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Make Your Meetings Engaging!
Maximizing Participation in Meetings

If meetings are to be truly meaningful and transformational, it is crucial to involve participants fully. Below are eleven ways to maximize participation in meetings.

Develop Guidelines for Interactions

A culture of participation can be encouraged (and much conflict avoided) by having a covenant of right relations that the group has committed to abide to. If the meeting is an ongoing one, develop a covenant together early in the life of the group. At the beginning of each meeting, remind one another of the commitments you’ve made and shared. If it is a one-time-only meeting, it is also helpful to agree on some ground rules as you start out. Ask, “As we begin this meeting, what guidelines for interacting can we agree upon?”

Guidelines (or a covenant) for ongoing groups and one-time-only meetings may include variations of the following:

  • We will commit to attend meetings and notify the chairperson if we are not able to come.
  • We will arrive on time.
  • We will recognize that everyone has wisdom and that we need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest results.
  • We will respect people who are speaking, and wait until they are finished before adding our contributions.
  • We will seek to really hear others, and ask for clarification when needed.
  • We will participate fully in the meeting.
  • We will celebrate and seek diversity of opinion (and ensure that no one or two people dominate the discussion).
  • We will follow through with commitments that we make.

Post the agreements at all meetings of the group, and review and revise them as necessary.

Celebrate Unique Gifts, Passions, and Needs

Use Gifts-Based Matching

Congregations (particularly smaller ones) tend to see newcomers as potential “new blood” for tired committees. Although your group’s energy may be running low, resist the compulsion to “fill spots” on a committee, task force, or board. Newcomers can smell desperation a mile away. “People come to a church longing for, yearning for, hoping for . . . [a] sense of roots, place, belonging, sharing, and caring. People come to a church in our time with a search for community, not committee,” Kennon Callahan says in his book Effective Church Leadership (page 106).

People usually excel at what they love doing. Ask individuals what they are passionate about around a particular gathering, and try to match tasks to passions. Church is also a wonderful place to take risks, explore new possibilities, and develop new skills; celebrate that a chartered accountant in your congregation wants to garden, or sing, or make coffee rather than serve on the finance committee.

Use People's Names

At meetings it is important to use people’s names. When we call people by name, we recognize individuality and acknowledge each person’s uniqueness and special contributions. As much as some people might dislike wearing name tags, if your meeting has even one newcomer or is larger than eight people, use them.

Honor Learing Styles

Educators have observed that people tend to learn in three distinctive ways: visual (by seeing), auditory (by hearing), and kinesthetic (through touch). Although people can learn through each of these modalities, individuals tend to have one preference in how they learn. Varying presentation styles and discussion techniques helps to communicate most effectively to people with different learning styles. A few suggestions follow.

  • Visual Learners
    Use flip charts, handouts, word pictures, and stories that evoke images. Display the results of meetings around the room on flip charts.
  • Auditory Learners
    Use breakout groups to allow for all people to speak and be heard. Ask questions and welcome people’s contributions. Use background music to create ambiance, and sing songs related to the theme.
  • Kinesthetic Learners
    Invite participants to bring objects that relate to the theme of the meeting, and pass them around. Consider how you might have an outing that connects to the purpose of your gathering. Invite people to physically move around.

Try to use a variety of techniques throughout a meeting. Even the keenest participant tires after an hour of intense whole-group experiences. Mix up the time to include individual reflection, paired activities, small-group work, and whole-group discussions.

Assign Meeting Roles and Responsibilities

If possible, give everyone a role at a meeting. People tend to involve themselves more fully when they are invited to take responsibility for some portion of the meeting. Not only are they there as a regular participant but they also have a responsibility for the smooth running of the meeting. People want to be involved in activities they are invested in, care about, and contribute to.

