DPC LogoSmallImpoverished and Enriched Agendas

Published in Today’s Parish 37:7 (Nov./Dec. 2005), 14-15.

Many workers in the Church, volunteers as well as professionals, suffer from poorly planned meetings. In such meetings, no one (whether committee members, parish staffers, or pastoral councillors) comes prepared. No one knows precisely what the meeting is meant to achieve. No one knows how long to allow this topic or that, so the meeting often runs longer than scheduled. When the meeting is over, participants exit dazedly or angrily, quipping about what the meeting could have achieved were it better planned.

Such poorly-planned meetings may well have had a prepared agenda. But an agenda offers little help if it is only a list of topics. A list implies that participants are supposed to do something with the topics. Participants may share information, brainstorm, plan, evaluate, or decide. But a list of topics does not specify which is to happen. And if the agenda does not say what will take place, if it does not explain how participants are to prepare for the meeting, if it does not indicate how long an agenda item is expected to take, then it is insufficiently planned. I call it an “impoverished” agenda.

Easter Vigil at Santa Cecilia

Let me give an example from a parish pastoral council meeting that I recently attended. The council of (what I will call) Santa Cecilia Church faced a crisis about scheduling the Easter Vigil. Santa Cecilia, one has to understand, is a parish with different language groups. In past years, there was a 7:00 PM “vigil” in Vietnamese, a 9:00 PM “vigil” in Spanish, and a midnight vigil in English.

Korean parishioners, however, had no vigil in their own language. They complained about this to the pastor, Father O’Dowd. He offered to let them celebrate the vigil in Santa Cecilia parish hall (if they could find a Korean-speaking priest). Many Korean parishioners were dissatisfied with this response. They felt snubbed, they said, because the Vietnamese, the Spanish-speaking, and the English-speaking were allowed to celebrate in the Church, while they were relegated to the parish hall.

So Father O’Dowd got the good idea to consult the parish pastoral council about the matter. It is wise to consult. But it is unwise to consult while using an impoverished agenda. Father O’Dowd’s agenda looked poor:

Example of the “Impoverished” Agenda

Santa Cecilia Parish Pastoral Council
Agenda for the Meeting of February 23
Santa Cecilia Hall, 7:30 – 9:30 P.M.

1. Gathering and welcome.
2. Opening prayer.
3. Minutes of the January 26 meeting.
4. Report from the Pastor (Father O’Dowd).
5. The Needs of the Korean Community (Mrs. Sung Lee).
6. Discussion.
7. Next Steps.
8. Responsibilities for the March 23 Meeting.
9. Adjourn.

As you can see, the agenda stated that Father O’Dowd would give a report. But it did not say what the report was about (and the report was not distributed in advance). The agenda noted that Mrs. Sung Lee would present the needs of the Korean community, but said nothing about what those needs were. The agenda included time for a discussion, but did not define the topic or state how long the discussion would take. In short, the agenda was impoverished.

The consequences of an impoverished agenda can be dire. They certainly were at Santa Cecilia. Father O’Dowd was defensive. His report explained why the parish could not accommodate the Koreans’ request to use the parish church for the Easter vigil. That inflamed Mrs. Sung Lee. She ranted for twenty minutes about how the most recent immigrants (i.e., the Koreans) are treated shabbily. And during the discussion, councillors fell into opposing camps, either urging Father O’Dowd to be more compassionate or suggesting that Mrs. Lee and the Koreans could be more flexible.

Making the Agenda Richer

As I left Santa Cecilia, I felt sorry for Father O’Dowd. He had made an effort to consult, and the effort had backfired. This is regrettable. Consultation enables leaders to gain wisdom. It helps them facilitate the work of the entire community. It helps create a sense of teamwork. Such consultation, however, requires planning. Before a meeting, leaders have to ask themselves what they want the group to accomplish in the time allotted, and how the group members should prepare themselves. Such planning leads to a better-planned agenda, an “enriched” agenda. Would the meeting at Santa Cecilia have ended differently if the agenda had been enriched?

Example of the “Enriched” Agenda

Santa Cecilia Parish Pastoral Council
Agenda for the Meeting of February 23
Santa Cecilia Hall, 7:30 – 9:30 P.M.

7:30 1. Gathering and Welcome.
7:35 2. Opening prayer on the theme of needs of the parish community.

A. “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
B. Reflection: How does Christ helps us build up the community?

7:50 3. Approval of the minutes of the January 26 meeting.
7:55 4. Report from Father O’Dowd (see the handout in your packet).

A. Our growing parish population, especially the Koreans.
B. The strain on our facilities.

8:00 5. The needs of the Korean Community (Mrs. Sung Lee).
8:10 6. Brainstorming: “In what ways can Santa Cecilia respond better to the needs expressed by the Korean community?”
8:40 7. Break.
8:50 8. Provisional Summary (Chairperson): ideas generated during the brainstorming.
8:55 9. Invitation to share responsibility (Father O’Dowd).

A. Which areas discussed need further work?
B. Who would be willing to refine them for the next meeting?

9:05 10. Discussion of the next steps. What are they? Who will do them?
9:15 11. Review of responsibilities for the March 23 meeting.
9:25 12. Evaluation of tonight’s meeting.
9:30 13. Adjourn.

Consider how an enriched agenda might have improved the Santa Cecilia pastoral council meeting. The first thing about it is that every agenda item has a specific number of minutes. In the example, the agenda gives Mrs. Sung Lee ten minutes to sketch the needs of the Korean community. With an enriched agenda, Mrs. Lee would have known that she had a limited amount of time. She would have had to be more economical with her words.

This is not meant to turn the leader, facilitator, or chairperson into a timekeeper who rudely blows a whistle when people exceed their allotted minutes. But it does enable the leader to accurately gauge the progress of the meeting. If it becomes clear that the group will not have enough time to get to every item, the leader can draw the group’s attention to the clock. The leader can say, “Since we will not have enough time to accomplish everything we hoped, I propose that we postpone one topic on the agenda until the next meeting.” That will help participants at the meeting feel that the leader respects their time.

Another feature of the enriched agenda is that it helps participants to prepare. In the case of Santa Cecilia, the pastor provided councillors with a report. It described the growing parish population, especially among the Koreans, and the strain that the growth put on the parish facilities. Councillors who took the trouble to read the report would know something about what Mrs. Sung Lee was going to say. They would be prepared to brainstorm about what the parish can do for the Korean community.

A clear purpose is the third feature of the enriched agenda. At one point in the agenda, the council is to approve the minutes of a previous meeting. At another point, it receives information from the pastor and the Korean community. Later, it is to brainstorm responses and reactions. After that, the pastor invites members to volunteer to study those responses and refine them. At every step in the enriched agenda, participants know what is expected of them.

Would such an agenda have prevented disruption at the meeting of the Santa Cecilia pastoral council? Would it have kept Father O’Dowd from becoming defensive? Would it have defused Mrs. Lee’s anger? We will never know. But I bet that such an enriched agenda would have improved the meeting.

Improved Meetings, Greater Respect

Better preparation, more productive meetings, and greater satisfaction – enriched agendas lead to all of the above. Leaders who invest time in planning their meetings have a better chance of achieving their goals. By indicating what participants can expect, by alerting them in advance that they will be asked to commit themselves, and by inviting them to evaluate and improve future meetings, leaders involve participants in decision-making. They are relying on them to help the group accomplish its goals.

Above all, the enriched agenda shows respect. It emphasizes that the contribution of participants to the meeting is important. It underlines how much the leader values their time and their gifts. The enriched agenda expresses the Christian doctrine of human dignity. And it cuts down on carping when the meeting ends.