By Laura Stephens-Reed
During the pandemic, when church committees could not gather in person and were forced to find other ways to discuss and decide, many of us realized that we had long been attending some meetings that could have been emails. It does not require a two-hour negotiation to choose a Sunday school curriculum, change cleaning services, or find a date for a day of service in the community. Much of this work can be done by some individual reading or research, an asynchronous check-in by email for questions and concerns, and a quick vote using various tech tools.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to meet in real time. Topics that have the potential to change the direction of the congregation or that could lead to conflict if not handled sensitively and thoroughly deserve in-depth conversation. Even meetings around these bigger issues, though, need to be worth participants’ energy and time. They need to be experiences that are not focused just on business, but also on the formation – dare I say transformation? – of those involved, with the potential for spiritual spillover into the congregation as a whole. They need to be, in a word, church.
We do this by making space for the surprising, delightful, challenging movements of the Holy Spirit throughout our meetings, not just in opening and closing prayers. Here’s how to set your church meetings up to be this kind of worshipful work:
Get clear on what the meeting is about. This is more than simply, “Our Christian Education Committee is meeting because it always meets on the third Thursday of the month.” What is the question that our committee members seek to answer, that that we are all inviting the Spirit to speak to in our time together? How will answering that question contribute to our congregation’s overall purpose?
Use your location to set the tone for the meeting. Gather in a place that is conducive to listening to one and other and to the Spirit. Clear out clutter. Offer visual cues that this meeting is not just about business but also about attentiveness to God’s invitations. These prompts could be as elaborate as creating an altar or as simple as setting an open Bible in the middle of the room. If the gathering is online, invite committee members to establish sacred meeting spaces in their own corners of the world.
Enter into a worshipful head and heart space. Invite people to identify what they are setting aside to be part of this gathering and offer gratitude for their willingness to do so. Ask them where they have seen God at work, read a scripture passage relevant to the worshipful work at hand, or sing a hymn together. Taking the time to do this naming and framing not only lays the groundwork for noticing what God is doing in, around, and through you, it also strengthens the connections among committee members.
Pray for indifference. This is where it gets tough. Indifference in this sense is not apathy. It is letting go of following personal agendas and controlling the outcome. It is imitating Jesus’ prayer in the garden that “not my will but Thine be done.” It might take each person identifying aloud his or her own stakes in the matter to be able to release them.
Listen for a word from God. Here is where many meetings – both those that could and couldn’t have been emails – typically begin and end. At this point, the people in the room name the work that has been done since the last gathering, discuss it, and roll on ahead. Talking about data and debriefing implementation are very important! But both of these pieces need to be held up to the light and considered from different angles. What was/is happening in this? How are we and others being changed in the process? What do we not yet know?
Consider the invitations. It’s time now to draw on the partner of the prayer of indifference: a prayer for wisdom. “May we be open to what you have to show us, God.” Based on all that we’ve talked about, what might God be nudging us to think about or try? This approach is much different than mulling what the circumstances dictate. It breeds excitement rather than anxiety.
Hold the silence. This is another hard piece of worshipful work. Few of us are good at sitting and waiting on our food to be brought to our table at a restaurant, much less waiting on a word from God. It might take starting with 30 seconds of silence and building up muscle toward longer periods. It might involve placing art materials around the space to give people ways to receive and process using their senses. But even a brief silence allows in a little light, a bit of holy wisdom that might otherwise be crowded out.
Make a plan. Ask what bubbled up in the silence, taking care to hear all the voices. Note points of clarity and commonality as well as questions and hesitations. Work thoughtfully toward agreement on a way forward. Think about this plan in terms of holy experiments. What will we try? Who will take care of what and when? What will be the markers of faithfulness? How and when will we assess where God moved the congregation and community through our efforts?
Reflect on your work and on the bigger picture. Wonder aloud how your work together and its resulting plan might advance your congregation’s mission. Ask why each person needs to show up even more fully at the next meeting.
These are the kinds of meetings in which most people are eager to engage, ones in which there is true collaboration with one another and with God. Who knows what that wily Spirit might get up to with us when we make the space? Who knows what breath will blow through our gathered committees, such that the members spill out into the congregation and community ignited by possibility and the desire for connection? May all know that we are Christians by our love and by the ways we conduct our business.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.