What’s the most important skill you need to be successful in ministry? Knowing how to run a good meeting.
Ok, that’s not really true. Many other things matter more (a lot more!). But, running a good meeting still matters. And more than you think.
Even those who’ve only been in ministry a short time know that meetings dominate your weekly schedule. Sometimes, it seems that more than half your week is spent in some sort of meeting. During meals. Over coffee. In a conference room. With the elders. With ministry leaders. With support staff.
And here’s the other reality we all know. Meetings vary widely in their effectiveness. Some meetings produce real progress and fruit. Those can be exhilarating, even fun. And others are a tedious and frustrating waste of time. Those can be exhausting and even debilitating.
So, how can we make our meetings better? Here I offer just a few quick thoughts for meeting leaders. It’s the leaders who control, guide, and dictate what the meetings are like (and how many there are).
Make a Devotional a Devotional
Somewhere along the line we’ve become convinced that every ministry meeting just has to start with a devotional. And most of these devotionals end up being more like small Bible studies, sometimes lasting 20 even 30 minutes long.
But, are such devotionals necessary for every meeting? To even ask such a question sounds unspiritual, I know. Isn’t God’s Word more important than our business? Sure, but I think this sort of approach confuses the purpose of the meeting. The purpose of (most) ministry meetings is not to provide general Bible teaching. We should expect that the participants in the meeting are getting a steady diet of the Word in other venues—Sunday morning, home Bible studies, daily devotionals.
And if they are not, the problem isn’t solved by adding devotionals to every meeting. Instead, those individuals should be shepherded towards a healthier spiritual life.
And for those leaders who still want to have devotionals before their meetings, that’s fine. Just making them actual devotionals (5 minutes?), and not full-length Bible studies!
Business is Part of God’s Kingdom Too
I think there may be another reason many ministry leaders feel obligated to start every meeting with a devotional. It proves to the participants (and to ourselves) that we are not just about “business.” We care about the heart. And about people. And not just about “getting things done.”
In other words, lurking behind many ministry meetings is the conviction that business is of secondary importance. Sure, we have to do it, but we want to let everyone know that we think there are more important things out there.
But, I think this attitude is based on a caricature. It gives the impression that if you are focused on “getting things done” then you must be unspiritual. Anyone eager to get through the agenda must be a bit cold-hearted.
Of course, this is a false dichotomy. Business is part of God’s Kingdom too. And a well-organized, well-run ministry can actually be a way that we care for people. Leaders that are “all heart” (and care little about the details) are not always the better shepherds.
Part of running a good meeting, then, is embracing business as the good work of the Kingdom that deserves our energy and attention.
No, Not Everyone Needs to Talk
Everyone has been to a meeting where it seems like the goal of the meeting leader is to make sure everyone speaks (or at least has a chance to). Each agenda item is worked through slowly, with lots of discussion and interaction over each point.
On the surface, this sounds like the way to go. It is personal, warm, and inclusive. No one is left out.
But, meetings like this are not only notoriously long, but chronically inefficient. One thing I’ve learned in many meetings over the years (and this is a bit of a truism): people love to talk. And pastors in particular love to talk. And they will talk as long you give them time to talk. As a leader of meetings, you need to know that.
I have also learned over the years that lots of talking does not always improve the decision-making process. Often times things are just repeated again and again by different members of the meeting, with little real progress.
I was at a recent General Assembly of the PCA where the moderator, after a very lengthy time of discussion, finally said something like: “Well, it seems like everything that can be said has been said. It’s just that not everyone has had a chance to say it.”
At that point, many of the people waiting to speak went back to their seats. They realized they were just going to say (again) what had already been said. More talking is not always better.
Now, to be clear, it is not easy as a meeting leader to know when to cut off discussion and when to let it continue. There are times when it needs to continue. The decision will likely hinge on the nature of the agenda item. Minor items can be pushed through more quickly with little allowance for discussion, whereas you might give more wiggle room for bigger items.
Think Opportunity Cost
One thing meeting leaders do not think about enough is the cost of a meeting. Not the cost of money, but the cost of time. For example, if you are leading an elders meeting of 12 men and that meeting lasts 4 hours, then you have taken up 48 hours of ministry time.
That’s more than an entire work week of ministry.
This doesn’t mean the meeting is illegitimate. Some meetings have to happen (especially elders meetings). But it does mean the meeting leader should ask a simple question: Is this meeting worth that?
What else could these elders do with 48 hours of ministry time? They could meet with members of the church. They could spend time with their children (whom they’ve not seen much that week). They could evangelize a neighbor.
Even if the meeting was cut to two hours, that saves 24 hours of ministry time.
Thinking this way will revolutionize the way you think of meetings. It’s not just the time spent, it’s the time lost that could be spent on other things. That will make your meetings fewer and more efficient.
And this really does matter because, as Paul reminds us, we must be “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16).
One of the perennial challenges in a meeting is controlling how long they are. Meetings are like home-improvement projects. They always take longer than you think they will.
So, how do you control this? Well, adopting many of the tips above will help. But, in addition, I recommend a very simple solution: use a stopwatch to time portions of your meeting.
Set aside a certain number of minutes for each agenda item, and then have someone manage a stopwatch who notifies the group of how much time is left.
Yes, this sounds very unspiritual! Yet, at the same time, you could argue it is very spiritual. Given Eph 5:16 above, this is a way of saving time for the good of the Kingdom. After all, does wasting time help advance God’s Kingdom?
Of course, your group will not stick to the allotted time for many of the agenda items. But, extending the time will require approval of the whole group. And that extension process will teach people to be briefer. In time, the group will become more efficient.
Decision-Making, Not Information
This last tip is critical. Far too many meetings are what I call “information” meetings. They are simply times when information is exchanged, reports are given, and people are updated.
Sometimes such meetings are necessary—particularly if your group meets very rarely (maybe a few times a year). But, for most groups, such information can be distributed in other ways that does not require another meeting.
I encourage you, therefore, to make most of your meetings “decision-making” meetings. This is when a group gets together to discuss key strategic decisions, debate policy changes, or reach a conclusion about other critical issues.
In these sorts of meetings, the participants do not simply hear mind-numbing reports, but actually engage in the decision-making process. Here is where peoples’ gifts can shine, the collective wisdom of the group can be utilized, real progress in ministry objectives can be made, and theological/biblical wisdom can be applied.
Rarely do people leave these sorts of meetings frustrated. On the contrary, they feel like the meeting actually mattered. And that makes all the difference.
S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-Fil-A, has a very famous quote: “Food is essential to life, therefore make it good.”
When it comes to ministry and meetings, something similar could be said: “Meetings are essential to ministry, therefore make them good.”
We are always going to have meetings. They are critical to what we do in ministry. But, we can make them better. And making them better (contrary to popular perceptions) can be a spiritual move to advance the cause of the Kingdom.