Okay, okay. I know everyone hates committees, but they’re a fact of church life. Refusing to think seriously about them only makes them worse. Let’s discuss some other mistakes we often make in our committee systems.
Making the committee too big. Big committee are always a mistake. People act differently in different-sized groups. I tell my teenage sons that girls in a group are entirely different from girls alone or groups of two. They have different personalities. Guys hate being around large groups of girls but love being around small groups. They’re not even the same species.
A committee stops working when it gets bigger than 12, and even 12 is hard to manage. Think about it. What’s the reason for putting all these people on a committee? Presumably you want the combined wisdom of these several minds, which is good. But in a committee of 15, only 3 or 4 people will actually speak. Everyone else is the audience, not the committee. No one is willing to burden 15 or 20 people with their opinions unless they are very strongly felt. In fact, in a large group, only the highly self-confident (or neurotic) will talk.
In large groups, the committee won’t reach a true consensus. Genuine consensus requires debate and discussion. Large groups find debate off-putting and annoying. It takes too long. The ones arguing are often just a little nutty. The rest just sit in agony hoping for a quick vote and journey home.
One you get down to 12, you can take the time to ask each member what he or she thinks. You can have a debate and most will participate. Everyone can become fairly close.
In a large group, it’s too hard to delegate work. If I assign a task to Joe, he’ll wonder why Nancy didn’t have to do anything. And so the chairman does nearly all the work. As a result, a large group tends to be less effective as fewer people are actually doing the work.
And in a large group, why should I stay up late preparing for the meeting when 20 other people will be there and they’ll do the reading and research. Large groups make too many people responsible so that, in reality, no one is responsible except the one person who can’t avoid responsibility–the chair.
But even in a group of 12, many people will be content to sit silently and not participate (and so be useless). The chair has to make a point of calling on everyone to comment and express an opinion. He has to look for body language that reveals a hidden agenda or feigned agreement.
In a smaller group of, say, 6, everyone naturally participates. It takes no courage to speak up in such a small group. And everyone is naturally accountable, as if you come unprepared, the group will notice. You can hide in a group of 12. In a group of 6, you naturally feel obligated to help effectuate the plans. Everyone gets involved.
Making the committee too small. Now, in church, we usually err on the side of having a too-big committee, but sometimes it’s too small. A committee is too small when a key constituency is not represented at the table. (From here on, we’ll talk about a building committee, as an example, but the principles are universal.)
Perhaps the most common mistake church building committees make is failure to include a woman who understands the needs of the preschool and primary departments. Countless buildings have been built with woefully inadequate nursery space because no one bothered to ask the women (and, I could add, woefully inadequate restroom space).
Now, the need to include key constituencies often contradicts the need to stay small enough to have meaningful discussion. There are solutions, however–
- You can have multiple committees and an executive committee. The decorating committee may need to coordinate the stained glass, the carpet, the drapes, and the pews, and so require several members, but only one member from the decorating committee has to serve on the executive committee.
- You can have a committee with a shifting membership. The fund raising committee doesn’t have to be represented on the executive committee unless budgetary issues are on the agenda. You don’t need the church treasure voting on the color of the carpet.
- You could just not mess with traditional committees. In our last building program, we had a building committee of one (me). I had a two-woman committee design the preschool, and they reported to me (and I didn’t try to tell the women how to do their jobs). The two-person decorating committee also made their own decisions, reporting to me but not needing my permission to decide the perfect shade of gray for the halls. The four-person AV design committee decided what screens and projectors we need, and didn’t have to talk with the decorators or preschool volunteers. They just had to persuade me, and I had to persuade the finance committee (membership of one). When we got together to do plan reviews, I had the janitor sit in and tell us what he needed and youth minister tell me what he needed, but I didn’t put them on the committee, and they were thankful. Putting 12 people on a committee to opine on matters they know nothing about would have only made the work harder–and lowered the quality of the project.
The key is to think–and think hard–in advance about how you’re going to structure the committees. The bigger the project, the more important to plan carefully. In many churches, the elders or ministers just shoot from the hip and appoint anyone with an interest, often creating monstrously unwieldy structures that lumber and lurch along and struggle to get things done. Often, the leadership comes to the elders and begs for relief, and then we have to terminate the old committee and redo the structure better. It’s better to get it right the first time.
Ignoring the politics. Committees serve a valuable political role, as they allow various interested groups to be represented to feel empowered. People want to know that their views will be heard. Often, this is necessary, but usually politically designed committees don’t work very well. But you still want the church to feel involved and to feel like they’ve had input. In fact, you should want their input–just not via committee membership.
Instead, consider these strategies–
- Take a congregational survey. This will often produce vastly better and more representative input than putting some loudmouths on the committee.
- Announce at the beginning that there will be a church-wide meeting to review the plans before anything is final. And then once the small committee designs the building, make a presentation to the entire congregation, explaining to everyone what’s going one. The fact is that the entire church is equally entitled to know what’s going on, but we usually just inform a few vocal complainers. Tell everyone. Don’t privilege the hard to please.
- Bring in individuals with a legitimate interest for consultation. Don’t put the head of adult education on the committee, but be sure he’s had a chance to review the plans and comment before they’re final. After all, you really need his input. But he’ll be thankful he didn’t have to attend the meetings about the preschool wing.
In short, committees should be designed around real needs. Don’t ask anyone to be involved who’s not really needed for the success of the project. Involve people only to the extent they’re needed. This is out of courtesy for people’s time. They’ll appreciate it if you’ll only use as much of their time as you really need.