minutes” base by asking a careful, precise, and utterly unbiased elder to serve the group as “secretary.” Let’s assume also his minutes are clear, accurate, and minor literary gems. Most groups see the production and distribution of minutes to be the sum total of a secretary’s work. But there is one step more that will provide a great service to your elder group. Ask your secretary to keep a separate list of “ARs” (Action Required—an old Intel term): who owns what? … what assignments were made in the meeting? … what “homework” does the group (or individuals in it) need to do between meetings? If the secretary can comb out these ARs  from the furry body of his meeting minutes, he will end up with a short list of the most pressing and ongoing business of the elders. By emailing elders individually and reminding them of their personal ARs, by ensuring that these ARs appear on the next meeting’s agenda for reports on results and progress, the secretary will move the elders’ work forward and increase their effectiveness level.