The Meetings of the Diaconate
In many cases meetings are held frequently, and they can at times be rather lengthy and unstructured. Quite often the outcome leaves much to be desired. Having meetings is a necessity, but they are not always satisfactory. Yet, meetings can be purposeful and goal-directed. Some procedural knowledge of the activities involved in meeting together, as well as an introduction to a structured approach should both help making decisions that are not only expedient but also effective. This approach will give the participants a sense of greater fulfillment and will result in improved cooperation. In short: it pays to reflect on how we should conduct our meetings.
1. General principles for conducting meetings
1 What is the definition of a meeting?
A meeting can be defined as an organized discussion about clearly delineated topics and objectives. It is a form of goal-directed and planned consultation taking place among a number of persons. By way of thinking together and voting together the members make choices for the purpose of arriving at a certain solution. This solution may be found close at home and it may be specific such as, for instance, the evaluation of home visits or whether or not to pay out diaconal support in a certain case. The issue can also be less specific and serve a more distant objective, such as drawing up a model for diaconal management.
The above invites the following observations:
The meetings should be goal-directed and well-planned
The discussion proceeds conform to rules and usage previously agreed upon. The items on the agenda will be known in advance and will be featured on the agenda of the meeting. When an annual roster is used a portion of the subject matter will have been determined quite a while ago already. Besides all this, the proposals are briefly worded and could (as explanatory material) be appended to the agenda. The discussion will follow a set pattern of informing, evaluating, and decision making.
Number of persons
To be able to speak of a meeting there ought to be at least three present. When there are two persons one can technically call it a duologue. Meetings consisting of more than ten persons are, as a rule, less effective.
The making of collective choices and decisions
The objective of a meeting, for instance, is to collectively reach a decision. This is preceded by an extended process of decision-making. By means of gathering and exchanging information (to see the total picture), weighing and testing of alternatives and arguments (to arrive at a conclusion), the meeting will come to a decision, if necessary after casting votes. Next, there will be a checkup whether the execution of the decision is in accordance with the original intent (evaluation).
The arrangement is functional.
The chairman plays an important role in the decision making process. He will make sure that all those wishing to make a contribution will be given the opportunity to do so, but in such a way that the discussion will lead to the desired result.
The most important items discussed during the meeting will be recorded in the minutes, if necessary together with a list of actions that should be taken as well as a list of decisions that were made.
2 What is the objective of the meeting?
One can identify several objectives:
In essence, we are dealing here with sharing and exchanging information. This may entail, for example, inquiring about current issues, reporting on a meeting that was attended, home visit reports, submitting a report on the financial state of affairs. One could also mention in this context a certain approach or course of action that someone has found to work most satisfactorily.
Problem solving consists of a process of weighing possibilities against one another in order to arrive at a solution. The first step is to clarify the problem. A case in point would be the treasurer's report showing that the disbursements (against all expectations) exceeded the contributions. Similar anomalies would form the basis for a required analysis and the search for solutions. This procedure constitutes one of the most challenging aspects of problem solving, since it requires a measure of experience to get at the heart of the matter. It also demands some degree of creativity to come up with ideas and suggest possible solution. Chapter 17 will return to this matter.
The objective of decision making is to make a judicious choice out of several solutions. We are to test the arguments whether they are feasible and Scripturally sound. We weigh the possible consequences and judge whether the proposed decision can be realized. Having heard all the arguments and having considered the consequences, the meeting takes a decision.
Oftentimes the meeting will have to deal with a combination of objectives as referred to above.
3 Who are expected at the meeting?
The first condition would be that everyone who is not legitimately prevented from attending ought to participate. This would certainly be desirable for small-scale meetings where one voice or one single vote can have a considerable effect on the final result. Further, every office bearer is responsible for the decisions to be taken as well as their execution. But this observation does not lay claim to being complete.
The number of members at a certain meeting can also vary according to the subject matter to be discussed. Preliminary matters can be adequately dealt with by a limited number of members (i.e. section meetings, or an organizing committee, preparatory meetings, and so forth). The time no longer required for meetings can now be utilized for other business such as making visits.
