What Makes Committee Meetings Effective?
By Marliss Rogers
Meetings, meetings, meetings! Like it or not, much of our work as leaders of the Church involves gathering with other parishioners in council, committee or other groupings. Rather than viewing this as a “necessary evil,” we can make certain that every minute of these meetings is well spent and contributes to the effectiveness of parish life, both present and future. How do we make sure that such is the case? Let’s take a look at five aspects of the parish council process (while applied here to councils, the following could also be true of committee or other organizational groups.
1. Prayer, reflection and study. For some time now, we have been insisting that councils spend one third of each meeting in prayer, scriptural reflection, faith sharing, and study of church and pastoral documents, or pertinent spiritual articles. Why do we feel this is so important? First of all, because prayer and reflection change us; we become more open to where the Spirit may lead us. Secondly, a prayerful beginning to each meeting provides a “buffer zone” which enables members to put aside their daily agendas and slip into the community perspective so necessary for a meeting at which important decisions will be made for the parish. Thirdly, this activity forms the proper spiritual basis for consensus and discernment, preferred for all major decisions, and enables a rich faith development to take place in the group.
2. Communication with the parish. When councils or committees try to make decisions or plan programming for the parish without actually consulting any parishioners, they are working in a vacuum! Good decisions are based on good communications with all segments of the parish at large. If there is inadequate communication, parish leaders should not be surprised when there is no ownership and no support for decisions. Frequently surveys, contacting parishioners by phone, and sharing progress in important matters at Sunday liturgy, are only some of the ways this two-way communication can be carried out.
The visibility of the parish council members and their involvement in parish ministries is important in fostering this communication, for people feel free to talk to those council members who are known to them. It also helps to dissipate the often-deserved image that councils are “elite” groups who make decisions based on what they think people need. Council members could reflect on youth minister/author Michael Warren’s statement that the old style of ministry was to serve those assembled, while the new style must be “to assemble those to be served.”
3. Understanding of group process. Councils are not representatives of certain constituencies, but rather represent the whole parish. Members come together to participate in group decision-making, so some knowledge of how groups function is crucial, particularly so for the facilitator. While individual convictions are to be respected, they must always be subjected to the wisdom of the group. In consensus/discernment, all members of the group are to be heard, and through ongoing dialogue (interspersed with prayer, if necessary), a viable decision for the parish is a result which may be said to be a synthesis of the insights, ideas and prayerful discernment of the group. It isn’t difficult to see how different this is from a typical parliamentary procedure which tends to encourage debate rather than dialogue and creates a “win-lose” rather than a “win-win” situation.
A basic acquaintance with group psychology and how various personalities affect group behavior is also most helpful for parish council members. Realizing the importance of affirmation and maintaining a sense of humor throughout meetings are undoubtedly real gifts to the group.
4. Building Community. Parish meetings are not only to be formational and productive but also occasions for bonding among the members. Giving people an opportunity to share faith, affirm gifts, articulate vision without feeling threatenedall contribute to the development of community among the group’s members. A wise parish also invites council and committee leaders to engage in appropriate social activities.
5. Visioning. It is a truism that “without vision, the people perish.” Nothing stifles the vitality of a group more than an overdose of pragmatism. Good structure is needed and practical ideas are appreciated, but when council agendas feature endless details about the more mundane aspects of parish life (known as “paving the parking lot syndrome”), ennui sets in and many council members wonder why they were elected in the first place. Council members must allow sufficient time to test their vision on the major traumas of our times. If this does not happen, councils run the risk of becoming irrelevant and cease to be a sign and witness to the mission of Jesus.
To the extent that a council pays close attention to these aspects of the meeting process, members will enjoy an increase in effectiveness, improved relationships, spiritual growth, cohesiveness in decisions, greater parish support, broadened vision, and a parish leadership that actually enjoys meeting!
(Reprinted by permission from ACTION INFORMATION, published by The Alban Institute, Inc., 4125 Nebraska Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016. Copyright 1987. All rights reserved.)