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On the Meetings We Keep Having
Last week marked 16 years that my grandfather on my mother’s side has been gone. Had he lived to this month, he would have been 97. I wonder about the kind of conversations we would have had if he were still around.
What Are We Here For?
Most Americans weekly calendars are populated with meetings. They meet with their children’s teachers, co-workers, other subdivision residents, and Bible study groups. They gather for town hall meetings, staff meetings, scholarship committee meetings, public hearings, and sundry other gatherings. Let’s face it: we’re constantly getting together with other people for all sorts of reasons.
Not everyone is equally involved in or committed to their community, school, workplace, church, or other civic organizations. But the sheer number of people who feel that they are constantly joining or leaving a meeting means that people at least feel that these gatherings are worthwhile. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that people feel they are unavoidable or essential, even if often undesirable.
I once heard a wise person say that whoever enjoys meetings ought to be dragged into the street and shot. (Vivid, even if a little unrealistic.) Yet I think the sage was onto something. They may have been saying more about their own feelings about meetings than others’ feelings, but they were also asserting that seeing meetings as anything more than means to certain ends was misguided, maybe even demented.
What could cause meetings to be so unpleasant? If you participate in many, it’s not hard to come up with a list.
Problem #1 – The Absence of a Clear Agenda.
No one appreciates coming to a meeting without knowing why they are there. To state it differently, people need more than a vague sense of what matters need to be discussed and decided upon. Even if all the right bases are touched, a clear agenda is crucial to ensuring that (1) the right action points on each item are achieved, and (2) that a meeting doesn’t endure far longer than is necessary. I’ll say more on the former below.
As anyone can attest on the latter item, length of meeting is by no means any guarantee of better decisions. As Winston Churchill memorably said, “The head cannot take in more than the seat can endure.”
Problem #2 – The Inability of a Chairperson to Navigate an Agenda.
A good chairperson is worth his/her weight in gold. Often in conjunction with other committee members, they know the issues that need to be addressed in a given meeting. Thus, they’re able to construct an agenda that sounds the right notes.
But the agenda is only a first step, even if it is essential. A skilled chairperson must be able to guide meeting participants through that agenda. This is easier said than done. He/she must begin with a sense of how long a meeting can reasonably last, and how much time can reasonably be spent on each item. They have to provide proper context and background on issues that may require them. They have to engage in the dynamics of give-and-take as multiple parties ask questions and provide input. Sometimes the most challenging part is getting one participant to curtail their comments, while soliciting more thoughts from the less-verbose people. This is much more of an art than a science.
Problem #3 – The Absence of Clear Objectives Connected to the Agenda.
As I mentioned above, a good chairperson has to ensure that the agenda includes the right bases for the group/committee to touch together. But an agenda and competent chairperson are simply prerequisites for an additional step: the ability to find consensus and reach decisions on matters that require more than mere discussion and feedback. Without decisions or concrete action steps, the meeting will only give way to another meeting that sounds an awful lot like the prior meeting.
Decisions or action steps move the ball forward. They bring resolution. They initiate a matter or conclude one (depending on the issue). They leverage the consensus that has been reached for the good of a greater whole. If such goals weren’t the ultimate aim of meetings, then why meet?
It’s true that many times some meetings are purely for the purpose of allowing people to share concerns that they have been experiencing individually. Call them “hearings.” Sometimes meetings cannot be quickly reduced to a series of steps, outcomes, or decisions. In reality, a series of meetings precede any great initiative or plan. However, sometimes meetings fail because we remain in the “discussion and debate” mode, and we never move toward the endzone.
Problem #4 – The Excessive, Inordinate Use of the Meeting to Air Grievances.
While some meetings’ stated purpose are to give voice to people’s concerns—in fact, to some degree this must always be permitted—meetings too often become an occasion for grievance-airing. The same frustrated group of individuals come together to gripe, complain, vilify, and perhaps even accuse. Invariably, these are people who are pulling more than their own weight, people who struggle with conflict resolution, and/or people who have been in the organization long enough to develop open sores or callouses.
Those with open sores continue to feel the pain of what they feel to be problems or weaknesses. Those with calluses are past feeling. They go through the motions, unable to feel the excitement of the mission nor the pain of the others. While the latter may not be prone to air grievances, they are also problematic because they’re ill-equipped to know how to receive and respond to members with them.
Problem #5 – The Participants Didn’t Come with the Right Mindset.
