Meetings & Meeting Proccesses

In this section, the experience of various people with group dynamics and meeting processes will be featured in a series of different approaches to the important question of running good Pastoral Council meetings.

A Practical Meeting Procedure

One of the things that many Parish Pastoral Council (PPC) members find difficult is the meeting that goes on forever (well at least until nearly 11.00 pm), when there are things to be done at home. It’s very important that meetings end at the scheduled time. Most Councils meet for one and a half hours to two hours. That’s plenty of time, if the meeting also starts on time, is well-prepared, and has a clear and simple procedure to follow. There will be exceptions to this, when members agree to a longer meeting for very significant matters, but generally no more than two hours is a good criterion to follow.

1. Pre-Meeting Preperation

Meetings that are ill-prepared inevitably run over time as people try to catch up with the discussion on the spot. They might have come to a quick decision if everyone had thought the matter through beforehand. To enable good preparation, PPC members need to have the agenda in good time, and any papers or information needed as well. People are generally busy and need at least a week to ten days to think through a solid agenda.

Most Councils set their agendas through an extra meeting between the Chairperson (and possibly other members as a kind of executive group) and the Parish Priest. Alternate processes opt for totally open and transparent, collaborative and shared processes from start to finish. As long as these conditions are observed, the inter-meeting meetings to set the agenda are fine. They must never be, or even be seen to be, the workings of an elite to control what gets discussed and what doesn’t. As you will see from the following suggested procedure, my preference is for the shared, collaborative setting of the agenda for the next meeting as the last item of the current meeting’s agenda. That way everyone ‘owns’ the agenda and is more likely to prepare it; it goes out with the minutes to give everyone time to consider it; and best of all it saves time spent on another meeting to prepare for a meeting. Time is a limited gift for all of us. What we have now is all there is! However, the Executive group option is also appropriate for many Councils.

The other key thing about agenda-setting is to be realistic about what you set yourself to achieve in one meeting. I’ve seen agendas for one meeting that couldn’t be achieved in five. What can’t reasonably be fitted into an hour’s focused discussion may need to wait. If there’s something extra that’s urgent, then the members may agree on extra time to deal with it.

An old boss of mine used to say that you need to apply the “4D” method to meeting agendas as he did with correspondence. If it’s important – Deal with it; if it’s better dealt with by someone else, or by a sub-committee – Delegate it; if it’s not urgent – Defer it; and if it’s not important – Dump it.

2. Meeting Commencement

It’s sound practice to start the meeting at the appointed time, regardless of who has not yet arrived. There will always be good reasons for running late, but those members who are just tardy or disorganised will soon get the message. I don’t mean to be dogmatic here, but respect for each other asks of us that we come on time to ensure that valuable time is used to best advantage, and that people’s plans and schedules are honoured.

3. Suggested Meeting Procedure:

There are many ways of running a good meeting. This is a suggested timed outline containing the key components of one model, capable of many variations:

  • Welcomes, introductions, and opening prayer
    (5 Mins)

  • Formation – Gospel-based or other appropriate material
    (20 Mins)
  • Agenda: Adjustments and Prioritisations
    (5 Mins)
  • Work through the Agenda in the agreed priority order (50 mins – 1 hour)
  • Summarise Actions to be completed by next meeting
    (5 Mins)
  • General Business, Announcements, etc.
    (5 Mins)
  • Communication Plan: Informing the Parish
    (5 Mins)
  • Next meeting’s Agenda
    (10 mins)
  • Thanks, Reminders and Closing Prayer
    (5 Mins)
That’s a neat two hours. Yes, it’s reasonably tight, but a little focused concentration on the part of the Chairperson will mostly see it through to a successful conclusion. Perhaps some further explanatory notes on some elements of the outline might be useful. Most of them are self-explanatory.

  • A solid formation session, preferably Gospel-based is an absolute essential of every meeting. It needs to be well-prepared, probably by each member in turn. Alternately you may use material provided by the PPC website or other resource.
  • Adjusting and prioritising the agenda (item 3) gives time for adding new items, subtracting items already resolved, and arranging the rest in order of importance.
  • Work through the agenda (item 4) in the order agreed upon and conclude this section within the time limit. Any items left over go into next meeting’s agenda. If there are still items left that really need resolution, the chair may ask the members for extra time to deal with them, or delegate them to a sub-committee.
  • The Action summary (item 5) serves to give a clear focus on who is to do what within which timeframe, so everyone is aware what’s expected.
  • The Communication Plan is essential. How will the Parish be informed of your deliberations and decisions? Note: the Parish Bulletin may not be the most effective way to get important information across.
  • As noted earlier, setting the next meeting’s agenda now (item 8) is my preferred method. Anything arising before the next meeting can be sent out separately or included at the ‘Adjustments and Prioritisations’ time (item 3) of next meeting.

Focused chairing of meetings along these or similar lines is an essential to the effective conduct of meetings that people are glad to come back to. If a significant number of members find themselves dreading PPC meetings, there are usually one or both of two explanations – the meetings are long, cumbersome and boring, never finishing on time; or they are never trusted with real decisions.

Reviewing Pastoral Council Meetings

Periodic evaluation and review are useful tools for assisting the Pastoral Council to develop and maintain an ongoing effectiveness. If you have even one unhelpful Pastoral Council meeting, try to act immediately to change the situation and look at ways to improve. Suffering in silence and doing nothing else, rarely produces fruitful outcomes.

Within Meetings:

Periodically invite councillors to indicate their evaluation of one of the following aspects of the current meeting: focus, time management, agenda content, outcomes, mutual respect, attentive listening, openness, energy, etc.
One possible way of doing this is to invite councillors to indicate by a show of hands, using a score of 1-4 (1 = not effective and 4 = very effective), how they experienced one of the above named categories. Be sure to accept each person’s evaluation with respect.

The next question might be: What are some suggestions for ways to improve our operations?

After Each Meeting:

The executive is encouraged to review each meeting using questions such as:
What went well? What could we do better? Also, encourage all pastoral councillors to do the same.

Each Year, at least:

Invite all councillors to record their answers to the following and then share and collate the outcomes:

  1. Issues and projects which we have considered/acted on in the last year include:
  2. Apart from projects undertaken, three (3) things we have done well as a Council are:
  3. In the process of functioning as a Pastoral Council, three (3) aspects we might modify or further develop are:
  4. What I have gained from the experience of being a Pastoral Councillor is ….