Talk less, listen more
OVER the years, when I’ve got bored in meetings, I’ve totted up the proportion of time different people speak for. Too often, half of a council meeting is just the chair in monologue. Frankly, that’s not even a committee: it’s a badly planned seminar, and most people end up checking emails or day-dreaming. Councils are meant to seek wisdom, and the chair’s job is to draw this out of the gathered members.
Tip: The person chairing a meeting usually also has influence outside the room; when chairing, prioritise listening, shaping the meeting, correcting misunderstanding, asking questions, and giving brief information.
Sit on the interminable bores
THE problem, though, is not only chattering chairs. Council meetings seem to attract interminable bores who seem to believe that they have a key insight into everything, which must be expounded at ridiculous length and in minute detail. Given that Canon Q37, subsection F, paragraph three sadly outlaws the application of duct tape to the mouth of the bearded gentleman in the corner when he raises his 73rd point of order (despite being overruled on the previous 72), we need people chairing who can manage meetings (without resorting to Canon F15.3, for those who like nerdy ecclesiastical humour). Work hard to draw in the quiet ones. Contain the interminable bores. Enable genuinely expert contributions.
Tip: Be unapologetic and directive in this: “Wait a moment, Fred, we have not heard from Mavis yet.” Or “I see several people wanting to talk. Let’s start with Pete.” Or “Take five minutes to talk with those around you, and then we’ll will work round the room to hear from everyone.”
Get a watch
ONE of the greatest gifts that a good chair can offer is to manage the time in a meeting, both in terms of the overall length of the gathering, but also in terms of the time spent on each item. Plan ahead, have a timed agenda with thought-through elasticity, and allocate time according to the council’s priorities.
Tip: If people don’t like this, don’t impose it: take a couple of meetings at which everything’s discussed at length, and then seek a way forward together.
Shape the agenda (with others)
THIS works best when you have crafted the agenda carefully. Put the things that need imagination, time, focus, and work, at the beginning, when people have energy, and leave important-but-easily-distractable stuff to the end (unimportant stuff should be “deemed items”: transparently public and accountable, but not wasting time). That way, others are on your side when that person wants to take 20 minutes (again) on why there are tulips rather than daffodils by the church door.
When there is a big decision, always try to make the time to discuss it at one meeting and decide at the next. Good chairs shape the overall agenda, not just meeting by meeting.
Tip: Pray; whip through apologies, minutes, and matters arising; and then do no more than two chunky missional items. Finance, synod reports, quinquennial inspections, and correspondence can come at the end. Items for Any Other Business are acceptable only if tabled before the start of the meeting.
Bring in new voices
VARY the voices by inviting those with insight to attend council meetings when relevant, to contribute their expertise or perspective to the conversation. Councils should listen to those who know what they are talking about, not least because it is far more interesting.
Tip: Also sneakily use this to work out whom to encourage to stand for future election. And, if people lack confidence, let them come in numbers (e.g. invite two or three teenagers when talking about youth matters).
Fear universal unanimity
BE AFRAID, be very afraid, if everyone agrees all the time. They don’t really (no one ever does); it just means that they are scared, bored, uninterested, or don’t think that their voice will make any difference. Stop everything at once, and change the culture.
Tip: When a mindless unanimity threatens, actively draw out conversation and debate. Provoke it, if you need to, by (gently) challenging a prevailing view, or asking a stimulating question.
Have some fun
MAKE sure that you know how to have fun as well as work together. Have a social, sometimes. Notice when things are funny. Tell a story. Puncture pomposity. Always have refreshments. Be human.
Tip: Councils operate on trust, and trust is a relational thing. Relationships only get so far if they are all work and no play. Meet people, and let them meet you.
Vary learning and working styles
AND when you are working, make sure you mix things up so that all can contribute. Debate. Have presentations. Do small group work. Go out to look at stuff. Pray. Use Skype. Pray.
Tip: This is a really good way to draw the less confident into meetings. Sidle up and ask how the meetings could be better, or what would help them contribute, or if they will help with something — and then try new things.
Cover the navels and focus outside
EVERY council needs to be led out of the bear-trap of narcissistic self-obsession. PCCs are about mission. Jesus has a bias to the lost. In all you do, look outward. Belly-button fluff is fascinating to us, but pretty useless and fairly disgusting to others — even when it’s the Church’s belly-button.
Tip: Imagine you are telling your grandchildren about this meeting one day: would you be proud of the difference you made?
Keep Christ front and centre
MOST importantly, keep this meeting Christian, worshipful, and prayerful. James tells us that: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Start, finish, and punctuate the meeting with prayer, and bring the conversation back to God, to the Bible, to the Fathers, to mission, or to the liturgy with regular and persistent determination.
Tip: It’s great to have a Bible, a cross, and a candle in the middle, with some unlit tea-lights. Light the candle as you pray to start the meeting, and let it be known that any member of the council can light a candle when they feel they need to pray during the meeting. It’s amazing how this simple act reminds and refocuses us on who we are, and what we are called to.
The Rt Revd Mark Tanner is 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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