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Principles for Leading an Effective Meeting

Here’s a pleasing statement: “That was a great meeting, and we ended early.” Church board meetings often have a reputation of going long and bearing little fruit. But meetings, including difficult meetings, are inevitable and important.

To manage meetings well, church leaders must tend to their organizational life together. We must heed some basic principles that can help us make sound decisions with a good spirit and in a timely way.

Here are a few ideas for the effective leadership of regular ministry meetings. They’re written for ordinary meetings of modest groups and may not apply to retreats or crises.

Know the Biblical Principles

Several biblical principles help to guide effective meetings.

We love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). We speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We treat others as we’d want to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Also, we must remember the church is both an organism and an organization, so it has leaders, goals, meeting places, and more. Leaders both manage and tenderly care for God’s church. This requires a team of leaders working together (1 Tim. 3).

Remember Who You Are

A church board meets as part of God’s family. You’re there to serve the Lord under his direction, so it’s wise to start with Scripture and prayer. Don’t rush this time or use it to press your view on a decision. When The Gospel Coalition’s Board meetings start, our chairman begins with a substantive devotional. Yes, we have a full agenda, but he doesn’t rush to get to it; he begins by directing us to the Lord and his ways. That keeps us grounded in our mission.

Leaders both manage and tenderly care for God’s church.

We can also start meetings by caring for each other. One music leader I know begins team meetings by asking each person to use three words to describe his or her mood that day. He even supplies a list of words to choose from. All team members then have a minute to explain their choices. In this way, he ensures the team cares for one another by celebrating joys and naming sorrows. They’re more than a task force; they’re disciples who care for each other.

Another leader I know expresses care by inviting each person in his small team to give a three-minute report on his or her heart status and work status. This helps the team know one another and know how to care for one another.

Manage the Logistics

Beyond biblical principles and pastoral care, the following practices will also help your meetings to be more effective.

1. Communicate well in advance.

Let everyone know the basics: when, where, how long, and—above all—for what reason you’ll meet. Prepare an agenda stating the topics that demand attention and which matters might require a vote. Give the team an estimate of the time needed for each topic, and arrange your timing so the main issue gets the best attention, perhaps as the second item on the agenda, when everyone is fresh.

Don’t read proposals and agendas aloud. Send out reports in advance, and expect people to read all necessary materials before the meeting begins.

2. Keep meetings short.

Long, heavy meetings are hard for everyone. The typical person can focus for 65–70 minutes. Few can concentrate on demanding mental work for more than 90 minutes. Most of us do well when we go hard for 25–30 minutes, take a 5-minute break, then start up again. The break can be a happy report, a touch of humor, or a story. It’s OK to break up a tough discussion with a funny story; let it ride at times instead of keeping everyone on task every moment.

Some fear that short meetings will deprive groups of bonding time. That’s possible, and friendship, respect, and trust are essential. But a well-led meeting allows for more time for Scripture, prayer, and sharing. And when a meeting is brief enough, people will decide they have time to visit afterward.

Let’s not fight human nature by planning meetings that start after a full workday and run for four hours. Pastors rightly see such meetings as a significant element of church leadership, but they should remember that lay elders—usually most of the participants—have just worked 8 to 10 hours, missed supper, and lost their family time. We respect people when we plan for sessions and board meetings that finish in two hours or less. That’s possible if we take several steps. That’s possible if you follow the remaining principles.

3. Prepare well for big topics.

Suppose a board member wants to discuss a significant topic. He or she should tell the appropriate leader so the leader can help to prepare the best proposal and plan for a healthy discussion and, if appropriate, a vote.

This will usually mean assigning trusted groups to study major matters in advance, preparing necessary background information and two or three options for what next steps to take. Options should include a summary of the pros and cons of each course of action. Never say, “So what do you think we should do?” Instead, proposals should make a clear recommendation that highlights both its strengths and weaknesses. By clarifying the options, you make it easier for everyone to speak meaningfully if they wish. And when everyone has a clear opportunity to speak, it’s easier for each participant to support the group’s decision.

I’m assuming your group is the right size for a proper discussion. Most experts agree the ideal size for a board is 7 to 12 people. This aligns with the early church, which had 7 deacons and 12 apostles. Of course, there are exceptions. Teams with a narrow focus may be smaller, and a task force assigned a complicated project can be larger.

4. Be willing to table difficult decisions when necessary.

Expect people to evaluate, hone, and improve your proposals. Don’t expect you’ll always begin with the strongest possible option.

Also, don’t be afraid to return to decisions later when the team is better prepared for a good discussion or a vote. It’s often wise to delay if it’s clear the team is far from united. Don’t rush to a decision unless there’s a genuine deadline. Returning to issues later leaves time for the sort of healthy reflection that’s sometimes necessary for healthy conclusions.

5. Don’t insist on unanimous votes.

When decisions need to be unanimous, a lone dissenter can hold up the church’s mission. So don’t insist on this as a policy. It’s fine for a vote to be 8–2 if a group trusts each other and knows how to support team decisions publicly. It helps when everyone who loses a vote can say, “I certainly think I’m right, but if I lose a vote 8–2, I’m probably wrong since the rest of you are also seeking God’s will.”

6. When the team decides to act, take time to plan the implementation steps.

Implementation requires many steps. You list the human and financial resources you need, consult experts and stakeholders while noting allies and adversaries, and then you must formulate and execute an action plan with clear communication.

Expect people to evaluate, hone, and improve your proposals. Don’t expect you’ll always begin with the strongest possible option.

A good leader may say, “Who has the ball and what are you going to do with it? How long and how far will you run?” The point is for everyone on the team to know his responsibility and what he’s expected to do before the next meeting.

7. Ensure everyone knows the life cycle of a decision.

A full discussion takes time and has several steps. A group will clarify the issue, list and explore possible solutions, then choose one. After that, the team will decide on a timeline for putting their plan into place, implement it, and then review the outcomes after enough time has passed to appraise it carefully.

I’ve pointed you to several principles for leading meetings. But my primary goal isn’t to give you a list of rules. Practices like using  agendas and encouraging the team to read proposals in advance are habits like brushing and flossing that should be regularly practiced. When you make these principles into habits, you don’t just promote effective meetings but also a healthy team.

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