Four Meeting Practices that Distinguish Top Leadership Teams

This is a guest post by Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird, authors of Teams that Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadershipwhich is out today.

Certainly meeting advice is ubiquitous; our goal is not to repeat that here. Instead, we just want to report the meeting practices that differentiated thriving teams from underperforming teams in our recent study of nearly 150 church leadership teams. As you read what follows, notice what’s missing: the number of meetings or the number of hours spent in meetings. Thus it appears that “too many meetings” or “too much time spent in meetings” aren’t the scapegoats for poor team performance. Our data shows that there are many different ways to do effective meetings, but a few key practices make a great difference.

1. Teams do more than formally “meet” together. They collaborate continuously.

On top teams, meeting times don’t bound their teamwork. Instead, senior leadership teamwork is ongoing, not just occurring during meetings. In fact, we found that meeting informally for more than one hour per week was a contributing factor to differences between top and mediocre teams.

Two key strategies best enable continuous teamwork. The first is to fight like crazy against overwork and busyness. The second strategy is to develop office environments where it is easy for team members to bump into one another. Shared conference rooms and break rooms, stocked fridges, shared administrative support staff members and offices in close proximity to one another encourage team members to frequently bump into one another, creating additional opportunities to continue the team’s important work outside of the boardroom. This active engagement carries over in the boardroom as well.

2. Meeting agendas are distributed to all team members, preferably at least one day in advance.

Distributing meaningful agendas is so powerful for several reasons. First, it forces the meeting facilitator to spend time planning out the priorities and flow of the meeting beforehand, to an extent that it can be shared with others. Second, it informs all participants of the meeting’s purpose and content, which enables each participant to come prepared. Third, it provides structure to the meeting that encourages the team to stay on task and focused throughout the meeting.

3. Meeting agendas are not solely developed by the lead pastor.

Top teams get the whole team involved in setting the agenda. While most senior team meetings were convened and facilitated by either the senior pastor or executive pastor, top teams offered opportunities for other team members to shape the team’s agenda.

This input can be offered in a few different ways. First, meeting conveners can directly ask team members for items to include on the agenda several days prior to the meeting. Second, conveners can offer a standing invitation to send agenda items. Third, conveners can develop the agenda in such a way that a place to discuss the typical issues is slated on the agenda each week.

For instance, each week an agenda may have a slot for “personnel issues,” during which each team member is invited to broach discussions or to bring a decision to the group regarding personnel matters. To make this option work, however, conveners must create space for team members to bring up and discuss important issues, rather than overwhelm the meeting time with other agenda items.

4. Agendas clearly delineate the work for the meeting.

For top teams, the agenda is thoughtfully developed enough to truly guide the team’s discussion and progress through the meeting, rather than agendas that are so vague and routine that no one pays attention to them. Such agendas include:

  • implicit or explicit time periods for each agenda item
  • intentionally ordered items, often leaving the most important discussion items in the middle of the agenda
  • consistent format so that participants know what you expect in each meeting and can find necessary information quickly
  • enough detail to discourage participants from wondering what is coming later in the meeting

Agendas provide a forum to capture what has been decided during the meeting, individual expectations for followup and a framework to develop the agenda for the next team meeting.


Excerpted with permission from chapter 12 of Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership by Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird, InterVarsity Press, 2015. Visit for the book itself, exercises, and other tools to help your team.

Go Slow to Go Fast

From Executive Intelligence, quoting Irene Rosenfeld, former CEO of Frito-Lay:

Because we know speed is of the essence, too often we immediately start moving without first taking the time to think about what we’re trying to accomplish.

There are hundreds of stories about this. Everyone is trying to act quickly, but too often they run out to solve a problem without fully understanding what problem they are trying to solve. This creates a lot of organizational angst which slows things down and leads to all sorts of issues regarding job satisfaction and work-life balance.

Destroying the Success Ethic

There is still sometimes in the church today the thinking that success is a sign that a person is following God well, and difficulty and adversity are signs that they are likely doing something wrong.

While following God’s commands often leads to success, sometimes (due to injustice in the world) it leads to hardship and the opposite of earthly success. Hence, we cannot evaluate whether God is blessing someone simply by their outward success and circumstances. We have to look at character and obedience.

Here are some incredible quotes from some of the greatest theologians in church history on this matter, from Leland Ryken’s book Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure:

Puritan Thomas Watson: “True godliness is usually attended with persecution.”

Puritan Richard Baxter: “Take heed that you judge not of God’s love, or of your happiness or misery, by your riches or poverty, prosperity or adversity.”

Luther: It is “utterly nonsensical” the “delusion” that if someone “has good fortune, wealth, and health, …God is dwelling there.”

Samuel Willard: “As riches are not evidences of God’s love, so neither is poverty of his anger or hatred.”

Thomas Hooker: “Afflictions are no argument of God’s displeasure…but the ensign of grace and goodness.”

Paul Helm on the Call to the Ministry

From my notes on his book The Callings: The Gospel in the World:

The call to the ministry is extraordinary, not in the sense that it is miraculous or accompanied by visions, but because “by it a man is taken out of many of the routine commitments of daily life.” Specifically, “he ought to be freed from the need to earn his daily living in order to give himself exclusively to the word of God (1 Tim 5:17).”

It also is extraordinary in that it arises out of the ordinary. A person generally will carry on a normal calling, and “it is when he is inwardly constrained to preach the gospel, and his gifts — his ability to handle Scripture, to preach, to give leadership — are recognized by the church, that his inward call becomes outwardly ratified. It is as these inward and outward circumstances combined that a man has a warrant for leaving his regular calling and attempting to obtain a position of pastoral oversight.”

