I've served (and currently serve) on many different committees or as a part of coalitions and groups. I've also attended lots of gatherings and conferences. These have included school, university, church, and denominational committees, civic and neighborhood groups, and coalitions for various causes. Some of these I've participated in because I felt a duty to, while others it has been because I genuinely enjoyed it. Serving on a sub-committee planning an upcoming denominational meeting and also preparing for wasting my Saturday at meetings this week, I'm left pondering Why is it that some of these groups are incredibly engaging and others are a waste of time?
Here are the things that have distinguished the two types for me?
- We actually got something done. Nothing is more mind-numbing than a meeting in which nothing of any substance is accomplished. And, generally, discussing policies is not getting something done. Denominational meetings are often really bad about this one, especially if all the time is spent on reports and bureaucratic activities and next to no time on vision, mission, and ministry that actually changes lives and the world. They ought to be some of the most interesting and engaging meetings one attends and the let down from what they ought to be is one reason they can feel like such a waste.
- The meeting is efficient. The second worst thing is a meeting or event in which conversation rambles or there are gaps in time between the scheduled activities. Most meetings I attend could be at least half the length they are and actually get more accomplished. One requirement for an efficient meeting is knowing what should be done outside the meeting. The best example of this I've been a part of is the Equal Omaha Coalition where we met, generally, at 7:30 in the morning and everyone had to be at work by 9. We never wasted time introducing ourselves but always got right to business. There was always an agenda, but oddly we had no chairperson (which is usually required for an efficient meeting). Almost everyone had laptops, tablets, or mobile devices open and used them to take notes, work on shared documents, or send e-mails during the meeting. If you had a specific question for someone else in the room that the entire group didn't need to hear, you sent them a message and they responded. And anything that needed more discussion or work than the time alotted was assigned to a person or group to follow up on before the next week's meeting. Meandering conversations were reserved for social time and not the meeting. The efficiency was glorious and ultimately part of our success in passing the Equal Employment Ordinance. I should also note that at the busiest times of the group's work, up to 100 e-mails were exchanged in a day, so much was accomplished before and after the meetings, which brings me to:
- The activity was accomplished without meeting in person. This, of course, is a relatively new thing, as now so much can and should be accomplished via e-mail, phone calls, or Skype. One of the boards I was on almost always met via conference call, often with one or more of us away from town or even on the road during the call. Calls are often much quicker (though that's not always true). It didn't feel like a waste of time if everything was e-mailed and digested ahead of time and in fifteen minutes we discussed and voted.
- You are part of something bigger. It is much easier to be engaged when the meeting is part of some bigger cause that generates meaning. An example is when I was the gay community representative on a coalition of minority groups in Oklahoma City. Our meetings weren't the most efficient nor did we accomplish much during them, but that was made up for by the feeling that we were creating something important in building relationships among the various communities represented (Muslims, Jews, LGBTs, African-Americans, and Latinos (for some reason we never were able to secure an Asian representative)).
- The meeting isn't taking you away from something else that is a higher life priority. This is my continual complaint in Omaha when the meetings are held in what I consider (but it seems most midwesterners don't) the dinner hour without food present or are held on Saturdays in a season other than the winter, early spring, or late autumn. Nice spring and summer days, particularly here where there are so few, should be enjoyed and not wasted in a meeting. And that probably even goes for the ones that meet all these other qualities. One thing I appreciated about many of the groups I was part of in Oklahoma City is that they met immediately after work, around 5:30 or 6:00, so you could go to the meeting from work, get it out of the way, and then still have time for dinner afterwards and once you were home you were home for the evening. If the meeting was going to be longer, it would often be at a restaurant or in someone's home with food.
- The meeting or gathering inspires or teaches. This is more about conferences and big denominational meetings. Some of them are inspiring and informative. You learn new skills or leave with your imagination running wild with new ideas. And others are mind-numbingly boring, even sometimes when they've tried to do those things.
- The people involved are diverse, creative, and interesting. I've come to understand how important this factor is the more I've reflected upon it. For instance, Oklahoma UCC gatherings often failed at all these other factors, but the people were so diverse and interesting that it made up for some of the other failures. We had, just among the clergy, three gay men, one bisexual woman, three African-Americans, two Marshall islanders, a Samoan, a Japanese-American, and a member of the Muscogee tribe. One was a member of the Jesus Seminar, another was completing her Ph. D. on Marxist political theory, another ran a non-profit bringing clean water to villages in Nicauragua, another was working on bringing attention to the environmental racism of the Tar Creek Superfund site, etc.
- You are fed. Ultimately what makes the difference for me is that I leave the gathering or meeting feeling fed in some way--in my relationships, in what I've learned or imagined, in what I've experienced, what I've accomplished, or how I've contributed to a better world.