Various roles and responsibilities include the following:

  • FACILITATOR: Ensures that all members have an opportunity to speak, gently redirects participants who are monopolizing conversation to listening more intentionally, keeps conversation moving, and intersperses opportunities for silent reflection. In many congregational meetings, the facilitator or chairperson also acts as a full contributing participant in the process. Although you may choose not to rotate this role, if there are breakout groups, be sure to assign a small group facilitator in each group.
  • NOTE/MINUTE TAKER: Records key information from the meeting and disseminates the minutes to all participants as soon after the meeting as possible.
  • FLIP CHART SCRIBE: Records ideas and results on flip chart paper, when appropriate; checks periodically to ensure that he or she is capturing the essence of the conversation.
  • PRESENTER: In meetings with breakout groups, the person responsible for reporting back to the larger group the key insights from the small group conversation.
  • TIMEKEEPER: Keeps track of the time and periodically tells the group how much time is left for a particular item or activity. The timekeeper also informs the group when the time limits are being approached, saying something like, “There are five minutes remaining for this topic.”
  • ENERGIZER: Is responsible for tracking the energy pulse of the group, noticing yawning and lethargy; suggests and leads brief energy or brain breaks to energize and relax the group, as required.
  • GREETER: If the meeting is a larger one, the person or persons designated to welcome people to the gathering, invite them to make a name tag, show them where the coat rack is, and so on.
  • ONE OR MORE FAITH REFLECTORS: Intentionally listens to the conversation through the lens of the question, How does what we are saying and how we are saying it connect to my sense of faith, theology, and values as a Unitarian Universalist? At the end of the meeting, the faith reflector offers a one- to two-minute reflection on how the meeting went (its process and content) based on how it didn’t or did reflect shared values. Sometimes you may want to have more than one faith reflector; you could give one a copy of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles and sources, one a copy of the mission statement for the congregation (or committee), and one a copy of the hymnbook. The person with the hymnbook selects a closing song for the entire group to sing together. Another alternative is given below in the role of CLOSING READING/SONG person.
  • MEETING PLANNER: Organizes and coordinates all aspects of behind-the-scenes meeting planning, including booking the location, setting up the room, ensuring that required materials (such as flip chart paper, markers, tape, and an overhead projector) are available, and cleaning up the room at the end of the meeting.
  • HOSPITALITY: Organizes and coordinates food and beverages for the meeting, including setup and cleanup. CLOSING
  • READING/SONG: Has a hymnbook during the meeting and selects a closing reading and song to share that fits as a closing activity for the group.
  • RITES OF PASSAGE COORDINATOR: Keeps a list of members’ birthdays and celebrates them in the group; writes cards on behalf of the group when a member marks a milestone or has suffered a loss.
  • ANTIRACISM/ANTI-OPPRESSION/MULTICULTURAL PROCESS OBSERVER: Is responsible for observing the meeting’s process through an antiracism, anti-oppression, and multicultural lens.

You may be tempted to give one person the responsibility of hospitality for every meeting, but rotating roles among participants communicates that the group members trust one another’s competence. It also ensures that people aren’t typecast in certain roles, thus providing opportunities to develop skills, reveal hidden talents, and renew energy. Here are a few creative ways to rotate roles:

  • Write the various roles on separate cards, and have people draw a card.
  • List the various roles in alphabetical order on a flip chart, and assign them in order of people’s height (shortest to tallest), birthday (January to December), or first name (alphabetical).
  • Sticker the seats with different colors, each representing a task. After people have chosen their seats, invite them to see if their chair has a sticker, and inform them of their role.

Near the end of the meeting, occasionally give people an opportunity to reflect and evaluate how they carried out their roles (both their assigned roles and their roles as regular attendees at a meeting). Give each person five minutes to reflect silently on the following questions; take another five minutes of sharing in groups of two or three; and take a final five minutes to share any insights with the entire group. Resist telling people what you thought they did well or suggesting areas for improvement, but encourage individuals to self-assess their performance. The following are the questions to ponder:

  • What did you plan to do in your role?
  • What worked well?
  • When you do this again, what will you do differently?
  • In what areas could you use assistance, and where could you find it?

Establish Clear Accountability

Have clear lines of accountability, expectations, and methods for evaluation. People feel empowered when they know what they, along with everyone else, are responsible for. Clarity develops confidence, and confidence encourages participation. In meetings, consider the following:

  • Clarifying expectations before engaging in an activity. Clear goals and doable jobs allow each person to sign up for what she or he is capable of doing.
  • Breaking down more complicated tasks into manageable chunks. For most people, time and energy are limited, so don't ask people to take on huge tasks.
  • Offering a variety of tasks with clear expectations. Variety includes aspects such as short-term and long-term tasks, creative and structured activities, smaller and larger tasks, and solo and group activities.
  • Inviting reflection on how the practical tasks that are carried out connect to the vision and mission. People need to know how the pieces in which they have been involved contribute to the whole.

