The “meetings and meetings-about-meetings” culture was pervasive in that director’s organization. Once while sitting in a meeting with people flown in from around the country, I started estimating the travel and staff time expenses for the people sitting around the conference table. I asked myself, “Are the results of this meeting worth the thousands of dollars it took to gather for it?” I didn’t have to wait until the end of the meeting to come to my conclusion: No.
But not every meeting is doomed to failure. In fact, I have attended many meetings that were useful because they were use-able. Such meetings require careful design ahead of time, disciplines of dialogue and deeper levels of conversation, and motivated participants ready to act.
Still, the results of even the most thoroughly prepared and seemingly productive conversation can be diminished by some common errors. This starter list of guidelines may help you to see what can go wrong (or right) before, during and after meetings and make sure your meeting has an afterlife:
1. The plan matters. So does the activity the plan sets in motion.
So much energy and effort sometimes go into planning that leaders and the congregation may collapse into a heap of satisfaction when they—finally—“have” a plan. Sometimes we assume that if we’ve said it (from the pulpit or the conference room), we have already done it.
I remind strategic planning groups that the only time anything got spoken into being was in the first chapter of Genesis, when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Ever since reading The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, by Jeffrey Pfefer and Robert Sutton, I’ve been attuned to how easy it is to substitute talk for action. We succumb to this gap so often that we hardly question it. We get out of the habit of expecting our decisions to inform our actions. We live comfortably in the gap between our stated commitments and our actual actions—at least until we become conscious of what has fallen into that gap.
2. Anticipate ahead of time “immunity to change.”
Our desire to change does not always lead to the changes we desire. Most of us know that.
After meetings where particular goals are decided on, I work to anticipate the group’s “immunity to change.” Drawing on Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s dynamic process, I help participants to examine preemptively how some of their most significant goals might be impeded.
Kegan talks about “immunity to change” as trying to move forward when we have one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. As much as we’d like to move toward a goal, unconscious attitudes in us or the organization that impede the changes that the goal requires. Through a systematic process of observing the behaviors that contradict our best intentions, acknowledging our hidden commitments to not changing, and testing out—in action—some of our uncritically examined “big assumptions,” we can move forward more deliberately and more consciously through what otherwise might sabotage our efforts. [See information about my webinar on Immunity to Change for Congregations and Their Leaders, below.]
3. Ensure that your conversation matters.
In the lifecycle of any congregation, there are usually some “big questions” beckoning us to respond. Since these big questions are usually not the questions we prefer, sometimes they choose us, we don’t choose them. Big questions don’t have easy answers or known solutions. They require us to stay in our discomfort while responding to them, rather than avoid it.
Many congregations face big questions that are not just their own, but widely shared, such as:
- What cherished things must we discard to free ourselves to respond to our prophetic calling in this time?
- What new partnerships across faiths and organizations will strengthen our capacity to respond to our religious task?
- Why must we survive for the next generations in this faith?
- How important are the resources of our buildings to the future of our congregation?
Questions like these raise anxiety and invite resistance, but only by addressing them can we move forward.
4. Articulate criteria for your strategic actions ahead of time.
A pattern in most congregational or meeting planning sessions is for participants to accept all ideas as equally deserving of implementation. Even if a congregation had unlimited financial and human resources, this would not be helpful.
Before crafting strategies, we must apply our strategic thinking by asking: “What criteria must inform the strategies we choose?” Sometimes the criteria are practical (“must fit into our current budget capacities”) and sometimes they address alignment ( “must align with our mission,” “must connect us with our surrounding community,” or “must further our efforts toward creating a multi-cultural, multi-racial community”).
5. Cultivate congruency between your aspirations and your actuality.
Parker Palmer speaks to the customary gap in our aspirations and our actuality: It’s as much a spiritual issue as it is an organizational or personal issue of our time. He articulates the many ways we tend to accommodate to “the divided life.” The personal implications of living the “divided life” apply to organizations as well:
Of course, the person [or organization] who lives a divided life also suffers. I can’t imagine a sadder way to die than knowing I never showed up on Earth as who I really am. But every time we show up as our true selves, we reclaim identity and integrity, and new life can grow within, between and around us. (from a talk on “What is a Divided Life?”)
We see evidence of this “divided life” all around us and within us. We notice how espoused values are betrayed by actual actions. We observe how the Gospel is weakened by teaching platitudes that don’t penetrate our hearts or lives enough to make a difference to the pain and suffering in our world. We imagine “this is just the way it is”—and so this is the way that it becomes.
In a few congregations I have visited, simply by being in their sanctuary and fellowship hall I received a living testimony of their values and their faith. The testimony was so tangible that I could tell that, in the words of Randy Rothwell’s song “Sanctuary,” they were preparing to be a living “sanctuary,” not just planning for one. Likewise, the aim of any meeting in a congregation is to cultivate, over time, a deeper, tangible congruency between our aspirations and our actions.
One translation of Hebrews 10:25 states: “Let us not give up meeting together. Some are in the habit of doing this. Instead, let us encourage one another with words of hope.” Indeed, let us not give up on meetings—but find ways to encourage better meetings. Meetings with an afterlife!
Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole systems, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after four years of being a director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.