Related to #4, both the perturbed, callused, and everyone in-between bring their own biases, tendencies, and outright sins to the table. Those can manifest in any given meeting. They have the capacity to undermine a well-constructed agenda and reasonably competent chairperson. It only takes a few to turn a meeting into a series of hobby horses, a grievance session, a few monologues, or World War III.
Granted, most organizations aren’t nearly this toxic. But they’re not impervious to it. One of the best antidotes to such situations is the much-needed “meeting before the meeting.” Often an executive, point person, and/or chairperson in the organization needs to sit down with one or two key members ahead of time to convey concern, empathy, and/or direction. Sometimes a well-timed, well-conceived sit-down with such parties gives a chance to ferret out any issues that may not be suitable for the larger meeting, but ones that do need to be communicated and responded to. More pointedly, if there is any suspicion that the meeting may be hijacked, a “pre-meeting meeting” can provide an opportunity to tamp down unguarded passions and set clear parameters.
Problem #6 – The Meeting That Happen Without the Necessary Parties.
Arguably the most frustrating experience for chairpersons, key officials, and administrators is the simple absence of people. Sometimes people just don’t show up. Often the loudest, most critical, and perennially unsatisfied members of an organization are those who remain outside the formal settings in which such criticisms could be aired publicly and addressed. Such people frequently prefer to work the back channels.
They gossip across the fence with their neighbor about the possibility of theft by the subdivision treasurer, but they don’t show up to the subdivision meeting where the financial statements are available for all to see and question.
They feed the rumor mill in the church parking lot about the “real reason” why the church leaders are proposing a significant purchase, but they don’t attend the members’ meeting/business meeting.
They constantly roll their eyes when they read of the County Council’s recent decisions in the local newspaper, but they’ve never attended a public hearing in their life.
Without question, it’s just easier not to show up. However, not showing up is a major reason why so many churches, schools, civic organizations, political parties, and homeowners’ associations are in crisis or decline.
I’m sure there are other reasons why many of us often find ourselves in meetings that dissatisfy us, but these are the six that I think we encounter most often.
We must choose. Are we going to be people who bail and check out, or the mature, Christian adults who lean in and lend our voices to the things we care about most?
In Newsletter #54 I wrote about the significance of liturgy. Last week I discussed a helpful article with my students on the subject of “technological liturgies.” At the Convivial Society, Michael Sacasas provides really keen analysis of technology, society, and life. Check out one of his best pieces, “Taking Stock of Our Technological Liturgies.”
Comment (Fall 2023)
Jerry Seinfeld, Is This Anything?
Quote of the Week:
There was a time when gay writers such as Andrew Sullivan argued that allowing same-sex marriages would simply permit gay people to be part of a conservative institution. It is now clear that gay marriage did not merely expand the set of those considered to be married, but fundamentally evacuated marriage of meaning—or, more accurately, exposed the fact that it had already been fundamentally evacuated of meaning by the ready acceptance of no-fault divorce. It is no longer a unique relationship whose stability is important for its normative ends, but little more than a sentimental bond that only has to last for as long as it meets the emotional needs of the parties involved.
Common Grace Wisdom (NEW!): Free Speech, Websites, and the Supreme Court
In multiple newsletters in the past (here, here, and here) I’ve written of the importance of the doctrine of common grace. Common grace is simply the teaching that God has poured out many gifts, including knowledge, on the entire human race. These gifts are essential to the preservation of society, including God’s own people’s activities in a fallen world. Think of common grace as a means by which God sustains and upholds human history and civilization. It isn’t sufficient to save anyone, but as Jesus himself said, “It rains on the just and unjust alike.”
Thus, the latest feature in this Substack newsletter: “Common Grace Wisdom” (CGW). Most weeks I’ll include a link to some CGW that I’ve encountered from an unbeliever, whether in a book, article, interview, or perhaps even in a conversation. Without further ado….
Artist and writer Angel Eduardo offers a concise and clear defense of the recent Supreme Court ruling in 303 Creative v. Elenis. Though Eduardo supports same-sex marriage, he supports the SCOTUS decision which awarded a legal victory to the Colorado website designer who refused to design a website announcing and promoting a same-sex wedding.
On My Mind: South Carolina Gamecocks
I wasn't very sanguine about South Carolina’s chances versus the Georgia Bulldogs in college football last weekend. At least they only lost by 10…