4 What can be expected of you?
To posit that your contribution should further the goal of the meeting is, of course, self-evident. This means that you must be well-informed about the various concerns that will be addressed, so that you will be able to make a useful contribution. This requires suitable preparation. When your presence is of no consequence for the outcome of the meeting, your contribution will be unproductive.
The following tips may be helpful during a meeting:
- be brief, precise and concise, do not repeat yourself and do not repeat what others have said already;
- be business-like; contest the argument but refrain from attacking the person(s) who delivered it;
- adhere to the golden rule: listen first, think about it next, and only then give your answer.
5 How to get prepared for the meeting
The preparation begins with delving into the subject that will be discussed. Some of the questions we might ask ourselves are: what kind of problem are we confronted with; what are the possible causes; to what extent can or should something be changed; in what direction should we look for a solution; what are the parameters of the conditions to be met?
The next step will be the perusal of the official papers and the proposals that were made, sometimes supplemented with information from others sources. It is important that before reading the relevant material you should ask yourself: what do I want to accomplish by doing this? The purposes can be:
- a brief orientation;
- determining what the essential issues are;
- gathering knowledge about relevant details and essentials or,
- arriving at a critical evaluation.
You will be able to choose the most suitable reading method for any of the above purposes.
Skimming the text
It is useful to first read the text comprehensively: Skimming is really the art of skipping text. In this case one could just examine the table of contents (reflecting the structure), the summary or conclusion, and the specific proposal or recommendation.
In probing for the key issues in the text, you could concentrate on the key sentences in the text, as well as the signal words and the key word. Reading globally is reading on the fly. Most of the key sentences can be found at the beginning or the end of the paragraph. So, we read first the topic sentence and then skip over to the paragraph's last sentence. When the topic is not mentioned either at the beginning or the end of the paragraph, one could start looking for signaling words or transitional clues such as: first, second, in conclusion, finally, moreover, in addition, again.
reading the whole text
This kind of reading we employ most often: we proceed reading the text from A to Z. But this is at the same time the most time-consuming method. Perhaps it would be better to consider whole-text reading as a supplement to skimming and reading cursorily.
It is important to assess (for instance) the proposals critically. How is the logical coherence, and is the conclusion obvious? Here we watch the logical sequence and pursue the large lines of the argument or story.
After having taken notice of the official papers we are now acquainted with the facts and the most important arguments.
At this juncture it would still be possible for us to submit counter arguments.
Next to being well prepared, it is careful listening that ranks foremost in the prerequisites for conducting effective meetings. Unfortunately, however, poor listening is the order of the day. The chief culprit is our poor listening habits and a lack of willingness to listen.
6 Rules, customs and proposals
In order to promote orderly meetings, we apply certain rules and regulations that we can agree upon. Should the meeting be relatively small, we tend to adhere to a lesser degree to the formal rules. This will unhindered permit us to adopt rules for by-laws. These by-laws might include such items as: rules for meeting, whatever will constitute a quorum, proposals for following certain procedures, as well as the process for making decisions and casting votes.
Aside from the established rules, we can recommend a number of practices, such as:
- shake hands before and after the meeting;
- work with a fixed agenda guideline;
- take a brief break every hour.
When the by-laws make no provision for a solution, the making of a motion will open an avenue by which to proceed with the matter(s) at hand. It is best to discuss points of order before coming to terms with the specific point on the agenda. A point of order always overrules any other proposal. First and foremost we ought to be in agreement with the rules before we are able to proceed profitably. Among the points of order we may find:
- the items on the agenda; what items should be addressed, what matters for discussion we should give priority, as well as what points on the agenda should be deleted or added.
- the procedure applied to the discussion: time allotment for a certain item; is there an open discussion or is the discussion conducted by taking turns; are proposals discussed and finalized or settled after two or three 'rounds'?
- the making of decisions: how do we make considered choices, and how do we vote?
- the meeting procedure: time of adjournment; do we allow for a brief interruption so that, for instance, others can be briefly consulted? Do we 'table' the decision or shall we adjourn the meeting? (In this event the meeting could be continued on some other day without the chairman having to convene a new meeting).
