The Art/Science Of Chairing Meetings

By Herb Miller

“I hate meetings!” a layman said in the coffee break cluster of friends at a daylong denominational gathering. “I attend several business meetings every week,” a laywomen added. “Most of them are like church meetings, time wasters.” An associate pastor chimed in with a positive note: “We hear fewer complaints since our church instituted a January seminar for new committee chairpersons. We quit assuming that putting good people on committees automatically gives them skill in leading meetings.

What do handguns and meetings have in common? In the wrong hands, guns can kill people and meetings can murder ministry motivation. Capable chairpersons who know basics such as the following increase the likelihood that church members feel they are spending their time profitably.

Understand the chairperson’s role. Control your self-indulgence impulses. One clear signal of being over the line: hearing yourself talk a lot during discussions. Restrict interventions to a single sentence, or two at most. The only legitimate satisfaction in the chairperson role is recognizing that participants feel the meeting has achieved success. When committee members realize that the leader is committed to their common objective, controlling the meeting does not require great force of personality. Committee members no longer view the chair’s comments as a way of imposing his or her will on the group but as a way of imposing group will on anyone who diverts the progress of the discussion toward the group’s objective.

Research indicates that most effective meeting discussions have two leaders: a “team leader” (some call this the “social leader”) and a “task leader.” The chairperson must always assume the team leader role. Leave the task leader role either to (a) the “Martha type” that every committee has one of or (b) the committee member who shows the most passion for that agenda item. [Anthony Jay, “How to Run a Meeting,” Harvard Business Review on Effective Cornnrunication (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 1999), p. 46] Effective chairpersons restrain themselves from pushing a particular task as “their passion.” Instead, they establish a climate where one or more task leaders express their passions and the chairperson coaches the team, letting players explore imperfect thoughts and ideas as the team moves toward the goal line.

2. Start success prior to the meeting. Mail reminders of the meeting’s date, starting, and stopping time to all committee members, along with the agenda. Enclose all necessary written reports and any relevant statistics. Not everyone reads the reports in advance, but many will. This saves time because participants cannot legitimately delay a decision by saying, “I haven’t had time to study this.”

3. Begin on time. Never allow the people who arrive late to punish the people who get there on time. Starting on time changes the habit patterns of habitual late arrivals. Announce the stopping time during the call to order.

4. Define the meeting’s objectives. Distribute a copy of the agenda. Ask whether there are additional agenda items, and decide whether to add them or put them on the agenda for the next meeting. If people bring up controversial new agenda items at the end of the meeting, say, “We’ll need to put that on the agenda for next time.”

5. Stand strong against agenda drift. Stay on each item until it is finished. Examples: “That sounds like it applies to Item #…. Let’s discuss it when we get to that point.” “Could we discuss that at the next meeting, after we have decided…?” “I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s make a note of that so we can refer it to the Property Committee, since that is in their area of ministry responsibility.”

6. Encourage the clash of ideas but discourage the clash of personalities. If a discussion overheats, cool it by asking a neutral person a question. If possible, ask something that requires a purely factual answer, such as statistical information. In some cases rephrase the point under discussion to produce a bigger picture. Examples: “I think what John is really asking is … isn’t it?” “Is John really saying … instead of…?” “Joe, it sounds to me like you are saying…. Is that what you mean?” “Let’s move around the group and’ get input from several directions. Noreen, we haven’t heard your thoughts on this. What information would you add to this picture?”

7. Remember how sensitive mature people are to rejection. Creative solutions to complex agenda items come out of halfformed seed thoughts that make little sense at first hearing. Initial suggestions are easy to ridicule because they usually contain flaws that must be removed by discussion. Suppress your inclination toward the “squashing-reflex” that focuses on the flaw instead of the kernel of truth.

8. Allow digressions but control their length. Digressions from the agenda item sometimes add value. After taking a brief mental recess, people express their real feelings when the group recovers its agenda focus. Effective chairpersons terminate a digression before it pulls the group into a black hole. The restlessness of the group members is a good barometer. When people start talking with each other by twos, the digression has probably served its purpose. “This has been fun, but perhaps we ought to get on with our discussion of….”