Support Growth through Mentoring

Effective meetings can produce profound changes in individuals and groups, especially when an individual’s activity within meetings is connected to a sense of personal ministry and the congregation’s mission. Meetings are opportunities to multiply the ministry—involving many in discernment, decision making, implementation, and reflection. While the bottom line in most corporate contexts is profit, the bottom line in congregations is greater wholeness, expanded justice, and personal and collective transformation.

In ongoing, regular meetings, the goal is not to attain perfection but to grow trust in one’s own ability and in the team’s capacity to work effectively. One important way to foster growth of this kind is to develop mentoring relationships, in which mentors equip and coach people throughout their involvement in the group.

Perhaps you’ve heard stories of leaders struggling in a new role at church, or perhaps you yourself have experienced a sense of isolation and lack of support in trying to carry out congregational responsibilities. All too often, new volunteers are given a pile of file folders and perhaps a little guidance, and then are expected to “figure it out on their own.” In such cases, people may wonder:

Who do I turn to for support?

I’ve been handed this portfolio, but what if I’m not fully qualified to carry out the job?

Does anyone have time to give me a hand? In several places in our movement, a mentoring or coaching model seems to be rooted quite firmly. Inherent in intentional small group ministry is the idea that small group facilitators meet regularly with the minister or a lay leader and other facilitators to learn with, mentor, and coach one another. At some ministers’ gatherings, individuals share case studies or preach for one another and receive feedback and guidance from their colleagues. Newly fellowshipped ministers are required to have a mentor for at least the first three years of their ministry. There are likely other examples as well. Regardless of the situation, mentoring supports an intentional learning community.

In Mentoring: The Tao of Giving and Receiving Wisdom, Chungliang Al Huany and Jerry Lynch write: “All good mentors (giving and teaching) are continually open to being mentored (receiving and learning). To be a good teacher, one must be a good student” (page 9). This connects with the concept of shared ministry, where we affirm that all who join together in our religious community are invited to both offer and receive ministry. As the song goes, “From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and by this we live.”

In ongoing meetings, reflect on the following questions:

  • What structures already exist that support coaching or mentoring?
  • How are leaders supported in an ongoing way to carry out their ministry?
  • Where are the gaps?
  • How can we build more mentoring and coaching into our structure?

Through intentional coaching and mentoring, members and friends can be better equipped and supported to share their unique and precious ministries more fully. To generate ideas that would work well in your congregation request an in-depth discussion with your district staff on how to establish mentoring and coaching structures in your congregation.

Invite Creative Interchange

“Where all think alike, then no one thinks very much,” says Walter Lipperman (quoted in Judith Leigh’s Organizing and Participating in Meetings, page 55).

Many of our congregations have a culture of advocacy and persuasion around important ideas. Rather than inviting a diversity of opinions and experiences, one or two perspectives are presented for debate and rebuttal. This approach is sometimes very useful, but at most congregational meetings it can lead to premature closure on topics and make some participants feel unheard and uninvolved. Congregational leaders are called to develop a community that invites people to “go deeper” rather than “win points.”

In his book Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium, Roy Phillips introduces the ideas of Unitarian philosopher of religion Henry Nelson Wieman. Wieman asks, “What transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, to save us from our self-destructive propensities and to bring us to the highest good of which we are capable? . . . It is found in a certain quality of communication between people” (page 62). Wieman called this certain kind of communication creative interchange. Creative interchange is a quality of relating in which we encounter one another with openness, respect, and a sense of wonder—not to “convince” another person of our point of view but to try to listen deeply and to hear the other’s primary experience and perspective. Ultimately, creative interchange is about being open to being transformed and Meetings That Work 22 changed oneself. It is allowing another’s experience to penetrate us and to respond from our own experience rather than reacting by jumping to our next point.

There are many ways to invite creative interchange in meetings, including the following:

  • Use intentional check-in questions.
  • Hold a yearly retreat for your group
  • Invite small group sharing.
  • Listen actively.
  • Occasionally have participants offer “testimonies” of their experience in the group.

