A few years ago, I counted up how many hours I spent in church meetings in a particular month then wished I hadn’t. Most of those meetings were boring, pointless, and took me away from my real life in ways I later resented. At best, it was nice to see church people, and it was good to get some work done on church business. However, I’m not sure any of those meetings did much to accomplish the work of God’s kingdom on earth.
On the other hand, I regularly hear from people that they are having meetings at church that are life-giving and meaningful, even leading to spiritual growth and changed lives. These groups have been meeting for up to a decade as part of a church renewal process that I help to lead. In that time, we’ve learned a lot about how meetings can be a bright spot in our days instead of a chore.
1. Take responsibility for your participation
In the best meetings, everyone acts like an owner. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat in meetings acting more like a testy consumer than a responsible owner of the process. I’ve judged the leaders for how they are leading, and I’ve resented the other members for how they are participating.
Acting like an owner means that I realize that I’m contributing to how meetings go by what I do and don’t do and what I say and don’t say. If I want better meetings, I have to step up my game.
2. Prepare for the meeting
In the best meetings, everyone knows why they are there, and they are ready to get to work. This is more than preparing an agenda, although that is important. Think ahead of time about what you want to accomplish.
What do you want people to know as a result of attending this meeting? What do you want them to feel? What do you want them to do? What will make this a successful meeting? How will you make that happen?
3. Learn together
There may have been a time when we could do the work of the church by doing what we’d always done, just trying to do it better. If those days ever existed, they are gone now. We must learn together how to be God’s people in the 21st century. Because of the rate of change in our culture, we have to unlearn things as fast as we learn them. There is not a single church team or committee that can afford to rest on the way things have always been done.
In the best meetings, we are learning together—learning to follow Jesus in our unique context, learning to reach out to the changing world around us, learning to be the people God designed us to be.
This may mean reading together and discussing what we read. We may need to get out in the community to talk to people. It will likely mean practicing new ways of being in our meetings and in our lives. To be a disciple literally means, literally, to be a “learner.” Learning together is one of the most meaningful and life-giving things we can do.
4. Make & keep agreements
In too many church meetings, we are there because someone asked us to be there. We either didn’t know how to say no, or we didn’t know what we were getting into with these meetings. We quickly figure out how to go along with how things are done. When this happens, things break down, meetings may erupt in conflict, or people may drift away, finding better things to do.
In the best meetings, there is agreement about how we will handle things when our meetings get too hot to handle or when breakdowns happen. As a group, members talk about how we will handle disagreement and conflict. We’ve agreed on what is expected of team members and how we will hold each other accountable to those expectations. We’ve gotten to a shared sense of what our purpose is and how we will go about it.
5. Eat & Play Together
In the best meetings, we meet in a warm, comfortable environment to share drinks and food together. I think it’s safe to say that none of us do our best thinking around a plastic table under fluorescent lights when we’re hungry and tired. Whether it’s in someone’s home or in a favorite restaurant or in the most comfortable room in the church building, we work better when we can relax together.
In an informal survey comparing teams that bonded well and exceeded expectations with those that didn’t, we found that teams that ate together—and played laser tag and had game nights and went to community events together—out-performed those that held their meetings at the church and didn’t meet outside of those times.
6. Tell Your Stories
In the best meetings, people know each other on a deeper level than they would otherwise. When I work with teams, I ask them to begin by finding a way to tell their stories to each other as authentically as they can. This can be done in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that one brave person will have to lead out by going first—removing the mask that we often wear to church and telling a more honest story about their lives, their struggles, and the experiences that have shaped their lives.
Some teams devote one whole meeting to this process; others ask one person to share at each meeting until everyone has had a turn. Each person gets to decide what they share (or don’t) and there is usually a time limit.
I’ve had people in small towns tell me, “We’ve all lived here all our lives; we thought we knew everything there was to know about each other. We were wrong! Now we’re not just familiar with each other; we truly know each other.”
7. Be intentional about adding new members
In the best meetings, adding new members is a time of review and growth for the whole team. Although it may seem that it slows things down to take time to orient new members, it helps the group reinforce the essentials—their purpose, their agreements, and their processes. Every time we do this, we remember why we are meeting and how we will pursue our goals. If we need to make changes or alter our course—or even disband—the arrival of new members is a good time to address this.
Meetings can be productive and fruitful ways of doing God’s work in the church. They can be meaningful and life-giving. They can be dynamic events that we look forward to and prioritize. We only need to put into our meetings what we hope to get out of them.