Escaping the "Death by Committee" Trap

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In the CRC we overdo committee work. Need something done in the church? Start a committee. Need decisions made? Start a committee. Did the work get done? Was the decision ever made? Ask someone on the committee. Don’t know who was on the committee? Ask the council (the committee that oversees all the committees). But they just had a meeting so you’ll have to wait a month—and then another month so that the minutes can get approved and their answer can be “official.”

I’m overstating  that (a little), but it’s a complaint I often hear – “death by committee.”

And over time it’s something I’ve learned to love about the CRC.

Accuse me of having too much patience (probably a false accusation—check your 9th Commandment), but there is something good about being deliberate and deliberative. And I’ve found that with a moderate amount of work on staying focused most groups can get to that for the majority of their meetings. For me those are often reason enough to tolerate the painstaking slowness of passing decisions through committees.

But what if there’s even more? What if committee work could be more than just something we tolerate for the good of being deliberate? What if committee work could actually be life giving?

It was a crazy idea I had while I was a seminary intern and found myself suddenly as chairperson of our church’s “Directors Committee.” This was a committee to bring all the chairs of the other committees together to get on the same page. And there was no shortage of directors—as I recall there were at least a dozen. We had one lunch hour per month—even the businessmen were committed to it—to share what was going on in each committee and examine how we could coordinate and support each other’s work. At first we were fortunate if we could even get through giving everyone an opportunity to share. Then, providentially, I had an idea.

I decided we should only take 10 to 15 minutes to share—that gave everyone roughly one minute. I suggested a maximum of three sentences. And there was only one thing we could report on: What’s God doing? Or, how did your committee see God in action? Or, how has your committee joined God in His work? There’s a lot of ways to word it, but it’s all essentially one question. And it was ok to say, “We’re not sure right now.”

We found, a little to our amazement and a little to our embarrassment, that God was doing a much better job coordinating His efforts (and ours) than we would have imagined. In fact, sometimes an adequate report became, “Our committee witnessed something just like that!” A few times our meetings actually ended early but with a far greater sense of God having accomplished something through us.

Sharing a common witness to God’s work is amazing! I can’t overstate it. And yet there was something even more amazing. Something even more life giving.

I began to realize that committee work is an act of loving another—whether in deliberating a big decision, or in sharing a common witness of work God is already doing among us. It’s an intentional opportunity to stop and recognize that my brother and sister in Christ have something to share—and it’s just as weighty as what I have. It’s an expression that I’m not alone in Christ.

Every disagreement is an amazing testimony to the beautiful diversity of the body. Every time a committee member stops to listen, really listen, to her brother or sister is an act of building Christ’s body. Every coming to a communal decision, whether by majority or consensus, is an amazing testimony that the Spirit is alive among the body, unifying and empowering it. And every report that Christ acted in us and through us is sign not just that Christ is alive, but that we are too.

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Community Builder

Thank you for this post; it was encouraging. I have led, and participated on, committees in churches for 45 years. I have been bored to tears, and inspired beyond measure. There is something wrong when we see committee work as a necessary "evil" in the life of the congregation. 

The committee that I currently lead recently made two changes that are helping us to see our work differently:

1.  I see our committee as really a form of a small group, where the individual needs of the members need not be ignored. In fact, they need to be acknowledged openly and prayed for and celebrated, and:

2.  We realized that the role of prayer in the committee meeting was being trivialized. The prayer to open our meetings was treated more like a call to order than communication with the Creator of the universe. We have begun dedicating the last half hour (or more) of a two-hour meeting to praying together. The benefits (blessings, actually) of doing that are many...

  -- Greater unity among committee members is achieved;

  -- Seeking and experiencing the moving of the Holy Spirit in not only our areas of responsibility, but for the congregation as a whole;

  -- It turns the table from asking God to bless our work and agenda to seeking the Lord's will for the ministries for which we are responsible.   

Making these changes has just begun, but it is having the impact of changing what is thought of necessary "business" to an attitude of "adventure" of our common ministry, and what God is doing.

I am interested in what others experiences are in re-imagining what the business of the church can look like when we let God lead the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community Builder

Thanks for the comments David! 

I agree that thinking of committees as "small groups" is very helpful - sets a tone of being there for edification (of self and others) rather than for business.

And I love that you're dedicating more time to prayer. That was a change we had begun in one of my churches - though my approach was to build in prayer time in the middle of the meeting. I put the significant discussions at the beginning and then we would pray over them. After several months of stopping in the middle of our meetings to pray I felt it was still awkward, so I asked my council if I should stop forcing that on them. They agreed it was awkward, but told me not to stop - it was important enough that they wanted to stick with it until it became natural.