Ask the Right Kinds of Questions

Asking questions is one of the most important ways to promote conversation and participation. Using open-ended questions sets a tone during a meeting that this is a place where people’s contributions really matter. Rather than asking “What do you think of us doing it this way?” ask “How might we get this done?”

The Institute for Cultural Affair’s Art of Focused Conversation ORID method is a powerful tool to promote meaningful and productive conversations. The method uses questions at four different levels, from surface to deep:

  • Objective-Level Questionso: Getting the Facts
    • What background information do we need?
    • What happened at our last gathering?
  • Reflective-Level Questions: Honoring Feelings, Reactions and Associations
    • How do you feel about this?
    • What are your gut reactions to this proposal?
    • What past experiences are triggered for you?
  • Interpretive-Level Questions: Exploring Meaning
    • How will this make a visible and meaningful difference in people’s lives? † What does this say about us as a religious community?
    • How does it connect to your personal sense of faith?
    • What images or metaphors come to you in the midst of this?
  • Decisional-Level Questions: Making Decisions
    • What should we do next?
    • How can we get this done?
    • What are the “take-home messages” from this meeting?

This method can be used as a template for conversations and decision-making processes at most meetings. Often during meetings, we focus on the objective and decisional levels and may glide over the reflective and interpretive levels. For the best decisions to be made, people need to intentionally attend to each of these levels.

Listen Actively

Active listening encourages participation. In Bill Donahue’s Willow Creek Guide to Leading LifeChanging Small Groups (page 112), the author suggests using ACTS to encourage active listening:

Acknowledge people as they speak in a discussion. Acknowledging can often be done nonverbally, for example, by orienting your body toward a person, maintaining eye contact, smiling, nodding, and uh-huhing.

Clarify what people say by saying, “Could you say more about that?” or “I’m not sure if I understand completely; could you give an example?”

Take it back to the group by saying something like “What do others think about what Kylie just said?”

Summarize a conversation, especially if it is a detailed or complicated contribution by one or more people. Try saying, “What I’ve heard so far is . . .” or “Could someone try to summarize what we’ve heard?”

Keep People Moving

Schedule regular breaks, and use energizers to liven people up during meetings. Don’t expect people to sit down for more than an hour at a time. For people who suffer back problems or have other health-related issues, sitting for extended periods can be quite painful. Even the healthiest participants can get stiff and lethargic when asked to stay in one place for long stretches. Although we are trained as children to “hold it” when we need to go to the restroom and to eat at noon even though we’re hungry at 10:30, noticing physical sensations and respecting our body’s needs are profound spiritual practices.

In meetings longer than an hour, plan two-minute body stretches and brain breaks, and offer longer nutritional breaks regularly. People perform better in a relaxed environment that goes at a reasonable pace and honors the fact that we are not simply talking heads, but whole bodies.

If you are meeting for a half day or a whole day, invite people to change where they sit and who they are sitting next to at least once. Changing places in this way can open people up to new ideas and connections. Move people around by inviting or assigning people to different small groups to encourage “cross-pollination.”

Break Out into Small Groups, If Necessary

Use breakout groups frequently to generate more ideas and to get people talking with one another. If your meeting has ten or more people in attendance, it is easy for a significant portion of the participants not to speak for the entire meeting. Breaking into groups of two to four invites greater participation.

When using breakout groups, be clear about what you expect the group to do, how long the participants will have to meet together, and what kind of report you would like them to share with the larger group. Remind the breakout groups to choose a facilitator, a timekeeper, a scribe, a presenter or reporter, and a faith reflector. If appropriate, give the subgroups flip chart paper and markers to help them report back to the larger group.

Use Silent Reflection

Talkative people usually like the spontaneity of brainstorming at a meeting, but more introverted people can find it intimidating and frustrating. To honor the various styles of participants, use silence intentionally in your meetings. For example, rather than ask, “So what do people think of these three proposals?” with a free-for-all to follow, say, “Let’s take a couple of minutes to reflect silently on what we think of each of these proposals.” Then, after the silence, consider moving to smaller group sharing and then reporting back to the entire group. 

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

About the Author

  • The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the UUA Congregational Life Staff...

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