Planning well in advance enables leaders to relax and be more present at the actual event, in addition to creating a comfortable environment for participants. The following are nine key areas to consider in preparing meetings.
Discern Who Needs to Be Part of the Planning and Carrying out of the Meeting
Although it may be most expedient to have one person (often the chair) on a committee or task force plan meetings, one must ponder how this reflects our underlying commitment to shared ministry. When planning a meeting, consider gathering a small team of two to four people to develop the meeting design and prepare well. Invite both people who are experienced and novices. Intentionally reach out to stakeholders and potential participants for input, and invite them to take on roles to make the meeting run well. (Refer to Maximizing Particpation in Meetings for ways to involve participants in the meeting.) Sharing the responsibility for planning and carrying out a meeting widens the sense of ownership for its success. Another method is to develop an agenda and circulate it in advance to participants so they can provide input, or ask participants in advance for agenda items. This last method is a good practice at the end of a meeting.
Establish Clear Objectives Connected to the Mission
Effective meetings are ones in which all participants have a clear sense of why they are present and know the specific objectives of the meeting. Is it to analyze a problem? To make decisions? To inform people of something? To coordinate? To teach something? Establish clear aims of the meeting—both rational (what needs to happen) and experiential (what you hope participants will experience).
Using the lens of the congregation’s mission, the group’s mission, and each participant’s personal mission, determine the rational and experiential objectives of the meeting. Some questions to consider include the following:
- What is the purpose of the meeting?
- What do we need to accomplish for the meeting to be a success?
- What result are we looking for from this meeting
- What mood or ambiance do we want to create at the meeting?
- How do we hope individuals and the group will be different at the end of our time together?
- What is the “take-home feeling” we hope to instill in participants?
Write these objectives down as a reminder of your goals. In a group that meets regularly, such as a committee or board, work with participants to develop a mission for the group.
Determine Who Needs to Attend
If the meeting is for an already existing group, such as an established committee, you may have a list of members of the committee who are expected to attend. If you are part of forming a new committee, recruiting new committee members, or inviting people to participate in a meeting, consider this an ideal chance to match the opportunities within the group with people’s gifts and expressed areas of desired growth. In determining who to invite, consider the following:
- Who are the key stakeholders around the purpose of the meeting?
- Are potential participants sincerely interested in the topic or issue?
- Are the individuals available, and do they have the time to participate?
- Do they have previous volunteer or professional experience that would be relevant and beneficial?
- Is the group that you are hoping will attend diverse in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, experience, theological perspective, and so on?
- Do people possess different traits (for example, both detail-oriented people and visionaries, and both people who are strong on building community and those who enjoy getting the job done)?
- Are the candidates good listeners and also willing to speak? † What is a good number of people to attend the meeting? Consider what the optimal number of participants will be. If it is small, be attentive to ensuring that the group is not too homogeneous. If the group is large; be mindful that it may be more difficult to ensure that everyone is heard.
As communities of faith and justice, it is important that we be intentional about inviting people who have traditionally been unheard and underrepresented in our gatherings. When you have determined a tentative participants list, examine it closely and ask:
- Who’s missing from this list?
- What barriers—visible and invisible—exist that might hinder the persons traditionally underrepresented from attending?
- How can we lessen these barriers?
- Who else should we invite?
Decide the Length of the Meeting
In deciding the length of the meeting, try to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time allotted. Overwhelming a group with too many topics and tasks for the scheduled time may lead to a sense of failure. If time looks tight as you plan, you can choose to scale back some of the objectives, consider holding two shorter meetings, or lengthening the meeting time and providing a meal for participants. Underwhelming the group with too few tasks can leave participants feeling bored and frustrated, as if precious time was wasted. When determining the time required, be sure to plan for breaks.
Choose a Time for Meeting
It is easiest to set a time for an upcoming meeting when everyone is in the room together and people can check their schedules. Phone calls can work in setting up smaller meetings, but they can be time-consuming with larger numbers of people. E-mailing people is also an option, but never assume that everyone is connected to the Internet or has convenient access to e-mail. Mailing invitations is also an option for more formal meetings.
Any time of the day or week has benefits and disadvantages; be aware of who may be excluded from attending a meeting because of the time it is held. For example, daytime meetings may be more convenient for retirees but impossible for most working people to attend. Evening meetings may work for some but may be more difficult for individuals with children, who may be participating in their own evening activities or require child care. Weekend meetings may be difficult for individuals with children to attend, as weekends may be the only real uninterrupted time available to be together as a family. Individuals with children may take years off from active involvement in a church because securing proper child care can be so difficult. Make it easier for parents to participate in the life of the congregation outside of Sunday mornings by offering highquality child care at every church-related meeting.
