As a Baptist, I am committed to congregational church government. Unfortunately, some churches practice an unhealthy form of church government which does more harm than good. In these cases, acrimonious business meetings are usually a clear sign of church that has an unhealthy inward focus and is in decline, and such hostile meetings are counterproductive to fulfilling the Great Commission. Thom Rainer comments on this problem: “Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires.”
While business meetings can be a great cause for anxiety, they need not be. Here are some ideas for avoiding acrimonious business meetings in a local church:
1. Don’t have monthly business meetings. Quarterly business meetings are more than sufficient to address a church’s needs. When business meetings are held too frequently, committed members become weary of another request by the church for their time and they often stop attending. Unfortunately, highly motivated and divisive people are often not involved in ministry, but they will make time to attend every business meeting to second guess decisions made by leadership. One way to handle this problem is to give them less opportunity to be divisive by eliminating monthly business meetings and going to a quarterly business meeting. I cannot see any reason for a church to have monthly business meetings.
2. Always have “the meeting before the meeting.” The pastor, to the best of his ability, should discuss details surrounding important motions with the appropriate groups or key leaders in the church. The pastor should contact the church clerk before the meeting and alert him or her to any major decisions which may be coming so the clerk can be prepared to keep accurate records of important votes.
3. Prepare hearts and minds. Always begin the meeting with Bible reading, prayer and music. Review the ground rules for appropriate behavior beforehand.
4. Remind everyone what is most important. Have photographs of martyred missionaries or unreached people groups on the image screen. This reminds people of what is really important. One hopes that a person would be less likely to argue about inconsequential issues while looking at a photograph of Bill Wallace of China!
5. Vote on an agenda and include a time limit for each item. I think this is the most essential step to avoiding the horror stories of interminable business meetings characterized by rancor. Most churches have an agenda, but they include no time limits for individual points. Not including time limits for each agenda item is a major mistake!
Having open-ended time limits allows one or two highly manipulative people to drag discussion out to an inordinately and unhealthy length of time. The first item voted on in the business meeting is the agenda. Simply include a time limit by each item. When the agenda is approved, the time limit for each item is approved as well. For example, the order of business may say, “Finance Committee Report – 10 minutes.” This simple procedural step would avoid the horror stories I’ve heard of business meetings dragging for two hours or more of debate and dispute.
6. Have structure for the meetings. Robert's Rules of Order can be abused, but when used properly they really do establish good ground rules for a public meeting. Here are some basics to remember as a leader and to teach to the church as a whole.
- All comments in the meeting are to be directed to the chair.
- All comments must be made in the form of a motion or as a point of order. The business meeting is nota time for standing up and spouting out complaints or public brainstorming! (The brainstorming takes place in the meeting before the meeting!)
- No one is allowed to attack someone else’s character. Comments must be directed to the subject at hand.
- Provide an agenda for the meeting and have the church approve the agenda. Have a specific time limit for each section of the agenda.
- Don’t be afraid of healthy debate. Let people state their opinion provided it is on the subject at hand. Remember, most people are afraid to speak in public, so when they do, they have a tendency to be nervous and emotional with the accompanying elevated pitch to their voice. Encourage calmness.
- The motion to “move the previous question” can be a wonderful tool. Teach your folks what it means. Basically, it is a privileged motion that is non-debatable. The motion to “move the previous question” is essentially a vote to stop debate and move forward with the vote on the issue at hand, if the body approves by 2/3 majority. This is especially helpful if rather unpleasant people are attempting to stall the inevitable approval of an idea they don’t like.
- Remember, the purpose of Robert's Rules is to ensure the right of the majority to decide and the minority to be heard.
- The motion to adjourn is non-debatable as well.
- I strongly suggest churches do not have an open-ended section of the agenda labeled “new business.” This invites immature and ill-prepared people to ask the church to do all sorts of odd things. Instead, if motions are to be made, make sure they come from the appropriate committee or committees within the church.
- Finally, the moderator must remember that “non-verbal” language often speaks louder than words. As difficult as it may be, try to have a pleasant demeanor and avoid the “furrowed brow” as much as is possible. Try to smile!
This list is not exhaustive nor is it perfect, but these applying these suggestions can take much of the anxiety out of church business meetings.