Staff Meetings: A Contemplative Approach

October 9th, 2009


There are two primary methods for running a staff meeting in North America congregations: chaos and control.

A chaos meeting is open and informal. It moves and shifts based on the whims and moods of the head of staff. The length and content of the meeting swings wildly. One week the staff's engaged in a heated two-hour discussion on cleaning supplies. The next week the church accountant spends 45 minutes sharing about her mother's trip to Canada. There's a feeling of attending to staff relationships, but few people are really listening. Most people are reactive, dumping out whatever tension, irritations, and issues they happen to be carrying that day.

On the other end of the spectrum is the control approach. Based on business models, this staff meeting is focused on efficiency and production. The meeting is more formal and structured, with everyone attending to the clock. Staff members come as their roles, leaving personal items for outside the meeting. Control meetings focus on concrete items: numbers in worship, budgets, committee structures, and programs. The goal of control meetings is to get more work done in less time. Personal sharing, brainstorming, and open discussion are left for sub-groups. Most congregations are somewhere in-between, with a mix of corporate efficiency and personality-driven conversation. And yet neither one of these approaches nor the continuum that lies between are grounded in Christian living. New youth ministers that step into either of these meetings will quickly become disillusioned and demoralized, because the center of Christian communities should be neither corporate efficiency nor personal free-for-alls. At the center of congregations there needs to be a spiritual community that is attentive to God's presence, discerning of the Spirit, and committed to relationships of care.

In 1997, our church tried a different process for staff meetings, a process that seeks to assign prayer, relationships, and discernment as the primary tasks of a Christian meeting. This process has been used throughout the partner congregations within the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project.

The Liturgy for Discernment

This is a process for group meetings. It was originally designed for people engaged in youth ministry but can be used whenever Christians gather to do the work of God. The liturgy changes the tone and spirit in which the business of ministry is done, and it invites an atmosphere of prayer and listening rather than efficiency and productivity. In this process, emphasis is placed on deepening relationships—with oneself, others, and the Spirit of God—instead of accomplishing tasks.

1. Ritual. As people gather to meet there is an opening ritual, a simple activity that draws the attention of the group to the Spirit's presence. This could be a song, a moment of silence, or the lighting of a candle. The ritual consecrates the meeting, changing the context from ordinary to sacred time and space. The ritual announces to the group, “We're coming into an awareness of the presence of God.” We avoid pastoral prayers or other rituals that rely on the gifts of only one person. The ritual should be repeatable no matter who's in attendance and last no longer than a couple of minutes.

2. Relating. This is a time for building relationships. Each member of the group is asked, “How are you?” Each person than has two to three minutes to check-in. This is a time of deep listening and attending to one another. Jesus says there are only two things required of Christians: to love God and to love one another as we love ourselves. In this time, we love others through our eyes and ears. We listen without interrupting or commenting. We leave silence in-between each speaker to honor what has been said. The hope is that in the midst of silence and careful listening the speaker is able to hear herself and is able to speak from a deeper place. This time is valuable because it allows people to drop whatever baggage or turbulence they may be carrying (joys or anxieties). The sharing helps create more space within them to pray and focus on the work of the group.

3. Receiving. After listening to one another, we turn our attention more fully to God. This is a time of prayerful listening—full attentiveness to the Spirit of God within and among us. The prayer makes room for these three movements: 1) Centering: our attention shifts from the particularities of the agenda to the One who calls us to this work. We remember who we are and whose we are; 2) Transformation: in the silence we become available to God. A new word is given, wounds are tended, and renewal takes place; 3) Call: we get in touch with the Spirit's longing within us—our calling, that unique way in which God has invited us to live and serve. There are two different forms of prayer that are used in this movement. The first is lectio divina [See Too Deep for Words, Thelma Hall, Paulist Press, 1988]. On alternate meetings the group replaces the lectio prayer with the awareness examen [See Sleeping with Bread, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn, Paulist Press].

4. Ruminating. In this movement the group takes time to listen to what each person noticed during the prayer time. If the group has prayed lectio divina, the leader might say something like, “I'd like to invite you to share the word that came to you in the prayer and any other thoughts or insights that came to you.” If the group does the awareness examen the leader might say something like, “I'd like to invite each of us to share what came to us in the prayer, one moment where we were grateful and one moment where we were least grateful.” Allow each person to speak without interruptions or commenting. This should be a time of deep listening to how God is speaking to the group.

5. Reflecting. We then take time to reflect on our call. In this movement we're moving out from our individual sharing to focus on our group identity and group purpose. Someone asks the following question to the group, “Given all that we've heard and shared, what is God's call to us?” (Some groups replace “call” with “invitation.”) The group then has an open conversation, allowing silence between each speaker. This is a moment for the group to remember its call and reflect on new words or insights that have come out of the prayer. This should take anywhere from five to ten minutes.

6. Responding. The group then begins to address the business items on the agenda. It's important that as the group moves into the business, the leader periodically reminds the group to continue to be aware of the prayer and sharing that has occurred.

7. Returning. Closing prayer, at the end of the meeting the group returns their attention to the Spirit of God. Prayers of gratitude, intercession, are blessing may be offered.

Keep in Mind

Fruits vs. Productivity. This meeting format may not be as productive as other models for doing business. The success of this approach is better measured by fruits of the Holy Spirit—kindness, generosity, joy, patience, etc. (Gal. 5:22-26) rather than physical results.

Shared Leadership. The meeting takes on more of a communal atmosphere when different people are assigned the different parts of the liturgy. Some groups create a roster so people know weeks ahead of time when they'll be responsible for relating the question or receiving the prayer.

When. Many youth ministry groups have found that this meeting is most effective right before or after a youth meeting/event. It helps the group prepare themselves to minister with the young people and stay close to how the Spirit is asking the leaders to serve.

Time. Be prepared for people accustomed to fast, multi-tasking, efficiency-focused environments to be frustrated with all the “wasted” time in sharing and praying. Explain to them that, as Christians, how we do our work matters as much or more than what is accomplished in our work.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.