Annual meeting

Today is the annual meeting of our congregation. It is my second annual meeting since I retired as a full-time pastor of a congregation. It is my second annual meeting that will take place entirely over Zoom. Our congregation is waiting for a drop in the number of cases of Covid-19 and a decrease in the pressure on local health care facilities before resuming hybrid worship. The numbers have started to decrease, so that return to limited in-person gatherings is probably not that far away. Still, our annual meeting probably would have been all online to facilitate participation by those who need to remain isolated.

The big difference is how it feels to not be the lead pastor who is in charge of the congregation. Throughout my career I had very few annual meetings that were dramatic. Much more stressful for a pastor are all of the things that lead up to an annual meeting. Forming the budget is one of the challenges each year. We can always imaging more ways to invest funds than the amount of funds that are available. There is always a bit of wrangling over priorities when it comes to making a spending plan. Generally, however, most of that wrangling has been done by the time the actual annual meeting rolls around.

Still, in a Congregational church anything can happen. Surprises can occur at annual meetings. We are, after all, congregations that are governed by the members and members are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process. As a pastor, one learns to read a congregation and has a sense of what to expect, but as we often commented, “Anything can happen!”

Early in my career as a pastor, one of my mentors commented to me that his favorite annual meeting was a boring annual meeting - one with a quick vote on the budget and a motion to elect a slate of nominees and that is about all. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with him. After all it can be exciting to experience dramatic changes and the congregation understanding and taking responsibility for change can be a way to bring forth new futures. As a youth and young adult, I often had ideas about changes that I would like to see in the congregations in which I participated and I looked forward to annual meetings as opportunities to discuss change. So I wasn’t sure that boring was the tone I wanted in a meeting.

By the time I reached the phase of my career where that mentor had been when we had the discussion, however, I understood what he meant. The real long-lasting and sustainable changes in the church require a lot of preparation and behind the scenes planning. While a vote on a change in the church constitution, for example, might take place at an annual meeting, the real work of bringing about the change requires a lot of hard work in crafting the language of the constitution and making sure that the proposed change can be put into place without unintended consequences. The exciting work of imagining the changes and developing the structure for the change occurs in other meetings and other conversations. The work of the annual meeting is really work that is done before the meeting. A similar process is part of the development of church budgets. If the budget is responsibly created, it is likely to be approved without amendment by the congregation at the meeting. However, it can be a difficult process to get the numbers to work out and to craft a spending plan. The key to a “boring” annual meeting is doing the hard work of securing pledges, accurately estimating income and planning expenses to match the realities of the congregation’s situation.

So, for the sake of our lead pastor, I’m hoping for and anticipating a boring annual meeting today. I suspect that I will not feel a need to speak at all, unless called upon by the moderator to explain one of the programs of our Faith Formation Board. I’m happy to not have the responsibility of speaking at the meeting. I’m happy to watch the lay leadership of the congregation as they do the hard work of conducting the meeting.

There are some real advantages to our position as semi-retired pastors. While we temporarily have interim positions and have real responsibilities for ministry and programs of the church, we don’t have the kind of “buck stops here” responsibility that comes with the administrative pastor’s position. Furthermore, we don’t have the kind of personal investment that a lead pastor has. If a particular program or project is not approved, we won’t be seeing it as a reflection on the quality of our leadership or our personal role in the church. For years I preached and tried to convince myself that it isn’t about me, but at the same time, took some of the things that happened or were said at annual meetings very personally. That wasn’t the fault of the congregations I served, it was just part of the process of pouring myself into the job. The congregation did reflect my personality, especially after I had served for decades as pastor.

I’m not worried about this annual meeting. I’m hoping for a boring meeting for the sake of the other members of the church staff, who are beloved colleagues. I’ve seen the proposed budget. I’ve read the annual reports. I’m prepared for a few quick motions and moving on with the business of the church.

And, since the annual meeting takes place in the after-worship time slot, a time when I frequently am responsible for programming, it is actually a bit less work for me this week than most weeks. I’m not expected to lead discussion or make program presentations. I don’t have a teaching role at the annual meeting. I can trust the lay leaders of the congregation to take those responsibilities.

Still, I know that our lead pastor will sleep better when the meeting is over. For her sake, I’m hoping for a boring meeting.

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