The blessings and curses of evening meetings

If you want people to focus and contribute, you need to help them keep in the game.  And that gets harder as the clock keeps moving.


I have a private rule, that no meeting I’m leading goes on beyond 9.30pm.

That won’t make sense to those of you who live outside church-world, but pastors know that evening meetings are key.  The only reliable time you can get those critical people together to pray and think, to be elders and deacons, is evenings.

And pastors also know that evenings are a terrible time to have meetings. Evenings sit at the end of everyone’s high-pressured working day, with two commutes.  Parents with young children will have been climbing the walls at some point.

Everyone’s decision-making muscles have been stretched to breaking point in their busy days, but when their colleagues are chilling out with a glass of red wine and an episode of CSI, we’re asking them to read yet more papers and contribute to yet more discussions.

I can’t see we can do without them, so here is my battle-scarred, hard won advice.

Notice, by the way, that I’m gong to repeat that ‘attention is precious.’  Not time – although that is, too – but attention.  If you want people to focus and contribute, you need to help them keep in the game.  And that gets harder as the clock keeps moving.

Start on time, because attention is precious

Teas, coffees, chat and biscuits – they’re all good and even necessary, but they can delay the start. So provide them before the beginning, keep them available throughout, and by all means have a well-timed break, but be kind to everyone and start on time. Oh, and provide decaf and fruit as well.  Caffeine and sugar are lousy body-fuel.

Stay on track, because attention is precious

Chairing an evening meeting is quite demanding, I find, because as everyone gets a bit tired, so their self-control drops.  They speak more often, and at greater length, than if they were fresh.  So I need to chair clearly and firmly, but without domineering or bulldozing. So I need to

  • Frame the agenda.  I try to have the big item at the top of the agenda, while we’re all fresh
  • Time the agenda.  I like to allocate time slots for the items; that helps us all keep pace, but also shows the item’s relative importance
  • Split the agenda. The items we discuss are often not big financially, but they are spiritually important, and we need to be responsible.  So I try to say that for items like that, it takes two meetings to make progress: we don’t discuss and decide at the same meeting.  Two bites at the cherry, with processing time in between, allows people to pray, mull, chat things over.

Finish on time, because attention is precious

This is my 9:30 rule.  Actually, at one previous church, we had to train ourselves to do this, so we had a little practice that we had to pass a special motion to go past 9.30, and at every 15 minutes after that! I don’t do that now, but I do try to finish round about half-nine. Go after that and people not only get tired, they start checking their watches, planning tomorrow, and generally not being focussed.

Hands up

And at a recent church meeting I broke every one of those rules (sorry, peeps!).  We started slackly, went on till 10.25, I got the order of items wrong, people felt bounced because we were discussing and deciding, I lost control of the group several times… a masterclass in how not to do it.

I was sitting there, watching myself, willing myself to do better. And failing. Because I became too tired to chair myself properly.

I was sitting there, watching myself, willing myself to do better. And failing. Because I became too tired to chair myself properly.

So my last lesson is that if chairing this kind of meeting demands a lot of me, then I need to be ready and rested for it.  I can’t waltz in unprepared, frazzled or unfocussed.  I need to be fresh to chair well.

Process question:

What else do you do, to run your evening meetings well? Pile in!

4 comments on “The blessings and curses of evening meetings”

  1. A great tip from CPAS “pcc tonight” – have a last agenda item of ‘review the meeting’. Ask
    1. What worked well in this meeting
    2. What can we do better next time?
    Helps everyone to own responsibility for the meeting running well.
    Interestingly, as a result of this review., our pcc has changed from monthly evening meetings to one full Saturday and one evening meeting per term – because they feel that they give better attention when not frazzled at the end of the day.

  2. Thanks. There’s a particular challenge when the chairman is a “night owl” and can happily continue past 10pm. At my last meeting I failed to sit in sight of a clock, and thought it was approaching 9:30 when it was actually almost 10:00. At least we’d done the most important things earlier and it was easy to drop he last few items until next month. But a lesson identified. And my new smart watch is — in this sense — dumber, as even if I had it on a table facing me, I still need to tap it to get it to tell me the time. Perhaps I need to dig out an old-fashioned small travel alarm clock instead.

  3. Great post Chris. I agree whole-heartedly. Physically moving really helps people stay alert/awake, so if you have the space actually conduct different parts of the meeting in different spaces set up to reflect what you are doing. The moving from one space to the next not only re-energises the body, but also helps people with the transitions to the different parts of the meeting. So for example, an area for refreshments as people arrive, an area to engage with the Bible, worship and pray together, and an area to do ‘business’ for a more formal meeting like a PCC can be a great help.

    1. Yep – which is also why extended AwayDays can be so useful, provided you don’t cram the agenda. For the record, our latest PCC started at 7.45, finished at 9.05, and made two important decisions, unanimously. I’m claiming bragging rights on that for years!

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