9. Overcome bog down by reciting the options developed thus far and asking for more options. “Several of these ideas sound like they have some merit. Could we stop and review the various alternatives we have discussed? Orally list the various proposed solutions, without rejecting or criticizing any of them. Push the group to add additional items before criticizing any of them. When the chairperson encourages people to look for a better option just over the horizon, they often find it.

10. After each agenda item, briefly summarize the decision. This helps the secretary to state the minutes correctly while helping the group feel it has accomplished something. If responsibility for executing the decision is unclear, summarize with one of the following questions: “Who will be responsible for seeing that this is done? Will you, Helen?” “Will we try to get this done by the first of the month?” “Can you report on this at the next meeting, Harry?”

11. If you cannot complete an agenda item, restructure it or postpone the decision. Do not force a vote on something in which consensus has not been reached and there remains a real difference of opinion among members. Examples: “I can see some real values in both ways to deal with this, but neither one feels exactly right to me. Let’s give ourselves some more time to think about it by putting the decision off until the next meeting.” “Could we ask Joe to look into this and get some more facts, then discuss it again next month?” “Let’s ask Henry, Terry, and Susan to research this and bring recommendations to the next meeting.”

Chairpersons often fail to terminate dead-ended discussions early enough. Close the discussion when it is clear that (a) you need more facts, (b) you need input from people not present at this meeting, (c) members need more time to reflect on the options, (d) something is going on below the surface of this issue, perhaps something emotionally rooted in interpersonal relationships that must get fixed before a decision is possible, (e) an upcoming event could make today’s decision invalid, (f) you do not have enough time to deal with it today, or (g) two or three people working on this matter during the next few days is wiser than devoting meeting time to it.

Do not, however, close an agenda item’s discussion just because the decision is difficult to make, unwelcome to one of the committee members, or likely to be disputed by someone who hears about the decision. Fear of openingly discussing and deciding on a conflicted issue in a meeting usually lengthens its duration and increases its damage.

12. Kindly but firmly restrain dysfunctional committee members. Examples: The dominating, over-talker: “Let’s move around the group and hear the opinion of each person.”

The doomsday prophet (he or she feeds an attention addiction by predicting impending catastrophes). “That surely is a problem all right. What are some ways that you see us solving it?” If nothing constructive is forthcoming in the next two minutes, say, “That is not an unimportant issue, but let’s get back to our agenda.” If the doomsday prophet says something constructive, ask the group, “Does that fit with another agenda item, or should we put it on the agenda for a future meeting?”

The angry grenade thrower This type of personality dumps an emotional tirade into the meeting. Everyone goes quiet. hoping to avoid involvement and injury. Follow these rules: Listen patiently until he runs down. Ask questions to be sure you understand his position. Tell him you agree with a specific part (or the principle) of what he is saying. but you are not sure -you agree with some other parts. Ask him why he feels strongly. Smile even when disagreeing with him. Ask him for suggestions concerning how to correct the problem. Tell him you appreciate his willingness to share his feelings. Move back to the agenda.

13. Conclude with a sense of accomplishment. Even if one or two items remain unsolved, refer to one important agenda item “that we can celebrate as a breakthrough.”

14. Prepare appropriate governing board report. Some churches suggest the following pattern for all committee reports: Committee name, meeting date, chairperson, committee members present, other people present. and meeting content: (a) Our committee discussed the following agenda…. (b) Our committee took the following actions (jobs assigned, to whom, due date, etc.)…. ‘(c) Our committee makes the following recommendations for board approval….

15. Promptly transmit meeting minutes. Request any comments about inaccuracies within twenty-four hours, while all parties remember what transpired. Immediate minutes provide a sense of successful closure while preventing unnecessary discussion at the next meeting about whether an item is accurate.

The Bottom Line

Meetings got their bad reputation the old fashioned way. They earned it. Yet meetings are not the real culprits. Ineffective chairing is the villain. Good meetings happen when their leaders have passion for the ministries under discussion and skill in guiding group members to use their creativity in an organized way. How effectively do your church’s chairpersons lead committee meetings?