Q: Our congregation is struggling with several difficult decisions, some of which have caused quite a bit of controversy and emotional responses among some members. We are considering having a congregational meeting to see what the members think, “clear the air,” and make the decisions. What advice do you have?
Short answer: You could be asking for a lot of grief and much foggier air.
Longer answer: Nearly every congregation I work with has a story in their history about a congregational meeting “gone bad.” Remember watching political town hall meetings on such controversial topics as health care? Those experiences offer a pretty clear picture of why this particular format does not work well when emotions are running high.
Let me outline some of the reasons these meetings often end disastrously, and then offer some suggestions.
First, the format tends to favor the most outspoken leaders of disgruntled groups and limits the opportunity for meaningful give and take or deep listening.
Second, if the controversy has simmered unresolved for some time, the rhetoric (like the speakers) has likely become quite predictable and the meeting becomes a sort of ping-pong game where a few people bat their well-defended beliefs back and forth and everyone else just watches.
Third, without skilled, prepared moderation, the meeting can seem to encourage irresponsible speech, often with demeaning, inflammatory language that can leave moderators speechless and the congregations mute, traumatized, and demoralized.
Fourth, if a “free-for-all” mentality emerges, inappropriate or confidential information may get introduced (inadvertently or even intentionally) resulting in humiliation and privacy violation.
Fifth, meetings held in the sanctuary often line people up in rows, discouraging eye contact which limits interpersonal connections.
Finally, and perhaps most important: Most controversy cannot be voted away. As Parker Palmer says, “The misery rarely ends with the vote because the process is essentially adversarial…When fifty-one percent can tell forty-nine percent where to get off, the latter may try to subvert the majority for months, years, decades, or generations to come.”1
So, what is a leader to do, especially if the congregational by-laws or denominational polity require a certain number of congregational meetings per year or if such a meeting is required in order for a particular decision to be made?
First, remember that it is possible to separate periods of dialogue and discernment from congregational voting. There are many creative ways to engage a large group of people in constructive dialogue and discernment prior to taking a vote.2
One approach is to divide the discussion and discernment around issues from the formal decision-making, such as voting, and to put them in separate meetings. Some of the things to be done in preparation for this type of process include:
- Create a planning team that designs a process, develops ground rules, and identifies topics for the discussion in the first meeting that are based on actual decisions that the congregation will make in the second meeting;
- Train facilitators to facilitate small groups who will discuss the issues at hand so that real conversation, communication and information exchange characterizes the meeting, rather than the exposition of opinions and positions;
- Communicate with the congregation about the upcoming meetings, what will be involved in each, and how they will be conducted;
- Outline the schedule that leads from the first meeting through the second meeting, clearly describing what happens on each occasion.
Clearly, this is time-consuming work and needs significant buy-in from both staff and lay leadership, but it can be a very effective alternative to a troubling and inconclusive experience.
Second, remember that congregational meetings, even at the best of times, can be difficult for the person moderating them. This is especially true if there is deep controversy. It is always helpful for the moderator to have the assistance of a person who can help them set ground rules, maintain the integrity of the process, and step in to stop or change the course of the conversation when it begins to move in an irrelevant or harmful direction.
My recommendation continues to be that congregational meetings not be used to address highly emotionalized issues. Rather, I encourage congregations to re-think the full range of options that can help them to clarify issues, appropriately inform the congregation about options, share the details of the decision-making process, and implement changes in productive, compassionate ways.
1. Parker J. Palmer “The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap,” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life XXIV (March/April 2009): 15.
2. An excellent resource is Creating the Future Together: Methods to Inspire Your Whole Faith Community by Loren B. Mead and Billie T. Alban (Alban Institute: Herndon, VA, 2008).
Susan Nienaber is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. For nearly two decades, Susan has served as a consultant and mediator in congregations and denominations. She is an ordained Elder of the United Methodist Church and has been a hospital chaplain and a parish pastor. She writes, lectures, and leads training workshops and retreats for clergy and laity on subjects such as managing conflict and change, professional ethics and boundaries, the use of dialogue, developing staff, and strengthening leadership.