I spend my life at meetings. Most of them, I wonder why.
Once I knew a person who just loved meetings. He used to arrive so enthusiastic, and he enjoyed the process. I don’t think I have ever been like that. But I have come to value a good meeting.
It’s not a process. It’s an event. Meeting is a verb, not just a noun.
I have some ideas about what makes a good meeting.
Often when I come home from a night meeting, my wife will ask: So (after all this time, she implies) did anything happen? Is anything different in the world?
Those questions come from our expectation that meetings are about results. They are about getting things done.
Most of the time, that seems appropriate.
For this reason, I think, the Australian businessman Dick Smith once said that when he ran his own business, no meeting lasted longer than 20 minutes. He said they used to have lots of short meetings, each one focussed on a specific issue. Someone had to prepare the matter and present the issues, the options, the consequences of various possible actions—and from that, the group made a decision. If only all matters were this concise, this clear!
Still, there is something to be said for the policy: I think all meetings should have a target finishing time, announced in advance and generally agreed, and then the people need a good reason to go beyond that time.
Then again, here is another story which has really encouraged me in thinking about meetings. I know someone who works in Human Resources within a major government department, given to the administration of justice and law enforcement. Several years ago, a new chief in this area has introduced a major change of culture in the entire department. She has asked (maybe it is no accident that it is ‘she’) that all meetings begin with a short time of what she calls ‘reflection’. This is a government bureaucracy: they take turns, and someone may lead with a short reading, maybe a poem, or perhaps invite people to look at a painting, or some flowers, or simply to pay attention to their own feelings, how they are feeling today. The range is broad and non-threatening. It is not overtly religious, though my friend once read a Psalm, and this was accepted.
What has happened is a real transformation of how people behave in meetings. People are much more themselves, and actually get on with each other, and work together more effectively.
In short: they meet. They meet each other.
What makes a good meeting is the meeting of persons with each other as persons, not just as functionaries dealing with ‘the agenda’.
The lesson of this story is that you can actually deal with the agenda more effectively if you meet together as persons.
Meeting, as a verb, is about presence. It involves presence to and for each other.
I have heard about, and sometimes seen, the situation where a person is ‘in’ a meeting, but not there at all. A person can be there but they are not present.
A good meeting is one where we are there, really present to and for each other.
In the Baptist tradition of the church, the local congregation gathers to deal with its communal life in what is called ‘The Church Meeting’. This too is meant to be a verb as well as a noun.
The Church Meeting is, ideally, not just a meeting with each other but is seen as a meeting with God, in and through each other.
Here, there are a few more things which contribute to a good meeting.
1. We do need to be present to and for each other. That means, like in that government department, we need to take the time to reflect on what we are doing, and perhaps leave some emotions, maybe some ‘baggage’ at the door, in order to be free for the meeting.
2. We also need to be free in the meeting. If people are unable to speak, maybe because the structure makes this difficult or the mood is unwelcoming, or set persons control all that is happening (sometimes without saying a word!) this is not really a meeting. There has to be freedom, in relationship, for people to meet genuinely.
3. It is also true that a meeting needs preparation and leadership. In many contexts, I feel that we should not hold a meeting if the agenda has not been prepared. It does not respect people’s valuable time, to ask them to come to a meeting without a proper agenda and purpose. A good leader or chair person can enable the meeting, not just get through the agenda.
Presence, preparation, purpose and pastoral leadership: these things can make a huge difference to a meeting. In all of them, we have a part to play, all the people meeting. And God’s Spirit is ‘in the midst’ enabling the meeting.