Congregational Meetings

The practice of congregational polity dictates that the business of our congregations take place at congregational meetings. Most congregations hold an annual meeting to do the following:

  • Hear reports from the minister or ministers, staff, and officers.
  • Elect new officers and board members.
  • Approve the annual budget.

Other business my also be scheduled at the annual meeting.

In addition, from time to time, congregations will hold special congregational meetings to consider significant issues in the life of the congregation. Typically, these meetings must be advertised well in advance (usually a period of time specified in the bylaws), and the meetings should be called whenever significant congregational business needs to be conducted.

The annual meeting is typically the only congregational meeting in the year that is open to any business that members wish to discuss.

The president (or the vice president) of the board usually presides as moderator of the meeting. The secretary of the board records the minutes. The bylaws of many congregations call for the use of Robert's Rules of Order (the most recent edition); therefore, it is advisable to have present a parliamentarian who is familiar with these rules and who can advise the moderator on questions of procedure. A few congregations have written rules for operating the meeting by consensus. These congregations need to be very familiar with, and committed to, the consensus process.

The president may also wish to use a timekeeper, process watcher, or both. The timekeeper's task is to keep the meeting on schedule and to time individuals' comments when needed. The process watcher is charged with observing how people interact in the meeting, whether one person or a few dominate the conversation, and whether the group functions smoothly or gets bogged down. Typically, the process watcher says nothing during the meeting but makes a report of her or his observations to all at the end of the meeting.

The board president should prepare a detailed agenda and assign a length of time to each item. The times may be written on the agenda or kept by the president and timekeeper. In either case, speakers should be notified in advance of the amount of time available to them and be asked to hold to those limits.

Congregational meetings should be advertised well in advance in accordance with the times stipulated in the bylaws. In the case of a special meeting, the agenda should be published with the advertisement. For the annual meeting, agendas known in advance should be publicized.

Written reports should be prepared in advance but handed out after the meeting unless the speaker or speakers plan to speak directly about the contents of the report (a proposed budget, for example).

Written ballots should be prepared in advance for any issues that will require a vote. It is important to pay attention to the comfort of participants. Seats should be comfortable and accessible for attendees who are physically challenged. The room should be neither too hot nor too cold. Everyone should be able to see the speakers at the head table and the visual aids used in presentations. Amplification should be provided for participants who are hearing impaired. Largetype written materials should be available.

The board president and other officers responsible for conducting the meeting should be seated so that they are visible to those in attendance. The president should have a gavel or gong to gain the attention of participants (nonverbal signals work better than verbal ones). Begin with a centering exercise: a reading, song, or period of silence to remind everyone that this is a congregational meeting.

The most effective way to arrive at decisions is in small groups that allow for sufficient discussion and dialogue. In larger groups (over forty participants), it may not be possible to give everyone enough speaking time to achieve consensus unless the issue is significant enough to merit several meetings. Many congregations have one or more informational sessions several weeks prior to the congregational meeting, especially if major issues are to be voted on.

What follows are some suggestions for running large meetings using Robert's or Bourinot's Rules of Order while providing for a maximum of fairness and communal feeling. Robert's rules provide that any meeting may adopt its own rules, which supersede those presented in Robert's Rules of Order. The moderator can present such suggestions at the beginning of the meeting as methods of operation that he or she proposes to use in the absence of objections. Most groups will readily accept such suggestions.

  1. No one will be called upon to speak for the second time before everyone wishing to speak has spoken once.
  2. People are asked to speak for themselves, not for what they think others think. Also, people are asked to be mindful of the feelings of others in the way they phrase their remarks. (It may be necessary for the moderator to monitor this requirement.)
  3. People are asked to limit their comments to a specified number of minutes, usually two or three. If the issue is likely to be difficult, the moderator may devise a method of warning the speaker when a minute remains.
  4. The moderator will try to call on people with differing points of view alternately. (Appointing someone to note who wishes to speak and to write it down may help facilitate this process.)
  5. If parliamentary maneuvering gets complicated through acts such as the use of amendments and substitute motions, the moderator can declare the meeting to be in a "committee of the whole." In this status, the issues can be discussed and a consensus reached without the need for motions. Then the moderator can declare the formal meeting resumed, and the appropriate motions to ratify the consensus can be made and voted upon.
  6. The motion to "call to (or for) the question" is legitimate under Robert's rules, but it can often destroy a congregation's community. It requires immediate cessation of debate and a vote on whether to continue debate. The majority rules on such a vote. If the debate is terminated in this manner, people often leave the meeting feeling disenfranchised and angry. Instead, the moderator can announce before the meeting begins that she or he will not accept a call to the question. A request to consider whether to end debate would result in a show of hands of those wishing to continue the discussion. Then the moderator could do one of two things: (1) make a judgment as to whether sufficient interest exists to continue (even when such interest is in the minority) or, (2) allow each person whose hand is raised to make his or her statement and then end the debate. Experience shows that use of this adaptation of the rules generally avoids unhappiness about the procedure.
  7. When routine business, such as the election of officers, is being conducted, such rules generally are not necessary. They are helpful when controversial issues must be discussed.

From Meetings that Work: Make Them Meaningful and Productive (PDF)
New Congregation and Growth Resources
UUA Congregational Life Staff Group (2005)