15 tips on how to do it well
If managed well, committee meetings can be life-giving and enjoyable. This is good, because committees are essential for the church and its agencies to take part in God’s mission. I have participated in hundreds of meetings over the past decades and have learned a few things that a committee chair can do to make them worthwhile.
What follows reflects my chairing style as a white, western, middle-class, university-educated male. Others, such as people from racial/ethnic sectors of the church, immigrants or women, might propose a different checklist. In any case, it is important for a committee chair to understand the culture(s) of people at the table and lead in a way that brings out the best in each. Based on my experience, when you are chair of a committee for the church or its agencies, I recommend that you do the following:
1. Keep the mandate of your committee in view. What is the big mission of the church or organization and how does your committee fit into that? What is the extent and what is the limit of your responsibility as a committee? To whom do you report, by when?
2. Embrace your role as a spiritual leader. While there are exceptions, most committee meetings are not the place for long periods of Bible teaching or prayer. Those should be happening elsewhere in the rhythm of church or institutional life. But the chair can remind the committee that what they do matters to God and to the church and can incorporate prayer or meditation into committee meetings.
3. Be a good steward of group time. Start the meeting on time, confirm with the group when the meeting is to end and be cautious about going beyond the contracted time. Important or urgent agenda may occasionally require you to go overtime. But this must be the exception, and the chair should ask permission of the group before extending the session. If committee meetings too frequently go overtime, church members will be hesitant to take part.
4. Create an agenda for the meeting in advance. Do this by reading previous minutes (especially action points), reviewing the mandate of the committee and soliciting agenda items from committee members or others to whom the committee is responsible.
5. Have someone assigned to take minutes. Often this means giving them advance notice so they can bring a computer. Without keeping good records, decisions and wisdom that come from the group may be lost or muddled.
6. Start the meeting with a warm welcome and a positive spirit. If the committee chair is not hospitable and hopeful, group spirits will sag. In some committees it is appropriate to have a limited time for committee members to relate significant developments in their lives or in the community you serve. Such sharing should be brief, since committees are not primarily a place to address personal agenda. It often works well to have prayer together after such sharing.
7. Review together the minutes of the last meeting(s). Do this before heading into new agenda. Call attention to highlights from the minutes, such as decisions taken or assignments made, rather than reading the entire minutes aloud. Ask the committee members whether you missed anything important.
8. Lead the group through the meeting’s agenda. Watch the clock and pace discussion so you get through the agenda in the allotted time. This is hard work because it requires you both to be a nonanxious presence and to keep things
moving. For each agenda item, have someone (you or another committee member) give a succinct summary of the issue at hand: “Today we must address concerns about adequacy of child care during worship. There is a letter from a parent attached to our agenda.” Such summarizing helps committee members focus on what they must decide and may bring to light different opinions about what is the real issue.
9. Hear from all committee members. Or at least hear from all who wish to speak or who should speak. Show with your body language that you are listening carefully and that you value each contribution. You might succinctly summarize what a committee member has said to show that you understand. Politely intervene and redirect discussion if one or two people dominate or if the group heads into a tangent that is not relevant to the issue at hand or if one person simply talks too long. This is an important part of your stewardship of time.
10. Wait to offer your own perspective. Your first task is to see that the issue to be decided is clearly stated, that necessary information is available and that committee members bring their insight and creativity to bear. If you speak your opinion too soon, you may short-circuit the contributions of others. After others have spoken, it may be helpful for you as chair to offer your perspective. Show by listening respectfully that it is fine for others to disagree with you or to challenge you.
11. Take time for humor. So long as humor is decent and not at the expense of others, it is good to laugh. Enjoy your own foibles and failures as a group and as an individual. God’s work is important, but do not take yourselves too seriously. Laugh at yourself, not at the expense of another. Tell funny things that happened and allow friendly kidding. While frivolity should never dominate a meeting, a little bit goes a long way to relax the group and make committee work enjoyable.
12. Prioritize agenda if you are running out of time. If you see you will not be able to cover all agenda items, point this out to the group and get them to help you decide which items can wait until the next meeting.
13. Let the group hear a summary of discussion before deciding. After hearing from everyone who should speak, offer a tentative summary of where the committee members appear to be at on the agenda item: “While we are not in total agreement, most of us lean in the direction of expanding the child-care program during worship services. Am I hearing you right?” Watch the body language of others as you speak. If the preliminary summary does not please someone on the committee or if they think it misses something important, invite them to offer their own summary. When the committee agrees on the summary, have the committee make a formal decision by consensus or by vote.
14. Make action points after the committee decides, and minute them. Be clear about who will follow up with any assignment and by when. Such items must be clearly marked or highlighted in the minutes. It works well to have a check-box in the margins of the minutes beside the action point. That is easy for you and others to see when you scan the minutes later and allows you to mark the box when the assignment has been completed.
15. Set next meeting time(s) and thank committee members. Affirm the committee for work done well, thank them for their part in the mission of the church and send them on their way with blessing. Rejoice that you have the privilege of helping others make their contribution to the reign of God.
J. Nelson Kraybill is pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., and author of Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010). See review on page 59.