Life After Death by Meeting

I have spent a significant portion of my thirty-four years in ministry attending meetings. Sometimes I was in charge of the meeting. At other times, I was a reluctant participant, required to attend by the nature of my work. These experiences prompted me to try and understand the way groups and organizations work. Over the years I have come to few conclusions.

Those who lead the meeting rarely look at it through the same lens as those who attend. I learned this very early in my pastoral ministry.  When I led the church’s board meetings, I focused on the agenda, which often reflected my interests. I wanted the meeting to start quickly and lead to action. In other words, I wanted the board to see things my way and adopt my proposals. They had a very different focus. They usually spent the first thirty minutes or so making small talk, catching up, and talking about work or family. They were not in the same hurry as me. My goals were not nearly as important to them as they were to me. This difference in perspective results in a sort of nearsightedness on the part of those who lead the meeting. Leaders are so focused on their agenda that they often cannot read the people around them. Sometimes they do not want to.

Our interaction with people in meetings is one-sided. One of the things that surprised me most about my experience in meetings was how little others knew about me. Likewise, I found that I tended to relate to people in terms of their role and in some cases their caricature. You might think it would be otherwise. For decades I have spent hours with the same people in meetings. After all this time, I have concluded that they don’t know me at all. I don’t know them either. I know the persona that they project in the meeting, which may be very different from the actual person I pass in the hall. While this is understandable, it is also damaging. Our lack of common knowledge often leads to depersonalization. Bad behavior towards one another in the corporate world, is often justified by saying, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” The same rule holds in Christian organizations as well. Our work suffers when we lose sight of the personal nature of our interactions with one another. These one-sided relationships cause us to see others as negative stereotypes. One is the buffoon, another is the fool. There is the ranter, the suck-up and the tyrant. Depersonalization creates an environment where incivility and bullying flourish.

Meetings are inherently messy. The Gospel of John says that the whole world could not contain all the books that could be written about the things that Jesus did. Something similar might be said about books intended to make meetings go better. Leaders look for ways to make meetings run more smoothly the way the Knights of the Round Table sought after the Holy Grail. Both objectives are pretty much the same. They are beautiful but unattainable ideals. Good meetings, that is to say healthy meetings, are almost always messy. How can they not be when there are competing perspectives and agendas present? The search for an elegant process easily degenerates into patterns of behavior the squash disagreement and stifle creativity. The best thinking is born of serious disagreement that is worked out by people who have learned how to suspend their disbelief long enough to consider other alternatives. In the Christian realm, the quest for smooth meetings also fosters a climate of false civility. This consists of a forced peace which has a low tolerance for disagreement. Because we are unable to disagree well, we are unable to understand one another’s differences. Disagreement is not division. Messy does not have to be mean.

Meetings are necessary. Most of us feel about meetings the way some people do about their in-laws. We would avoid them if we could. But since we can’t, we will endure them as quickly as possible. Meetings get no respect. Books are written about them with titles like Death by Meeting, Meetings Suck, and Bad Meetings Happen to Good People. There is a way to lead without the messy collective deliberation that is inherent in all meetings. It is called tyranny, and it is never good. Churches and organizations are living systems made up of networked individuals. It is the human dimension of these bodies that makes them so messy. Meetings force us to face one another as a community and confront our differences. Most of the time the process is slow, painful, and ambiguous in its result. The messy work of disagreement, deliberation, and movement toward an awkward consensus is essential to the health of every one of these institutions. It is especially important to the church, which is a body of interconnected members. The rule of the church is not “Be sure you get your way.” It is “Have concern for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

In the last thirty-four years, I have only served on one committee which I feel approached this ideal. It was chaired by the associate dean of faculty Billie Sue Thompson (who is now with the Lord) and led a diverse and creative group of colleagues responsible for my school’s first-year experience program. We were a mixture of different personalities from a variety of departments. Some of us were outgoing others reserved.  Some were contemplative, while others were activistic. We occasionally got on one another’s nerves.

One of the first things that Billie Sue did was ask us to map ourselves as a group, to help us understand our collective personality. I learned some remarkable things. I discovered that the things that frustrated me most about my peers were usually the things that added value to our little community. The source of my irritation was their gift. In order to benefit from those gifts, I had first to learn to appreciate them. Before I could appreciate them, I had to know them. Most important of all, I realized that if this was true of them, it must also be true of me.

This understanding did not magically transform all of my meetings. Aggravation was not replaced by a warm huggy glow. My enemies did not magically become my friends. Those who had annoyed me continued to annoy me. But the change of perspective I learned from Billie Sue did help me to see them differently. The same change enabled me to see myself differently too. I learned to value them. In the process, I discovered that I had value too.