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On the Meeting Before the Meeting
Last week I wrote about meetings. Let’s circle back around to that theme once more.
A Great Question
Soon I’ll publish my 100th newsletter since launching Churchatopia in January of 2022 (Around 115 posts overall). By now readers have discovered that I write on any topic that interests me. That said, I’m quite sure that readers help set the agenda for this little online experiment. If people didn’t care about any of these topics, I’d pivot to ones they did care about it. Thankfully, there’s a substantial overlap between my interests in yours!
The best way readers let me know what’s on their mind and what they think of what they’re reading is by emailing me. I do appreciate the comments readers leave on the page from time to time, but most engagement ends up in my email inbox, which leads me to today’s topic: the meeting before the meeting.
In my last newsletter I wrote about the meetings many of us are often having. In one section, I spoke about the function and value of having a “meeting before the meeting.” Here’s the relevant excerpt:
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 hobby horse, a grievance session, a few monologues, or World War III.
Granted, most organizations aren’t nearly this toxic. But they’re not impervious to toxicity. 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.
An astute reader and leader of a fairly large Christian organization wrote to me and asked this:
How would you differentiate this from politicking to steer an issue or decision the way one might prefer it go? Would this lend credibility to the accusation that some things are “cut & dried” behind closed doors before the main meeting.
With this person’s permission, I’ve republished their question here because it’s a legitimate concern that merits a response.
Context is King
It’s difficult to answer this question briefly, though I attempted to do this via email exchange with them. The difficulty lies in the simple truism that context is king. What type of organization are you involved in? What’s the specific organizational role of the person leading the meeting? What rights, privileges, and responsibilities do the attendees have with respect to the organization? What’s the current climate? Most important, what’s the specific purpose of the meeting in question?
How one answers these will determine the best practices concerning the management of meetings, as well as any pre-meeting measures one might take to ensure that order, unity, and mission fulfillment are maintained.
Some settings have specific rules (and even laws) which prohibit certain types of communication outside of formal channels or meetings. While most of us aren’t in that situation, it’s not uncommon in the larger world.
On the other end of the spectrum, if the meeting leader is the chief officer in the organization, they have a responsibility to be available to field questions, concerns, and help guide people by providing them with accurate information. The “how” or the “when” isn’t inconsequential, but one can easily imagine any number of one-on-one meetings that may be necessary over time. In fact, being available for such meetings is essential to cultivating trust.
Trust is King, Too!
I’ve written in earlier newsletters (including Newsletter #41) on the perils and possibilities of trust. Without it, progress is impossible. Our nation’s political gridlock and division is easily explained by the fact that almost every major social institution is generally or largely distrusted by the public. This doesn’t mean that distrust and suspicion are inevitable. There are plenty of shining examples of organizations, churches included, who demonstrate unity and a high level of trust among members and leaders.
Highlighting the role of trust speaks to the heart of our fellow reader’s question above. The question hints at a certain type of organization member who believes that input, dialogue, debate, and majority-rule are illusions. All the major decisions happen in smoke-filled rooms well before the main meeting has happened. Clearly, trust is an issue.
Leaders will never be able to fully vanquish the human tendency to doubt and distrust, but they can pursue the value of being “above reproach” through word and deed. This includes following organizational rules and norms—which themselves include the way meetings are conducted and how proper boundaries are respected.
I would warn those holding meetings before the meeting, if they seek to silence deliberative, collective decision-making on matters where input is necessary (procedurally) and expected (historically), then at best we do a disservice to our constituents, and at worst we give them reason to doubt our receptiveness to their concerns, suggestions, and wisdom. Ultimately, we derail our mission and vision.
I would say to the one who lodges such accusations, “What concrete evidence do you have to impugn the character of your brothers and sisters? The Bible speaks pretty forcefully against gossip, slander, and character assassination. You have an obligation to register your concern, but not without facts and arguments.” (I’d have more to say, but certainly the background of the accuser and their exact claims would shape my response.)
What Are You Really Doing?
One of the best ways to keep our motives and tactics in check is to ask regularly, “What am I really doing?” This is where our actual actions and internal motivations come together. (Look closely!) If a special meeting is called with one, two, or a small number of people prior to a meeting, just be clear to yourself and to them what you’re doing.
“We’ve been receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback to this new proposed initiative. However, I realize it will affect you disproportionally. Can you just share with me what your concerns are? How would you do it differently, while still accomplishing the same goal that we’ve all committed to reaching?”
“Our upcoming meeting is about a very sensitive matter. Everyone has the right to share their opinion in it, including you. However, when you go around discussing the matter and insinuating things which aren’t true, you are risking your own integrity and the integrity of the people directly involved. Will you commit to pray about this with me and reserve further comments until we get in session?”
“I know you four feel strongly about this matter. However, I have to remind you that in order to vote on this subject, you have to have paid your annual dues. Yet you are all delinquent. We’re happy to let you catch up with those so you can attend and fully participate, but you need to take care of that. I’m doing this now so I won’t have to call you out of order in the meeting.”
These scenarios could apply to several different types of organizations and meetings. Some assume a one-on-one meeting, while others assume multiple parties. The key is to avoid a threatening tone or demeanor, be clear about the concern or goal, and seek to help people go about things in a legitimate way that honors the organization’s purpose and respects its other members.
But Don’t Forget…
I’m not trying to imply that things can’t get messy. Our world is incredibly messy, and sometimes organizational life is, too. That being the case, I’ll provide some extra reminders that can minimize, even if not altogether eliminate, friction and chaos.
