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Effective meetings bring churches to life, instead of boring them to death

A better way to look at meetings and why you should reinvent yours, from the Willow Creek Association’s Defining Moments series.

By Bethanie Hestermann

From time to time Church Executive in conjunction with the Willow Creek Association presents an abridged version of one of the Defining Moments programs produced by the WCA. This session, entitled “Death by Meeting,” features Patrick Lencioni, author of the book Death by Meeting and president of The Table Group — a consulting firm that helps organizations become more effective.

Joining Lencioni are Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL, Jim Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association, and the series host, Nancy Beach, a teaching pastor at Willow. 
Nancy opens:

Nancy: Bill, can you give us an idea of how many meetings you are in every week?

Bill: A lot. I often joke with people there’s really only two things I do — message prep and attend meetings.

Nancy: My mother jokes that my tombstone will say “gone to another meeting” because I’m in one every time she calls. Would you say this is typical for church leaders?

Bill: It is. In fact pastors often pull me to the side and ask “how can I get my work done when everybody wants me in meetings?” One of the loudest cries I hear is that meetings take so much out of them by the end of the day.

Nancy: I’ve heard you say that meetings are the part of your week you look forward to the most. I am sure that will surprise some people. What is it about meetings that you enjoy?

Bill: Meetings can be energizing if you have the right people in the room, you’re talking about the right kinds of issues and you understand the nature of a good meeting. I was part of one yesterday and was so energized I would have gladly gone on for another hour or two. In a church setting, if you get the content right the payoff is not just another million dollars of profit, the payoff is people’s lives.

Nancy: We’ve gotten lots of feedback from our WCA leaders that they are being “meetinged” to death! Then a book came out called Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni. The title was so compelling that many of us bought and read it desperate to find out if there was a solution. Our purpose is to unpack how to hold effective meetings — ones that lead to life, not death. Pat, what compelled you to write Death by Meeting?

Pat: The idea for the book came after I had heard one too many CEOs say, “You know, Pat, if I didn’t have to go to meetings I would like my job a lot more.” One day I realized that if these people hate meetings, they probably hate their jobs too. So I would sit in on some of these boring meetings and ask myself, “Why are these meetings so bad?”

Nancy: One correlation you make in the book, Pat, is that bad meetings lead to mediocrity. Why is that?

Pat: I have found this to be true in organizations I’ve worked in — bad meetings lead to bad decisions. If you’re not getting everybody’s engagement, you’re not getting their passion or their ideas out on the table. So when people look to improve their organization, they should first consider improving the quality of their meetings.

Nancy: Jim, after reading Pat’s book you say you have made strategic changes in the way the Willow Creek Association does meetings?

Jim: Yes. Previously we were trying to have different kinds of conversations within a single meeting. We would be talking about simple stuff that takes 10 minutes to decide, then somehow it would lead to something more long-term in nature. Before you know it we had sucked up three hours talking about this long-term issue. Not only did we not reach a decision on the long-term issue, but we didn’t get to any of the smaller things. I had the frustrating sense that our meetings were not effective as our ministry grew more complex. That was what led me to the book and we’ve changed how we do meetings because of it.

Nancy: What are some of the tangible results you’ve seen from the changes you’ve made?

Jim: There’s so much more ownership around the decisions that we make. Everybody owns the decision because everybody participates in making it. There’s less frustration because we are actually accomplishing the things that we intended to accomplish. There’s also higher morale and more energy leaving a meeting because we feel like we’ve achieved something.

Nancy: Bill, what would you identify as the one thing that is missing from most meetings?

Bill: Energy and passion. I think the leader really has to present the subject matter in a way that makes people sit forward and want to jump in. The alternative is “I don’t know why we are in this meeting” or “does anybody have anything they’d like to talk about?” That’s just unacceptable. Part of the job for those of us who lead meetings is to create an atmosphere where people can expect animation, high engagement, difference of opinion and a safe environment. If I see the energy level going down in a meeting that I am a part of, it is of great concern to me.

Pat: It’s interesting; we will tolerate boredom in a meeting but never in other things in life. I like to compare meetings to movies. If people are bored at a movie, you know that it is a bad film. People that run meetings should start to think of their meetings like movies — if you are going to make people sit still for two hours, you better get them engaged. I encourage leaders to act like screen writers by finding a way to hook their audience in the first 10 minutes of a meeting. Give them a reason to sit on the edge of their seat, because there is something worth caring about that needs to get resolved.

Nancy: Pat, in your book you say that there are two reasons people are “dying” in meetings: they are boring and ineffective. Why do you think meetings are so boring?

Pat: Perhaps the leader is not putting the biggest, hairiest issue right out on the table, or they’re not creating an environment where people feel compelled to engage and even argue with each other. When people are involved and push one another for the best answers, there’s something inherently non-boring about the situation. Churches often struggle with this because it doesn’t feel right to argue with each other. But when lives and souls are on 
the line, I can’t think of anything more important to debate. The goal is not to hurt each other’s feelings; it is to help each other find solutions.

Nancy: Jim, what would you say to church leaders who are afraid of introducing conflict into their meetings?

Jim: Jump right in and learn how to handle passionate conversation where there’s disagreement. Redefine debate in your mind from a bad thing to something that could lead to the best answer at the end of the day.

Bill: Pat, wouldn’t you agree that there is a time when the leader of the meeting has to referee if it starts getting out of hand?

Pat: Absolutely, that’s why it’s such an important position. Ninety percent of the time the leader’s job is to raise the level of discourse and passion around the issue. But there is going to be that 10 percent of the time when they have to stop and remind everyone what the rules of engagement are.

