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December 19, 2011 / Richard Bass

Resources and Comments in Response to “Should We Have a Congregational Meeting?”

In “Should We Have a Congregational Meeting?” (the December 19, 2011 Alban Weekly), Alban senior consultant Susan Nienaber explains why congregation-wide meetings to “clear the air” and make decisions in response to controversial situations often do not work. She also suggests alternatives.

Why do such congregational meetings “go bad”? Nienaber outlines six reasons: (1) the format favors those who speak the loudest and provides little opportunity for deep listening; (2) especially if the controversy is long-standing, the meetings display predictable rhetoric; (3) without skilled moderators, such meetings encourage “irresponsible speech”; (4) in the atmosphere of a free-for-all, confidential information may be leaked; (5) meetings in sanctuary pews promote forward-facing, rather than face-to-face, communication; and (6) “most controversy can’t be voted away.”

What alternatives exist? Neinaber reminds readers that dialogue and discernment can happen separately from congregational voting; and if congregational meetings must be held, the moderator will benefit if she or he is assisted by someone who can help maintain the integrity of the process. Ultimately, however, the best option is not to use churchwide meetings to address “highly emotionalized issues,” believes Nienaber. Instead, leaders need to reconsider their options, inform the congregation about them, share details about decision-making, and “implement changes in productive, compassionate ways.”

What resources can support this more mature approach? In addition to the items listed at the end of the article, please consider these items annotated in the Congregational Resource Guide: Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Conflict and Change in Congregations; “Moving Your Church through Conflict“; and Standing in the Fire: Leading High-Heat Meetings with Clarity, Calm, and Courage.

What are your stories and thoughts on this topic? And what resources do you suggest? We look forward to hearing from you.


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  1. Deirdre White / Dec 19 2011 11:27 am

    Members of our church board often suggest taking surveys to address potentially, or already charged issues. I wonder whether some of the negatives would be similar to a full congregational meeting, but perhaps worse because of the “closed” form of response.

    • Judith Gotwald / Jan 4 2012 12:02 pm

      Surveys sound like a way of avoiding leadership and responsibility. They are “pre-votes” with probably no constitutional value in church decision-making. They may cause more problems when members challenge the count, the wording, the distribution and results. Church board members should not want to be in that position. They certainly don’t want to be bound by the “unofficial” results and that’s what they are asking for. What if things change before a congregational meeting? Losers will go back to the surveys and accuse leaders of maneuvering before the vote was taken. Sounds like trouble!

      Church boards should take the time to talk to members. When conflict arises there is no substitution for the personal touch.

  2. Judith Gotwald / Dec 19 2011 9:06 am

    Congregational meetings go awry for reasons.
    • There are power issues.
    • People feel that their interests are not being considered
    • Communities have a sense that outside forces or hidden agendas are manipulating the outcome.

    Conversely, meetings go well when people feel that what they have to say matters.

    I am a believer in meetings but I also believe a lot of work needs to be done outside the meetings.

    Too often in church settings, professional leaders want to dictate what they think is best and use “meetings” to force their way. Voting becomes a weapon.

    There are problems in calling for votes on sensitive matters prematurely. The outcome creates “winners” and “losers” and is rarely constructive. The ultimate goal is not to win but find a solution that will move ministry forward, hopefully without losing a third of your members.

    Outside moderators can be a disaster. They can arrive with the denomination’s interests as their agenda. At one such meeting the denominationally appointed moderator announced that the very issues the people desperately needed to address were not open to discussion. He then preceded to dictate to the assembled congregation what they should do.

    Attempting to side-step controversy is a terrible idea.

    There are two (at least) alternatives for calling for “the vote” — neither of them without challenges.

    Compromises are solutions only if each side gains something they want and loses something they want. Too often compromises are proposed in a series of meetings that are nothing more than steps toward getting one side to make concessions to the other. After three or four meetings, the prevailing side has everything they want and the losers are left feeling that they have been slowly and methodically fleeced.

    Asking the group to agree to work toward consensus can be helpful. This assures the minority (who are sometimes right) will be heard. When you begin the discussion by promising that no decision will be made without full approval of the entire body, people who really want their side to prevail will do more than “get out the vote.” They will know they have to work toward achieving their goals with consideration for others. Working toward consensus is a commitment. Used over time on smaller decisions, it can become a healthy habit for a congregation and contentious meetings will be few and very far between.

    It also helps to remind people of the ultimate reason for being a Christian community.

    On one very challenging day, the disgruntled had gathered and were chafing at the bit for an opportunity to expound. Each side was loaded for bear and it was not difficult to identify the opposing factions. The meeting leader handed out hymnals and asked the group to choose a hymn. One member shouted “Everyone turn to the funeral section.” But then an amazing peace fell on the group. They began discussing their favorite hymns. Eventually the group chose two or three which were all sung a capella.

    The atmosphere in the room shifted. They were able to work together to choose hymns and a few minutes later they were able to work together to resolve the serious issues facing the group. The moderator had made it clear that each person mattered and the ultimate goal was the glory of God.

    Meetings are important. It is best to do a lot of groundwork before the meeting. Visitation and private talks can calm things down and affirm each member that they are not being railroaded. They can have a say without a public demonstration.

    And there is work to be done after the meeting as well. Promises made in reaching a decision must be kept. Any “losers” must be visited and reminded that their views are still important and they can continue as valued contributors.

    Yes, it is work — but not more work than healing the wounds of a meeting gone bad.

  3. Jerrie W. Barber / Dec 19 2011 6:55 am

    I have found these guidelines helpful:

    I use some of these guidelines in each group I lead–with our without conflict–couseling sessions, Bible classes, etc. The boundaries help prevent conflict before it arises.

    If the size of the congregation does not prohibit, I like to spend an hour in interviewing each individual or family group before a meeting where conflict is present.

    • Judith Gotwald / Jan 4 2012 11:53 am

      Thanks for this link. For the most part, these are great suggestions.

      The only ones I find problematic may be limited to cross-cultural ministries. “Time” rules are not “the way the world works” but the way the “western world” works. Being on time is not important in some cultures. Our congregation has had to learn to accept that.

      You are right that spending time with each participant individually is a great investment in resolving and minimizing conflict. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t want to take the time and prefer a contentious, quickly reached decision to a more careful and considerate resolution.

      • Jerrie W. Barber / Jan 8 2012 8:49 pm

        Thank you for your observation on time. You are correct. I was on a mission trip to Jamaica. Someone asked, “What time is it?” I would have answered, “3:43:22.” My Jamaican friend said, “Afternoon.” The questioner replied, “Thank you.” That was close enough.

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