1-Be slow to meet with people one-on-one. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate, but it can be risky. First, a one-on-one meeting can sometimes make you more susceptible to the charge of doing backroom meetings, ironically enough. It can cause people to wonder, “Well who else are you meeting with like this?” Second, it can also be highly impractical and inefficient to meet with too many people this way, depending on the size of the organization. Third, it can create a precedent going forward that conveys that you will always give a private audience to someone who seems to always be the one raising questions. Fourth, your words can be used against you. Fairly or unfairly, this happens often. Having another party present, especially a neutral party or someone known for their honesty and integrity, can help substantiate anything that is or isn’t said.
On a related note, some people will say things to you privately that they’d never say in a public meeting, and some will say things in a public meeting they’d never say to you privately. Such is human nature.
2-Don’t shirk your responsibility to lead. Concerns about things being decided in advance are often conflated with another normal function: the obligation of an executive, committee, or individual leader to bring a proposal, suggestion, or idea to the body for discussion and approval. What makes most naysayers and skeptics alike is the fact that they seldom have leadership responsibilities. They’re not used to having the responsibility to do spadework, and then bring their work before others to be scrutinized. Moreover, they may just be ignorant of the fact that certain organizational functions have been officially delegated to another person or body to study, figure out, and then propose.
Occasionally, leaders get a little weak-kneed in the face of such people. They stop leading. They show up to a meeting and say, “So what do y’all want to do?” Soliciting feedback is one thing; ceding leadership and vision is another.
Don’t let suspicious over “backroom decisions” stop you for simply doing your job—a job most others usually appreciate you for doing.
3-Show your homework. Too often people’s distrust and doubt stems from a lack of detail. They have trouble seeing what preceded the meeting they’re in, and so they wonder if the agenda is half-baked. Or, they simply lack the imagination to appreciate the level of research, prayer, and planning that resulted in what lies before then. It’s possible to overshare. (Believe me, I’m one of those types!) However, I must say that all my experience and observation tell me that leaders under-share. They don’t connect the dots. They assume too much. The make the classic leadership error of assuming that their audience has been living with them inside their own heads. Or, they simply think that leadership is a simplistic exercise in executive authority, without any instruction, give-and-take, and patient interaction.
We all had math teachers in middle and high school who required us to show how we arrived at our answer to a specific equation. Perhaps in a meeting we could include mention of prior meetings, how the proposal or idea came to exist, and even ways that individual members helped contribute to it, even when they didn’t realize it.
People usually don’t like leaders with the Mount Sinai syndrome. In this scenario, the meeting leader is Moses who went up on the mountain, and God spoke to him alone. Now take these tablets and like ‘em!
4-Be honest about what you don’t know. Humility is an essential characteristic of all Christian leaders. Sometimes it’s better to define humility by illustrating it. Being willing to stand before people and say of some component of your idea, “I don’t know yet about this,” is a powerful gesture. It points to our own finitude and the fact that we are still learning and growing ourselves. It can also point to our reliance on the Holy Spirit and the members of the organization to walk hand-in-hand to see something great accomplished.
These four reminders are important in the context of the main meeting, but they also assume what the questioner above was concerned about. People will always wonder about how the sausage is made. Sometimes it’s just curiosity. Sometimes it’s distrust. Sometimes it’s an indicator that someone in the main meeting is the type of person who would serve the organization well by being in the earlier meetings. They have wisdom and insight to offer.
Whenever you have a meeting before the meeting, be mindful of appearances, and measure your words and intentions carefully. And ask God and close confidants to help show you the difference between leadership and persuasion and manipulation and control.
In Newsletter #79, I wrote about the enduring influence of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. My friend Chris Talbot has recently reviewed my favorite Schaeffer book, True Spirituality. Take a look at his review over at the Gospel Coalition.
Samuel James, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Wisdom in an Online Age.
Quote of the Week:
A funny thing happened to us on the way to social prominence. If the media spoke of the church in the 1950s, they were primarily speaking of the ‘mainline denominations.’ That has all changed since then. Today, if the media speaks about Christians or Christianity, they are talking about us, the evangelicals. Evangelicalism has taken center stage. Yet in that same period, as we have become the face of Christianity, the moral life of the nation has gone into the cesspool.
What has happened? Why have we not made an impact on the life of the nation? I suggest that the answer is that the gospel we have preached has not actually anticipated such a change. Do you remember the popular bumper sticker of several years ago? It said, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ Does that not seem a little odd in view of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:48, “You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”? What was that bumper sticker saying? It was saying that no one should expect the behavior of a Christian to be substantially different from that of the lost. Both Christians and the lost behave badly, but Christians are forgiven.
John N. Oswalt, “Holiness: God’s Goal for Human Life.”
Common Grace Wisdom (NEW!): Paganism, Christianity, and Human Value
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….
Louise Perry has become a significant voice on questions of gender, sexuality, and feminism. Her 2022 title The Case Against the Sexual Revolution was widely discussed, and deservedly so. Her recent article in First Things, “We Are Repaganizing,” is a startling and provocative argument of the ways in which pagan thought and practice characterize modern Western culture. Check out the excerpt below, as well as her article linked above:
When we accept the Christian emphasis on weakness as a crucial prior, many other moral conclusions follow. Slavery becomes unacceptable, as does the rape of low-status women. To point out the vulnerability of women, children, the poor, the enslaved, and the disabled is to argue in favor of their protection, not their persecution. Dress it up in secular language if you like, talk of “human rights” or of “humanism,” but this system of morality is far from universal.
On My Mind: Garnett & Carol Reid
This past week, my former professor Garnett Reid went to be with the Lord. He and his wife Carol were very kind and supportive during my years as a student at what was once Free Will Baptist Bible College, now Welch College. He was an excellent preacher, and effective teacher. I enjoyed taking Homiletics, Christ in the Old Testament, and Psalms with him. Rest in peace.