Sometimes there are just too many people in the room. I’ve been thinking that ever since I went to classis last week. Like many other classis meetings I have participated in, this meeting had some real high points. But like many others, this meeting also had some moments when there were just too many people in the room.
We do some things very well at classis. This meeting included the exam of a candidate. I know not everyone would choose classical exams to lead a paragraph of things classis does well. When I told our church council that this classis meeting would include an exam, one elder groaned. He’d witnessed exams that did not go well. But other elders and deacons have consistently said that they found that the exams were one of the most interesting parts of the day for them, and this exam went the way we hope exams will go. The examiners, the candidate, the delegates and deputies all played their parts well. A minister once told me that he thought exams ought to be an opportunity to celebrate ministry and a candidate’s gifts. This exam had that feeling.
We do some things well at classis. We told stories at this meeting. Two church plants and two established churches each told stories of ways they were connecting with people in their communities. The stories were meant to prime our imaginations. We broke into small groups to reflect on the stories we’d heard and imagine imagine how stories like these might be told in our own communities. We dreamed about where the next new church plant in our classis might take root.
We do some things well. We celebrate gifts and achievements. We dream about future ministries. We can listen to each other on issues we care deeply about. All of these things can be done with a lot of people in a room. But then there are moments when we struggle; often these involve what might be called ‘personnel issues’, requests to release a pastor, extensions of eligibility for a call, personal appeals, or matters that might require an executive session. These questions can be difficult and emotional. In a sense they ought to be a struggle. But, it doesn’t help when there are too many people in the room.
The classis I belong to has upwards of 60 delegates at a meeting – not to mention guests and visitors.Other classes have even larger populations and these numbers will continue to swell as deacons are increasingly delegated to broader assemblies. It is simply hard to find a way through a complicated and sensitive issue in a gathering of that size, especially when many delegates have little background in the matter being deliberated.
I once attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church meeting and was surprised to learn that this relatively small presbytery broke into committees for the morning session. That made me wonder why we don’t do the something like that. An approach like that would let delegates with a passion for outreach focus on outreach ministries, delegates with a head for spreadsheets review the financial records, and it would let delegates known for wisdom and discretion find a way through issues that require those gifts. I think this could be done in a smaller group and still honor the principle of accountability to the broader church.
As our meetings include more people we need to pay attention to group dynamics. Some things can be done very well in large gatherings, but others are done better when there are fewer people in the room.