I COULD see it in their eyes: they thought that their new bishop was off his rocker, but they were far too polite to say so. I had said: “I think the PCC should be the most encouraging meeting of your month,” and the stifled laughter that follows a sarcastic quip had rippled around the deanery synod.
It was my second synod since arriving in the diocese. Someone asked what I thought might help PCCs do their business better. I began with the “tone” of the meeting, that we were Christians meeting in faith and fellowship, and so I was a bit playful. The questioner pointed out that their meetings were mainly about how to find the parish share and keep the roof on the church; so I pushed further.
“Exactly,” I said. “We have lots of real pressures, and they matter. When the PCC meets, though, we come together and share that responsibility, with each other and with God in prayer. It’s not easy, but we are not alone — and that’s why it is encouraging.”
IT IS a tough time to be responsible for the life of a parish church: there are pressures of numbers, finance, and buildings, to say nothing of the social issues faced by many of our urban communities. I have served on four different PCCs in varied contexts, two of which I have chaired, and I recognise all too well that sinking feeling that you can sometimes get when the PCC is coming up.
And yet we come together as Christians to discern together what God is calling us into. I remember the point when I realised that members of “my” PCC were the same people I worshipped with each Sunday, and decided that we had got the tone of our meetings wrong: it was not a magic wand that got rid of the problems that we faced, but it changed the way in which we faced them.
WHAT lessons have I learned about making a PCC meeting one to look forward to? Here are some of my top tips:
1. Keep God at the centre of the meeting.
Theologically, when Christians meet to do business together, this is just as much worship as when we gather in church on a Sunday. Here are a few ideas how to make the meeting a time of worship:
• Stop to pray whenever things get tense or difficult.
• Borrow an Inuit Christian idea where you start the meeting by reading the Gospel of the day three times, in three different translations, pausing to ask: ”What is God saying through this?” after the first reading; “What is Jesus saying to you?” after the second; and “What is Jesus asking you to do?” after the third. Then the Gospel is placed in the middle of the meeting, and, at any point, any member can go and kneel before it and simply re-read the Gospel out loud.
• End each meeting by offering thanks and praise to God for all the good things He is doing.
2. Keep mission central
The PCC exists for the parish, not just for the church. Keep an outward focus, and work especially hard at this when there are things on the agenda which look inwards at the church.
3. Craft the agenda carefully
It is vital to use limited time well, and meetings tend to settle at the lowest point if we are not careful.
• Put important things at the beginning.
• Seek agreement with the PCC that items have time limits, and then be firm about them.
• Keep the agenda varied and moving along. Use different sections to break up a longer meeting.
• Do not let meetings run on too long: tired people tend to be grumpy and irritable.
4. Think about what needs to be done outside the meeting
This will enable the PCC to function. In particular:
• Circulate papers in time for people to read them.
• Build a culture where people come prepared.
• Very detailed work (such as building projects, job descriptions, or budgets) tends to need a smaller group to work on it, before being brought to a bigger meeting.
• When the PCC has delegated something to a group or individual, receive regular reports on the recommendations of the group, but remember that the PCC is not there to do the work again. When a decision comes to the PCC for ratification, the Council should only be able to say: “Yes, we accept your recommended course of action,” or “No, you have misunderstood your brief,” or “Whoops! Your brief is wrong and we need to rewrite it.” This saves much time.
5. Think about the physical environment
We are physical beings, and where we are shapes what we do. Note things such as:
• Uncomfortable people fidget, and cold people are distracted. Where are you meeting?
• Hungry people tend to be snappy. Do you need refreshments?
• Tired people make bad decisions. When are you meeting, and for how long?
• Some people have physical issues such as decent light or the ability to hear.
6. Ensure that there is time for listening
Listen to each other, the church, the parish, and to God. This might involve small-group work, and it often involves introducing a topic for consultation several months before a decision is needed, so that people can think and talk about it.
Work particularly hard to make sure that a pressured agenda doesn’t silence those who are naturally quiet, and be prepared to sit on the motor-mouth in the group.
7. Challenge bad behaviour
This can be hard to get right, but it is important if you want to build a positive culture. Some people feel that they can speak or act in a PCC meeting in ways that they would never dream of elsewhere. This is not acceptable, but changing it takes strong leadership, and kind support for that leadership.
One way to start this is to spend a little time with the PCC agreeing the approaches that matter — such as the importance of listening, respect, prayerfulness, having a missional focus, and taking responsibility — if you are going to do your task well.
Take special care to challenge members of the “PCC rogues’ gallery” (see above).
8. Work to eradicate ‘politics’
By this I mean the worst type of politics. A PCC looks like a democracy (where people rule), but seeks to be a theocracy (where God rules). We hold responsibility for the whole church, not just “our bit”. So be careful of single-issue people or groups; bureaucratic snobs or bullies who belittle or dismiss others; and too much “lobbying” outside meetings.
9. Be thoughtful about ensuring representation and preparing new members
This may be construed as being the exact opposite of tip 8, and we need to be careful not to manipulate; but a PCC needs representative membership. When elections approach:
• Think together about what kind of roles need representing, and encourage people to stand. If you need someone who understands young people, or the needs of families seeking baptism, let the church(es) know that.
• Offer training and orientation for new members.
10. Invest in trust, and follow through
It is important that you do what you say you are going to do — and expect others to, as well. Minutes need action points and the names of those who say they are going to do them. During “Matters Arising”, people can be asked about what has happened since the last meeting.
11. Be as pastoral inside the meeting as you would be in church
Do not stop being Christian in meetings: this means keeping short accounts with each other. PCCs are stressful, and we all say things that we do not mean. Apology is part of being human and is central to being Christian — and so is grace. In particular, work to diffuse tension at the moment it arises.
In all of this, let us hold on to the fact that this is God’s task, and that we are privileged to be part of it together and in relationship with him. Honestly, I have never been to a perfect PCC, but . . . the PCC really can be the most encouraging meeting of the month.
The Rt Revd Mark Tanner is the Bishop of Berwick, in the diocese of Newcastle. He has served two incumbencies in Yorkshire, and was previously Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham.
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