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How to Build Better Meetings

Eight challenging ways to improve meetings

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Back when food preparation was transitioning from a series of home chores to an industry, one bread company touted its brand as “building strong bodies eight great ways.” It was more hype than fact, but it gives us a fine framework for considering how to improve the quality of meetings because it’s helpful to think of that challenge as a bodybuilding one.

We know that as a Church we are actually a body. And not just any body. We are the Body of Christ. St. Paul told us so more than once. It’s in the Bible. We can look it up. But for now, let’s think in terms of “eight great ways” we can build up the Body of Christ in a parish or ministry by addressing the challenge of holding better meetings.

1. Disposition Matters

When we help people learn how to “lead like Jesus,” we point out that “leadership begins on the inside.” Effective leadership begins with a properly disposed heart, one as much like Jesus’ own as possible. That means we have to lead as mission-centered, focused on serving God. Our motivations matter because they inevitably “bleed through” us in words and deeds, large and small, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

If we’re leading to look good, be promoted, be deferred to or be put on a pedestal, our followers will figure it out and lose their enthusiasm for following. They will drift off or focus on doing the absolute minimum to comply, becoming more interested in looking after themselves than after the organization’s mission. If you’re primarily looking out for yourself, and they are primarily looking out for themselves, who is looking after the mission? No wonder the organization struggles.

Good meetings begin with good leaders who are mission-centered. Their words and actions inspire other team members — organs of the body — to be mission-centered, too. When everyone is focused on mission, things go better. Time spent in prayer, learning and growing in service to your organization’s mission — loving and serving God and his people — will pay great dividends down the line. Don’t cheat yourself, your people or God by indulging a self-serving heart.

2. Start with Purpose

Meetings should serve a purpose. Since your general purpose is always serving God, always begin with prayer. Formal prayer is fine, but a personal word or two can make the experience more compelling. If petitions are appropriate, encourage others to contribute to them.

Since there are different purposes for meetings, you should schedule different kinds of meetings. Some teams hold daily meetings so members can coordinate activities and align expectations for the workday. If that’s your purpose, keep it short by having everyone stand. The agenda is self-evident, so no need for a written one. Get it started. Get it done.

Weekly meetings are more common. They usually incorporate larger purposes and involve longer-range considerations, especially group efforts. Here an agenda is needed. List the items to be addressed, along with how much time will be taken and what you hope to accomplish with each. Are you looking to discover, explore, explain, discuss or decide a matter? Note it to align expectations.

As a general rule, the more time between meetings, the more preparation is required. For monthly and less frequent meetings, poll team members for items they would like included on the agenda. If you need clarification about an item, get it before the meeting. Consider a group reading of 1 Cor 12:4—13:13 at least once a year.

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Wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI

book“The risen Lord is the new Temple, the real meeting place between God and man.”

— “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, $19.95)

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3. Be Body Aware

Since we are a body, we should think and act like a body. Some bodily functions are simple and straightforward, others complicated. Software developers quickly learned that it was easier to get computers to make good, multifactor decisions than to get a robot to walk with a human gait. Why? Because walking upright is a more complex task than making many decisions. Walking requires lots of coordination up and down the whole body, and that requires lots of interaction and feedback. It’s the same with organizations.

What happens when you burn yourself? Does your hand ask for directions from the head? No, it moves quickly to stop the burn. It also lets the whole body know what’s going on. Perhaps the other hand holds the one in pain. Then perhaps the head decides the hand should be immersed in water or the body should head to the emergency room. Stopping the hurt is a simple matter. Fixing the damage is more complex and requires more coordination. In the same way, not all issues benefit from group consideration, yet some do. Be discerning.

4. Build Community

All body parts — even what St. Paul calls “our less presentable parts” — do their best to care for one another. So should our team have a sense of common life and purpose. That means we have to devote some time to intentionally building community, and that’s a very important purpose for meetings.

Get everyone to participate. A good way is to go around the table and ask everyone to share a recent success, large or small. It gets everyone involved, and once people become comfortable sharing their successes, they are more comfortable sharing their challenges, even their failures — things perhaps best to engage the whole team to solve.

Some effective leaders schedule meetings or other gatherings whose only purpose is to build community. Consider doing that, but be mindful of how the activity will affect team members’ lives. Overnight retreats may put a huge strain on some team members with family obligations. Don’t assume; ask.

5. Communicate

This may seem too obvious to mention, but it seldom is. It’s almost impossible to overcommunicate, yet it’s Forrest Gump simple to leave some or all team members in the dark about all manner of things. A big part of leadership is making the implicit explicit. Always seek feedback. Get it with quick questions. “All clear?” “Any questions?” “Will someone explain this in their own words?”

Journalists like to say, “The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” That’s as good a rule of thumb as I’ve ever heard.

6. Keep Focus

Like the road to hell, the road to disastrous meetings is paved with good intentions. Time spent preparing agendas is wasted if we don’t stick to them. Time spent developing succinct reports is wasted when we let discussion drift off to parts unknown. Drifts don’t have to be stifled. Instead, defer them for another time and place. Except during a crisis, it’s generally better to defer than to indulge.

If you’re not sure how much latitude to allow, ask your team. Often team members will have helpful observations to offer. And, in any event, your question breaks the momentum of the drift, making it easier to get back on course.

7. Share the Space

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It’s been a tradition in medicine that the surgeon can do no wrong and everyone else should defer to his whims. But then research discovered that the tradition was costing patients’ lives. It was discovered that one way to do better is to add a brief prep time when each member of the surgical team introduces himself or herself and explains his or her purpose in the procedure.

Another way to do better is to have someone other than the surgeon read a checklist of preparations involving the team. The principle at work is that if you want to function as a team, you’ve got to behave as a team. When the leader does all the talking, the followers become more passive. Instead, get the followers to do some leading. The lesson for other leaders: share the space. Look for opportunities to get other team members driving the bus, actually helping to shape the proceedings.

While participating in some high-level team meetings at USCCB headquarters some years ago, I noticed the leader never offered an opinion until it came time for him to summarize the discussion. Then, only after everyone else had an opportunity to contribute did he share his opinion — perhaps a better one than he had before the meeting because he had listened to his team members.

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Book Teaches Us to Lead Like Jesus

bookIn Owen Phelps’ book The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, Shepherd (OSV, $14.95), readers will discover the power of Christ’s example of leadership. You and each of your parishioners are called to leadership — whether we like it or not. By discovering Christ’s personal and practical example, we can make a measurable difference in the live of those around us. We need to transform our leadership style in light of Jesus’ compelling combination of servant, steward and shepherd. Phelps shows us a way by following the path of the greatest leader of all time.

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8. Assure Continuity

You won’t make progress plowing the earth if you keep going over the same ground. In meetings, it’s easy to keep repeating the same discussion if you don’t have good, easily accessible records of earlier proceedings. It’s amazing the things we can forget we’ve done if we don’t have a record of them. Make sure you have good minutes of all your meetings. You don’t need a complete transcript, but you do need more than a list of topics discussed. Good minutes do not look like an agenda. When a decision has to be revisited, that’s fine. Just know that you are doing it — and why.

Last thing: Always close your meetings with a prayer of gratitude — brief and from the heart is best. A sentence or two will do. God’s grace abounds. We must remind each other of that often.

OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is executive director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book “The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, Shepherd” (OSV, $14.95).

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St. Paul on Spiritual Gifts

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

“To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.”

— 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

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