Annual Meeting

There are days within the flow of the year that are not holidays per se, but are noted just the same. In the life of a church with a Congregational background, Annual Meeting Sunday is one of those days. Once a year for most congregations there is a meeting of the entire congregation where important decisions are made. Congregational meetings receive reports, adopt budgets, elect officers and provide a forum for discussion. Of course congregations can have special meetings. Special meetings are common for unexpected financial situations, calling a new pastor, adopting a capital funds campaign and the like. I’ve belonged to two congregations that had quarterly meetings in place of a single large annual meeting. Both of those designated one of the quarterly meetings as the annual meeting for the purposes of budgeting and electing officers.

As a pastor it is one of many occasions where we are reminded that we are not the boss. The congregation as a body is the authority in key matters. Of course different denominations have different ways of governing themselves. The polity of the United Church of Christ grew up with the nation of the United States. The autonomy of local congregations mirrors, in one ways, the autonomy of individual states. The concept of gathering in matings with one vote per person was an important religious tradition, adopted on the Mayflower and adapted for New England Town Meetings and incorporated into the founding document of our nation. It is no mistake that prominent church leaders were among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution.

As a result, we try to practice democracy in our congregation. In theory every person has the same ability to speak and vote and the will of the majority is the direction that the congregation will take. In practice it isn’t quite like that because budgets and nominations are prepared by committees in advance of the meeting and some people are more prone to speak out in a public meeting than others. It is, however, the best system we have imagined so far and over the span of my career the process has worked fairly well.

I don’t think pastors experience their call in the form of a love of meetings and a passion for the process of making decisions as a group. We experienced the call to serve in terms of care for individuals more than care for the institution. We understand that there are political processes in the life of congregations and w need to learn to navigate those processes, but it isn’t the reason we have chosen our careers. For most of us it isn’t our favorite part of the job.

Over the years I have found myself not sleeping well and waking up nervous on the day of the Congregational Annual Meting more often than not. I had to learn to relax at meetings, the nervous energy often distracting me from what I need to do most, which is to sit calmly and allow the process to play itself out. Our forebears believed that the Holy Spirit is at work in every gathering of the church and that one must learn to trust the Holy Spirit to lead the group. It is sound advice. But trusting and remaining calm didn’t come naturally for me. I had to learn to trust and learn to allow the process to work.

I’ve said on more than one occasion that my favorite annual meeting is a boring annual meeting. I generally am most pleased when things go without surprises, motions pass without undue discussion and the process carries on without discord. That statement, however, is only partially true. I have witnessed very good things come from floor nominations, amendments proposed in meetings and motions made from the floor. I know that the preparations done in advance of the meeting are imperfect and that the congregation has a wisdom that exceeds that of any individual, board or committee.

Today is Annual Meeting Sunday at the congregation I serve. It is, however, different from anything I’ve experienced before. It is my last annual meeting. Always before, I’ve know that there will always be an annual meeting next year and another chance to make plans and imagine the future. Of course I expect to be a member of a congregation next year. I expect to attend that congregation’s annual meeting. It is entirely possible that I will be serving as pastor of a congregation facing its annual meeting. Thinking of this as my last annual meeting is, in all likelihood, not accurate. There is, nonetheless, a sense of finality about this meeting. Always before, in my career as a pastor, I have not known at annual meeting what the future held in terms of serving the congregation. Even when I was conducting an active search for a new call, I had no way of knowing that the call would come through at the time of the annual meeting. In general, pastors in our denomination find out about 90 days in advance of making a move. This time it is public knowledge that I will be leaving my position in this congregation at the end of June. So the budget we adopt and the plans we make at the annual meeting involve my role for only half of the year. Professional ethics dictate that I should not try to influence dictions or actions taken beyond the end of my time of serving the congregation. Those ethics do not change the simple fact that I care. I love this congregation and I wish it great success in its mission and ministry well beyond the time I am its pastor.

So today I pray for a bit more patience. I pray that I will find the restraint to sit and listen and not speak too much. I pray that I will place the meeting in God’s hands and trust the Holy Spirit to work through the processes of the congregation.

Still, I know I’ll relax a bit more once the meeting has ended.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!