Rethinking Parish Councils

Raj Gupta

Every Parish Council has been there: you need a new stove. And when time comes for the discussion, everyone has an opinion about what type of stove should be bought. For most, their opinion is formulated from a friend of a friend of a ….. Half an hour later, there is no decision, and the discussion is deferred until next month! You finish late (again), and even then you haven’t got through half of your agenda.

More significantly, the pattern and expectation that Parish Council will deal with minutia (generally at the cost of the bigger picture) is reinforced to existing Parish Councillors, and communicated to the newer members of Parish Council - those who mostly joined out of a desire to be involved in ministry discussions.

Having been a Senior Minister for only 5 years, my recent Doctor of Ministry staffing course (see first blog post on employed staffing) provided an ideal opportunity for me to crystallise some thinking about Parish Councils.

First, human nature can easily get drawn into details and minutia. However, a Parish Council (or Board in the case of other denominations), will function most effectively when it focusses on macro parameters such as its foundations (theology and governance), prayer and support, guidelines and polices, resourcing (budget and property), and vision – you can modify the categories if you like. What is important is the idea of moving from minutia to big picture. The concept is akin to a soccer field, where the Council focusses on the boundaries and parameters for the church (paid staff and lay people) to operate within.

Second, put the most important agenda items first. More time will almost always be spent on items early in the agenda, and there is no reason to have a pre-defined rolling agenda. Related to this is the opportunity to plan to have an appropriate and timely discussion about a stimulating topic at as many meetings as possible meetings. (I have borrowed this concept from Lencioni’s ‘Death by Meeting’ – it is not that hard, with prayer and being driven theologically, to run productive and stimulating meetings that people want to be part of).

Third, if ministry leaders are part of the Parish Council, they should be there with a different hat.  Sure, they are informed by their experience, and commendable passions. But the purpose of the Parish Council is to think about the whole church and not to be inappropriately driven by any one ministry area.

Fourth, as the Bible is the foundation for all ministry, take the opportunity to train Parish Councillors how to read the Bible, making minimal assumptions. 15-20 minutes at the start of every meeting, over a period of time, can have a profound impact in the development of one’s exegetical method and Christ centred theology.

When a stove type issue came up recently at one of my Parish Council meetings, I took the bold step of stopping discussion about the minutia. What was interesting was how thankful everyone was that I did.

Any other tips for making Parish Councils more effective?