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Parish Council Meeting Challenges and How to Address Them

“Every parish council meeting discussion of a ‘problem’ should have an equal amount of time given to the service opportunity that the problem presents.” – Anthony Scott

Parish council meetings don’t have to be boring, or contentious, or unproductive. How can priests and parish council chairs shape parish council meetings for greater effectiveness? Here is help from the nonprofit community.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy talked to four experts: Bob Wittig, executive director of the Jovid Foundation and co-author of Nonprofit Board Service for the Genius; Carol Weisman, founder of Board Builders; Philip Butterfield, a banking executive who serves on three nonprofit boards; and Vernetta Walker, vice president of programs and chief governance officer at BoardSource.

They agree that board meetings should encourage participation from all of the members and facilitate dialogue about pressing concerns. To help overcome some of the obstacles to these goals, here is a list of common board-meeting problems and their solutions. And once you’ve tried these ideas, solicit members’ feedback about whether the new approaches are working, using a tool such as an online survey.

1. Problem: Meetings drag on, sometimes well past the promised end time.

Solution: Shave minutes by planning ahead and raising only essential issues for discussion.

A few time savers:

  • Use a consent agenda. A consent agenda lists items that require parish council action but probably do not need much discussion. It is sent to members in advance for review. During the meeting, members vote on the items as a block rather than voting separately on each.

  • Have committee chairs provide their reports on paper ahead of time rather than as oral presentations at the meeting.

  • Put time estimates next to each agenda item to set expectations for the length of the discussion and help keep the meeting on track.

2. Problem: parish council members seem too removed from the parish’s daily work to effectively perform good governance.

Solution: incorporate a “mission moment” in every meeting. See Stewardship Advocates archives for parish council development activities.

  • Tell stories — or have staff or volunteers tell their own. Invite those whom the parish serves to attend meetings and testify about their experiences.

  • At the first meeting of the year, ask parish council members to share why they joined the council and their personal connection to the mission of the parish.

3. Problem: parish council members get sidetracked from the key topics of discussion.

Solution: Be a good shepherd and keep everyone on task.

  • When distracted, ask the parish council, “How does our conversation relate to our mission?” or “What is the policy issue we are trying to formulate here?”

  • Before presenting information to the parish council, think carefully about the desired outcome. If it’s just to keep them informed, save that information for a handout. If it’s a topic that requires discussion, though, it makes sense to present it aloud at the meeting.

4. Problem: parish council members lack expertise in topics important to the parish.

Solution: Invite outside experts to speak at meetings, or provide training about financial literacy, fundraising, or other relevant subjects.

  • To improve members’ fundraising skills, ask them to spend part of a meeting simulating a conversation with potential donors and practicing their elevator pitches.

5. Problem: It takes the priest or staff members too much time to prepare for every parish council meeting.

Solution: Use templates and charts — sometimes called “dashboards” — to standardize how staff members collect data and present it to members.

  • The more you can standardize the information, cuts down on staff prep time. By presenting financial and program-related data in consistent, visually appealing ways, these tools can help parish council members more quickly discern the parish’s state of affairs and aid them in their decision making.


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