Try to avoid scheduling meetings on or too close to major holidays. If the event you are planning is a public one or is open to the entire church community, you may want to check to see that the date doesn’t conflict with a related event in the community or a major event in the congregation.
Sometimes ongoing meetings have fixed dates; for example, the religious education committee may meet on the third Thursday of the month from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. These dates may have existed for many years and been inherited from people who are no longer a part of the group. Thus, it is important periodically to check in to see if a given time still works for the group of current participants and those you’d like to invite to attend or to have as members.
Select a Location for the Meeting
The success of your meeting can be jeopardized by a poor location. Consider the following when trying to determine where the meeting will take place:
- Does the space comfortably hold all the people planning to attend (is it neither cramped nor cavernous)? If the room is too large for the number of participants but there are no other options, use lighting, room dividers, plants, and furniture to visually create a more contained space.
- Does the space match the purpose of the meeting (for example, an informal four-person meeting in a member’s living room and a formal board meeting around a board table at church)?
- Do you have tables if you need to write?
- Can you arrange yourselves in a circle, if seeing everyone’s reactions is important?
- Is the space in good repair and clean?
- Are there adequate breakout spaces if you’ll be dividing people into smaller groups?
- Is the space wheelchair accessible, including the entrance, restrooms, and any rooms people will need to access?
- Can the temperature, lighting, and fresh air be controlled?
- Is the space easy to get to? Is it on a bus route? Is it in a safe, well-lit area? Is there adequate parking?
- Do you need a key or alarm code to enter?
If your congregation’s building does not meet the needs of the gathered group, consider renting space.
Figure Out What Materials Are Required
What materials will you need to ensure the meeting’s success? Here is a list of considerations:
- How many chairs and tables are required?
- Are a flip chart, paper, and masking tape required?
- Are markers available? (Take care in the type of markers used, as some people have environmental sensitivities to noxious-smelling markers; water-based, unscented markers are usually a safe bet.)
- Do we need an overhead projector? A plug-in for a computer? Speakers? A screen?
- Will a sound system be available for larger groups?
Consider What Food and Beverages Will Be Offered
Regardless of the time you are meeting, it is good to offer some drinks (caffeinated and noncaffeinated beverages) and a light snack. Some participants who are running from work to make it to an evening meeting may not have had a chance to eat. In such cases, develop a culture that encourages people to bring their own meal.
If you are providing a meal or are holding a potluck, ask in advance if participants have any food limitations. Some of the more common food restrictions are lactose intolerance (no milk products), gluten intolerance (nothing containing wheat, oats, rye, or barley), nut allergies (often to peanuts, but some people have allergies to other nuts as well), vegetarian (no fish, fowl, or meat), and vegan (no fish, fowl, meat, dairy, or eggs). In the case of a potluck, notify all participants of any food limitations among group members, and invite people to label their food.
The following are some wholesome snack ideas that most anyone can eat:
- Sliced fruit and vegetables.
- Rice crackers, corn chips, and popcorn.
- Dips like salsa, hummus, and guacamole.
Communicate with Participants in Advance
Once the purpose, time, location, and other details for the meeting have been decided, send out a communication to participants stating the following information (via e-mail, postal mail, or phone):
- The date, time, and location (map and directions, if required) of the meeting. Provide information on transportation, including public transit and carpooling options.
- The draft agenda for the meeting, including the rational and experiential objectives. If appropriate, request that any additional agenda items be submitted by a certain date.
- Written reports for consideration at the meeting.
- Any materials or items the participants are expected to bring.
- Any preparation work required.
When sending out materials in advance of a meeting, be mindful not to barrage participants with information overload. If there are many materials to be sent out in advance, consider organizing a “master pack” with a front sheet listing all the contents (color coding can be helpful as well). If you are sending materials out via e-mail attachments, be aware that some people may not have the software to open them, and others may not be online. Have an alternative delivery system in place; for example, give materials to participants at church on Sunday morning, or deliver them via regular post.
From Meetings that Work: Make Them Meaningful and Productive (PDF)
New Congregation and Growth Resources
UUA Congregational Life Staff Group (2005)