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Make Board Meetings Go Faster, Work Better

By Donald E. Skinner

It's 11:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month. If you're on the board of trustees of your congregation, where are you?

A. Home in bed, where you belong.

B. Yawning your way through a tedious discussion about folding chairs and wishing you'd had Caller ID when the nominating committee telephoned last spring.

Board member burnout is one of the main reasons many of our congregations have a hard time convincing people to serve on their boards. What ought to be regarded as an honor is too often viewed with fear—of meetings that go on forever, filled with mind-numbing minutia.

No two boards operate exactly the same. All are subject to the styles and interests of the people who sit on them and the congregations they serve. But there are generally accepted practices and procedures that can help them all.

Much of what determines the effectiveness of a meeting happens well before it starts. The agenda should be laid out a week or so before the meeting, in time for it to be mailed to board members with a packet of related written materials, including staff reports. That way board members can show up for the meeting informed and ready to do business quickly.

In some congregations what is worthy of the board's time is decided by an executive committee, in others by the president and the minister, perhaps joined by the vice president. There is no absolute rule as to which items get turned away, but, "If we think somebody else can decide, then they probably should," said Jon Newell, president of First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Albany, NY (350 members). Some boards operate on the principle that if an issue has no impact on the budget or on policy it should be decided at the committee level. This not only focuses the board on work that only it can do but also enriches committee work.

Once the agenda is set and the packet is mailed, here are other ways meetings can be made more efficient:

  • The president or someone the president designates should call other board members to make sure they know how the agenda requires them to prepare for the meeting.
  • During the board meeting itself, pay attention to the agenda and the clock. Keep the discussion focused.

Newell, at Albany, apologized in advance when he became president. "I tried to get the board to realize that our time is valuable" he said, "and that I may need to be a little pushy in moving the discussion along." He said board members appreciate that their time is being valued and protected. Ken Carpenter, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) trustee and chair of the UUA Board Finance Committee, has observed over the years that boards that consistently "go long" are probably missing a key element.

"Show me a board which meets until 11:30 p.m. on a regular basis," Carpenter said, "and I will show you a board which does not have a leadership training retreat with each new class of members, has no board participation guidelines, and whose chair does a great deal of the presentation."

At All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, MO (426), new board member Andy McCanse created a minor stir a year and a half ago by leaving board meetings promptly at 10:00 p.m., with part of the agenda yet to go. McCanse, a retired physician, describes himself as a no-nonsense kind of guy who, after years of participation on professional medical boards, was frustrated with the slow pace of church board meetings.

All Souls minister Rev. Dr. John H. Weston said McCanse's departures moved the meetings along a little faster. "My feeling is that if more board members would do that it would benefit the meetings, which need to run crisply," Weston said.

In May McCanse became board president and adopted rules he said some might consider overbearing but he believes are needed. They include close adherence to parliamentary rules of order and to church bylaws. He said board meetings have not gone past 9:25 p.m. since. "I'm firm, but I try to be as nice as I can about it and smile a lot."

Growth can cause boards to re-examine the way they operate. The style that works for a small fellowship can become unwieldy for a larger congregation with more complex issues.

Marian Beddill, a former board member at the Bellingham, WA, Unitarian Fellowship, which has grown from 60 to 180 members, observed that for decades the board was able to take up all sorts of minor matters and permit long discussions. Board members were liaisons to committees and presented informal committee reports. Because of growth, the board ended members' committee liaison responsibilities and asked one member to filter committee news into a single report to save time.

Here are other tips from UU boardrooms:

  • Have at least one person who is thoroughly versed in the bylaws so that questions don't have to be researched during the meeting.
  • Keep a year-to-year schedule of matters that have to be tended to annually, like budget deadlines, so they don't create emergencies.
  • Be mindful of habits that can take up valuable time. When the loquacious minister of one church retired, the board found it finished its work about thirty minutes sooner.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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