Bill: If I feel a meeting start to get destructive in any way, I will say, “We have gone about as far as we can today,” then try to bring it to a gracious close if I can. After the meeting I will have a little coaching session with the person I felt clearly violated the rules. I’ll help them understand two or three ways they could have handled the situation differently.

Nancy: Even if you have conflict, Pat, how do you reach a point of resolution?

Pat: Always be clear with what you are trying to accomplish. Begin the meeting with the results you want to get at in mind. It is not a science, it is an art. You can’t put artificial deadlines around it. Some of your conversations will get done in half the time because you get to a natural resolution, others will require that you table the conversation and have another meeting to resolve it. The key is centering conversation on the question at hand and avoiding tangents. The leader’s job is to make sure people are pushing towards a resolution.

Nancy: Pat, many times in meetings there seems to be one voice that’s sort of larger than life due to a person’s title or personality. What do influential people need to know about how their presence affects meetings?

Pat: Great leaders who are humble but comfortable in their position tend to discount the impact their presence has in a meeting. What they can do is constantly draw others out, listen and be careful about being the strongest voice in the room. Their job during the meeting is to lead, but if they’re just leading, leading, leading, collective wisdom that could be drawn from the group isn’t going to come out. Ask yourself this: Are you making more statements or asking more questions? Great leaders should be asking tons of questions during meetings.

Nancy: Let’s move on to the second reason meetings are so painful, and that is that they are often ineffective. Pat, what’s your theory about why meetings are generally ineffective?

Pat: It’s what I call “meeting stew.” We take the ingredients of multiple meetings, throw them into one big pot and wonder why it tastes so bad. We need to separate out the conversations we have — administration in an administrative meeting, etc. When there is a big problem to solve in your church, have a strategic meeting and focus on that long-term issue only.

Nancy: Bill and Jim, both of you have facilitators to run your meetings. What do you look for in a great facilitator?

Jim: One of the things I look for in a facilitator is their ability to read a room — someone with emotional intelligence. They have to be able to sense when a conversation is dying down or when people are tired of a topic so that we can move on. It is also helpful when the leader has a great relationship with the facilitator.

Nancy: Jim, when meetings are being planned, one of the important things to pay attention to is getting the right people around the table. Can you speak to that?

Jim: There is nothing more frustrating than spending half an hour debating something only to discover that we can’t make the final call because the right person isn’t in the room. Equally frustrating is when a decision is made by the team and then gets trumped by someone with more authority later on. That is a waste of time and unbelievably disempowering.

Nancy: Pat, you say that possibly the most important part of a meeting is the first few minutes. Could you talk a little more about that?

Pat: As human beings we tend to make judgments about things early. In the first 10 minutes of a meeting — like a movie — people are going to decide whether it’s interesting or not. If you lose them in the first 10 minutes they’re already coming to the conclusion that this is a waste of time. Suddenly their mind is going to shift to the clock on the wall and the e-mails piling up in their inboxes. Don’t give them the opportunity to get there. Take the first 10 minutes of the meeting and put the real purpose on the table to get people engaged from the beginning.

Nancy: One of the frustrating challenges during a meeting is when the group starts dieseling uselessly around an issue. How do you handle that, Bill?

Bill: We need to be engaging people in a productive process, not an endless one. The leader should constantly judge whether the process is productive or if it’s heading off course. If a conversation becomes unproductive, I step up in a sensitive fashion and redirect. Some of us are afraid — especially in the church — that if we don’t have total agreement in the room, we feel like we are slighting somebody by making the call to move forward. I have found over the years that it’s just not realistic to expect complete consensus.

Nancy: Jim, sometimes this entails “parking” certain issues. How does the facilitator put topics in what you call a parking lot?

Jim: One of the roles of the facilitator is to be the guardian of what is right conversation for a particular meeting. If someone starts to go outside those boundaries then the facilitator must say, “Hey, that’s a parking lot issue, let’s put it over there and get back to the agenda.” We actually put up a flip chart with “parking lot” written at the top where we can park issues for later discussion.

Nancy: Pat, how do you measure whether a meeting was good or bad?

Pat: People should come out of a meeting tired because they really weighed in and engaged in the discussion. There should be a sense of relief, not because the meeting is over, but because the attendees have clarity about what they need to go out and do. You know it’s a bad meeting when people scatter like my kids going to recess from first grade.

Nancy: Bill, should there be a spiritual component to meetings?

Bill: Some pastors feel that it’s necessary to inject theology into tactical decisions, or try to think in spiritual terms about issues that are not fundamentally spiritual. They think, “Man, we just spent two hours in a budget meeting and we never talked about Jesus.” You should pray at the beginning and end of the meeting, but the fact of the matter is that there are some conversations that you just can’t spiritualize. There are other times when you are dealing with intrinsically spiritual matters and it’s all about theology. This is when you acknowledge that this is a theological discussion and make the decision based on scripture. In church work you have to be able to go both ways, but don’t force feed theology into secular discussions.

Nancy: In closing, Pat, what would you say to senior pastors and church leaders about the importance of good meetings?

Pat: It is so connected to everything you are doing and the rewards are huge — morale goes up and you make better decisions faster. By having better meetings you can also avoid the potentially problematic “parking lot conversation” in churches. When people don’t get their issues and opinions heard during meetings, they go out into the parking lot afterwards and it ferments into a personal discussion. If we can make our meetings more passionate and interesting, we take a lot of the oxygen from parking lot conversation that can be destructive. So aside from all the positive things, good meetings can also help you avoid pitfalls.

“Death by Meeting” is number DF0507 in the Defining Moments series, which is executive produced by Lisa Hartman.

Patrick Lencioni’s latest book is the 10th anniversary reissue of The Five Temptations of a CEO commemorative edition with a new introduction. His next book this fall is The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

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