Written proposals are to be preferred rather than to accept oral proposals for the following reasons:
- Written proposals will enable a thorough preparation for the meeting. They will facilitate visualizing a specific subject or proposal. Besides, they will give all deacons the opportunity to react, even though they are unable to be present at the meeting.
- The written proposal saves time. One is in a position to assimilate the gist of the proposal as well as to formulate an opinion about it. Moreover, it will facilitate arriving at a decision, in particular when the (written) proposal contains at the ending a description of a concept motion.
An effective proposal is:
- Brief and to the point, preferably limited to one, single standard size letter format.
- Logically composed with a coherent exposition that explains the proposal; e.g. point of departure, object of the proposal, considerations of and consequences of the proposal, as well as a specific formulation of a concept motion.
discussion of the proposals
When proposals are discussed in meetings where four or more persons are present, it is not uncommon to exchange views by taking turns, or having 'rounds'. This will take place after the maker of the motion has clarified it, if needed.
- A deacon who has made his intention known to the chair, shall have the opportunity to react to the proposal.
- The maker of the motion will then get the opportunity to react to the proposals made by speakers during the first round.
- During the second round, each deacon having announced (anew) that he wishes to react, will be given the opportunity to do so. Not only may he respond to previous speakers but also reply to proposals made during the first round. In this second round one can also submit proposals for amendments or make counter-proposals.
- The person having made the original motion will get the opportunity to react to the arguments put forth during the second round, after which step the final phase can be entered.
- The rounds can be interrupted to clarify the discussion. The chair is in a position to limit these interruptions, or he can go as far as to reject them when the meeting threatens to become disorderly.
7 How often should we meet?
A rule of thumb is to meet as often as needed and as little as possible. To be more specific: not more frequently than once a month. On the whole, meeting eight or ten times a year should be sufficient, with a provision for lengthier intervening periods during the traditional vacations.
8 Who chairs the meeting?
Obviously, it will be the chairman who directs the meeting. The chairman should, preferably, have the following qualities:
- he should be able to structure and direct the discussion;
- he should see to it that there will be a stimulating and goal-directed discussion;
- he should be able to listen carefully and to recapitulate what has been discussed.
8 Are diaconal meetings open to other members of the congregation?
Since the meetings of the consistory are open, so are the meetings of the deacons, in as far the agenda is engaged in business only. Discussions about persons and all related matters, such as financial support, are not public: this means the congregation at large. In such a situation the meeting ought to be held in closed session. Because of (inherent) open feature of a meeting, the diaconal meetings ought to be announced. Finally, the local church news will be able to convey to the congregation a brief summary of the meeting so that it may stimulate the involvement of the congregation in diaconal activities.
The agenda will reflect the essential issues that will be dealt with during the next meeting. It is a most useful device for preparing oneself for that event. The agenda structures the meeting during its progression and makes for a well-ordered arrangement during the meeting.
1 What are the requirements for an agenda?
One option would be to work always with a standardized agenda format, which will merely list generalities such as: opening, incoming mail, announcements, et cetera. This is insufficient. To help improve a thorough preparation for the meeting one needs more specific information.
An effective agenda features the following qualities:
- It is informative, since it conveys all the topics for the meeting. It indicates what will be the purpose of the item in question, such as: dispensing information, checking it out, making decisions, and so forth. It also briefly introduces and explains new items, if needs be, e.g. a proposal for an addendum.
- It should also be comprehensive in that it should give information about date, time, place of the meeting as well as any other kind of information that will assist in preparing for the meeting. During the meeting itself, no important topics should be added to the agenda.
- It should be carefully considered and must not list more topics than the meeting can reasonably be expected to deal with. The most important items should be listed in numerical order at the very beginning of the business agenda.
- It should be made available on time. This means that the topics should be submitted to the secretary at least two weeks in advance, whereas the office bearers should be duly informed about the proposed agenda at least one week before the date of the meeting.
2 The annual agenda
The topics on the annual agenda may also have a direct bearing on the regular agenda(s). The annual agenda can be drafted once a year so that it will be known what topics will (subsequently) be dealt with. The function of the annual agenda is twofold:
- It ensures an equitable allotment of activities and topics throughout the year.
- It will jog the memory before making prepay rations for diaconal activities.