two Black women in foreground high-living and smiling at a table, with a white woman in glasses and smiling also at the table in the background

Doing the Work: Meeting Well

We Presbyterians both joke and are teased about the number of meetings we have. We like to be organized and talk through decisions – what’s wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with that. At least on the face of it. But even before our lives got filled up with other options for how to spend our time, it has never been necessary to have an unnecessary meeting.

In our polity, it is indeed important to gather together and discuss how and what we want to do our work to best fulfill our mission of spreading the Good News. But wasting time and energy in meetings that are all talk, and no mission are not fulfilling our call. So, how do we meet well and faithfully to do what we need to do without falling into the boring meeting pattern?

Your meetings should have: a purpose, an agenda, time limits and takeaways.

Purpose

What is your meeting about? Are you just getting the worship committee together each month because that’s how they’ve always done it or do you actually have enough work to do each month? What if you scheduled longer meetings quarterly? You might save time by diving deeply into planning and preparation for the upcoming seasons, rather than piecemealing it out over shorter meetings that occur more often. If there are clear, stated purpose(s) and goal(s) of the meeting, participants and potential participants are more likely to attend, and find themselves truly getting something out of meetings.

If you don’t know what your purpose is, or what you have been doing isn’t working anymore, consider some time to study, discuss and decide on what centers your group, and make sure it remains at the center every time you meet. If you find there isn’t one,

Agenda

Related to the purpose(s) of the meeting, having a set and written agenda that everyone agrees on helps keep you on task. Of course, unless you stick to the agenda, there is still a danger of talking about topics not on the agenda, or out of order, which can also derail or unnecessarily lengthen a meeting. If someone wants to speak on a topic earlier in the meeting or add a topic of discussion, that should be brought up at the beginning of the meeting and agreed upon, not in the middle of the meeting or in the middle of the discussion of another topic. Finish speaking about one topic before you talk about another, and if they are related, put a pin in that other topic until its turn.

Time Limits

A time limit is a promise that you will end a meeting no later than a specific time, which tells people that you respect the time they are offering. If you are meeting during the day, such as over a lunch hour, your members likely only have a limited amount of time. If you are meeting at night, you run into dinner and bedtime schedules.

You can apply time limits to the whole meeting and even each topic. Along with the agenda, this keeps the group on track and respects the time of those who are in attendance.

If you set time limits for each topic, and you run up against the time, you can agree as a group whether to table the topic or add additional time. This sets expectations that a conversation on a topic won’t go on forever and that you need to use your time well. People will learn to say what they need to say with less words, to not repeat points that have already been made, and to discern which topics may need more conversation, and which ones about which you can simply make decisions.

Similarly, if you reach the scheduled end of a meeting and have remaining issues on the agenda, you can decide as a group whether you need a set amount of additional time, or whether you can table any remaining issues to the next meeting.

Takeaways

To avoid the meeting simply to meet, you need to create goals and tasks to either fulfill or take home to accomplish by the next meeting. Each member of the team should have something to bring to the next meeting, even if it is as simple as considering and answering a question like, “How is this team fulfilling the mission statement of the ministry?” or completing a small task like inviting one person to the event you are hosting. These do not need to be Herculean tasks like planning a whole Sunday School Rally Day or the next mission trip by oneself.

By assuring each member has at least one takeaway or task from the meeting, and confirming what each person is doing, you can assure that each member of a team is being used effectively. You can also see if any one member of the team is taking on or being given an disproportionately large amount of the tasks for the team and help re-think how your work is being shared.

Technology

Not every meeting needs to take place in person. Though it is always nice to be in the same room, technology has advanced past the dreaded conference call (those have their own best practices, but they are best to avoid) to video conferencing where it can really feel like you are in the same room, even if you are miles away. This can facilitate meetings at times where people need to be at home with children, members who are not as mobile (especially after dark) and limitations on free time. Zoom is a great video conferencing service that offers free subscriptions with shorter meeting times, and unlimited meetings for a low annual fee. There are other great video conferencing options, too.

Implementation

Pay attention at the meetings you are attending. Pay attention to how you feel at the end of each meeting. Do you feel exhausted and unexcited about the next meeting of the same group? Or are you exhilarated, and can’t wait to get together again and get more done? What works in your meetings and what doesn’t?

If you are not implementing the above guidelines, consider adding them. If you are implementing these guidelines, and the meetings still don’t seem to be productive or effective, take some time to think about how well each guideline is being used and where you might want to improve. It could be that meetings are not long enough or too long, that you meet too often or not often enough. You could have the wrong facilitator or purpose.

And don’t ever be afraid to fold a group that is meeting just to meet. If you are getting together to talk because you like to get together with that group, be honest about the purpose and change the gathering to an actual social hour rather than a committee meeting.

Share Successes

Have you turned unproductive meetings into well-planned and well-appreciated gatherings that have purpose and give life to your ministry? We’d love to hear how you did that.

What if you are having amazing meetings that don’t follow these guidelines at all? We want to hear about what makes those gatherings work, too. Not every group needs these guidelines to be awesome.

Because we are Presbyterian, we like to gather, discuss and make decisions in teams. But just because we are Presbyterian doesn’t mean that we have to have boring meetings that don’t fit our ministry and mission. In fact, those gatherings will hamper our ability to actively follow Christ as they drain our energy and will and blur our direction. Be honest, be respectful of the valuable time of your staff and volunteers, and create something that is truly life-giving.