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What is the Content of Your Parish Council Meetings?

“Let the dead bury the dead.” (Luke 9:60)

What do you talk about at your parish council meetings? Blah, blah, blah? Endless discussion of managerial issues? The price for the festival ticket this year? Do you feel like you’ve seen this movie a hundred times? You’re not alone. A recent survey of 100 Orthodox priests revealed this issue and implementing authentic stewardship in the parish to be their greatest frustrations.

Perhaps a different question should be asked: “What exactly is the purpose of the parish council?” Though parish councils may actually function is a variety of ways, there is only one answer to this question. The ultimate, final, deep, underlying and overarching purpose of a parish council is to do governance – that process whereby a voluntarily group of Orthodox Christians, together with their priest, ensure that the mission of the parish is fulfilled.

It doesn’t matter the size, age or ethos of the parish. It doesn’t matter if the parish is embryonic or highly developed. What matters is that the parish council does governance at their meetings. In fact, the only time that governance ever happens in a parish is when the parish council is convened. It’s true that a general assembly might also be involved in governance at some point but it’s usually accidental or occasional. General Assemblies primary functions are legislative, financial and electoral.

What are the elements of governance that ensure adherence to the mission of the Church and so then also to the mission of the parish? There are five:

1) Fidelity to Orthodoxy 2) Strategic Intent 3) Policy Formulation 4) Advocacy, and 5) Being good stewards of all that is entrusted to them – the facilities, the assets, the finances, the spiritual life of the community, etc.

Examples of governance at work are defining mission, vision and values, strategic planning, parish council development, formulating policy concerning background checks on all those with responsibilities working with children and the youth. Other examples include exemplifying and promoting good stewardship, evangelization, supporting fundraising efforts and self-assessment in both individual and corporate parish council performance.

Some of these may appear to be managerial tasks, but within the context of governance these things are all conceived, formed, applied and evaluated with the mission of the parish in mind – not just the opinion or whim of those around the table. At any point in time a parish council member can ask, “In what way does what we are talking about relate to our mission statement or what we want to become as a parish?”

Here’s some tough talk.

Don’t listen to reports.

These should be read, digested and marked up before coming to the meeting. Don’t waste time reviewing reports – unless it’s a precursor to an important conversation. Instead, design parish council meetings for strategic conversation about important items.

It’s important for staff in large parishes or competent volunteers in small parishes to put together the right information, to explain trends and their potential implications so that parish council members can focus on important and strategic aspects of parish life.

Parish Council meetings require intentional design and good facilitation.

Parish council meetings should be a gathering of wise and experienced people who talk about important things. Sometimes the parish council makes decisions. Sometimes the parish council learns and explores through conversation, preparing to make decisions in the future. Definitely, parish council members should ask strategic questions, even cage-rattling questions. Parish council members should probe to ensure that they are drawing on information that is accurate, insightful, and useful.

Don’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order for agendas.

Instead, design the agenda based on what is most important to the parish at this time. Handle routine matters quickly. Use a consent agenda. Put the most important items at the top of the agenda. Provide adequate background information in advance of the meeting so that people come prepared. If the most important items are left to the bottom of the agenda, we try to engage people when they are tired and looking at their watches.

Do not provide extra copies of materials at meetings.

Expect – insist – that your parish council members come prepared, with their materials in hand. Parish council members should read the material in advance of the meeting, making notes, highlighting key items, whatever. Advance preparation – by staff and parish council members – is essential for effective meetings.

Don’t talk about management stuff.

Even if you’re a small parish, don’t talk about management stuff at parish council meetings. Even if you’re an all-volunteer parish except for the priest, don’t talk about management stuff at parish council meetings. You must talk about governance – do governance and be governance – at parish council meetings. That isn’t negotiable. And if non- governance items that are purely trivial and managerial are routinely are allowed to clutter the agenda, then any aspect of governance is quickly moved aside and the meeting degenerates into blah, blah, blah.

Priests must learn to think strategically and to focus on key issues affecting the life and future of the parish.

Then together with the parish council chairperson create exercises, surveys, discussions studies, etc., so that the parish council can also focus on these issues and so function as the governing (not managerial) of dedicated laity with their priest.

How about these questions for periodic parish council meeting agendas?

1) How adaptive are we? 2) How are we foreseeing the unforeseeable? 3) How effectively do we recognize, anticipate, prepare for and respond to different situations? 4) How effectively do we anticipate unintended consequences? 5) What might have once been inconceivable – but now seems as if it might become inevitable? 6) What is of concern that, if we don’t address it, can become alarming? 7) What do we wish to become as a parish? 8) What is our preferred future? How do we get there? 9) Let’s look beyond festival and stewardship. What do we know about major gift possibilities in the parish? Estate giving possibilities? 10) What is our plan to grow the membership of the parish and so fulfill our roles as ambassadors of Jesus Christ as He is experienced within the Holy Orthodox faith? 11) What is our image in the neighborhood, the city, the diocese? Is it the one we would wish for? 12) What do we look like 5-10 years from now based on current trends? 13) What do we know about way young people are leaving Christianity and church life in droves? 14) What training should we invest in to empower our staff and ministry leaders?


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