The Gospel-Centered Business

From Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf’s Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work:

The gospel-centered business would have a discernible vision for serving the customer in some unique way, a lack of adversarial relationships and exploitation, an extremely strong emphasis on excellence and product quality, and an ethical environment that goes ‘all the way down’ to the bottom of the organizational chart and to the realities of daily behavior, even when high ethics mean a loss of margin.

In the business animated by the gospel worldview, profit is simply one of many important bottom lines.

Keller nails it here. It is also very interesting that his statement that profit should be only one of many bottom lines syncs up with the research of Jim Collins. In the landmark book Built to LastCollins’ research shows that the most profitable companies actually don’t put profit first — they put the customer and the mission first.

This doesn’t mean they don’t seek profit (just as Keller isn’t saying not to seek profit). Rather, it’s that they realize that profit is not the point. Making a contribution and serving the customer is. You have to do this in a profitable way, but ironically, Collins’ research shows, you will be more profitable when you pursue more than profit rather than just profit. 

And so here we see that the nature of a gospel-centered business is very much in line with what the best business research is showing as well. Common grace and the gospel are allies, not opponents.

Four Points on Faith and Work from Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

I’m going through Keller’s Every Good Endeavor again and taking some notes. Here are four central points from my overall summary of the book (quotes are, interestingly, from the dust jacket — which for most books does a great job of highlighting the core points):

  1. A Christian view of work is “that we work to serve others, not ourselves.”
  2. We can indeed have “a thriving professional and balanced personal life.” This is a Christian goal, not just a worldly goal (though, due to suffering and the priorities of the gospel, sometimes it is not possible for some seasons – and that does not mean we are sinning or disobedient).
  3. Excellence, integrity, discipline, creativity, and passion in the workplace all matter and are to be done as acts of worship — not just self interest.
  4. We are able to — and called to — serve God through the secular arena as well as the ministry arena.

Why are these points so important, and why have I focused in on these? Here’s why.

Point four addresses the dichotomy between “sacred and secular” that robs work of meaning for so many people. It is life giving and liberating to realize that Christ can be served through the so-called secular tasks of reconciling bank statements or taking out the trash just as much as in ministry work.

Points two and three address issues which I find Christians sometimes disputing due to a some incorrect views of the fall, human nature, and God’s expectations of us. Because of the fact that we live in a fallen world, some Christians fall into the notion that we are to work only for a paycheck. Sometimes it is reasoned that life is so hard that the most you can expect out of your job is to provide for your financial needs. To seek meaning in work is just not possible or, at best, a nice bonus only available to a select fortunate few.

But that view treats us as merely economic beings. It is an overly reductionistic view of people. Since we are social, intellectual, and spiritual as well as economic, work needs to tap into those capacities as well. This is part of how God has designed work. The fact that the fall really screwed things up does not deny or remove this reality. It simply means that in each of these realms we will have hardship as well as success — not that we should reduce work to merely the economic dimension.

I would submit that one reason life does feel so hard sometimes, in fact, is because of employers who try to treat people as merely economic beings. If employers did a better job of managing to the whole person, quality of life for everyone would go up.

More could be said here, but the statement affirming the possibility of “a thriving professional life” affirms this reality (as does the rest of the book) that it is indeed possible to thrive in our work beyond just the economic side of things, and that it is good and right to seek this as Christians. So also creativity, passion, and excellence in our work are right, and in fact part of how we find meaning and purpose in our work, when done for the glory of God, because these things especially tap into our social, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.

Finally, point one is the foundation of any truly Christian view of work. In the world, work is often viewed as something we do ultimately for ourselves. This often results in work that may benefit the company (in the short-term), but doesn’t really give the customer what they actually need (and want).

Of course, self-interest is not wrong in itself. But a Christian view of work is that we work for more than ourselves and even more than our families. We work for the good of everyone (cf. Jeremiah 29:7, which applies to us as Christians because we are in exile, 1 Peter 1:17) — especially the good of the customers our organization services.

This means that it is not enough to simply work in order to make the sale or get the paycheck. We have to work in such a way that people will truly be benefited. If doing our work in a certain way will earn the money, but not truly benefit the other person (perhaps by cutting corners on quality), we are not doing our work in a Christian way. Christians in the workplace should seek profit, but they should also seek more than profit. 

If more people worked this way, the entire world would be a better place. And, perhaps, if we worked this way from distinctly Christian motives and were tactful and winsome about our faith, more people would ask us for the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), and the gospel would spread more fully throughout our vocations (that’s the meaning of a close reading of Matthew 5:16 and Ephesians 5:8-17; for more on this in the Ephesians passage, see Peter T O’Brien’s commentary).


MLK on Creative Street Sweepers

I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Quoted in Tom Nelson’s Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work.)

Here’s what I love about it: He calls everyone to high expectations and recognizes that creativity and excellence can be exercised in any and every type of (lawful) work.

This stands in contrast to the thinking I encounter sometimes among some Christians of the more cynical variety. Most Christians don’t think so poorly, but sometimes I encounter people that actually have a problem with the call to exercising creativity and finding meaning in our work. They say things like “how can this or that person find meaning in their work — they sweep streets [or whatever]. You have your head in the clouds. They need to focus on just paying the bills, not finding meaning and purpose in what they do.”

This view is then justified on allegedly spiritual grounds as being “liberating” by “freeing” people in difficult jobs from the “obligation” to find meaning and purpose in their work.

But in reality this perspective is fueled by cynicism and low expectations. It is a very un-Christian way to look at work.

The call to find meaning and satisfaction in our work is not a new burdensome law; it is, rather, an invitation. The point is not “you better find meaning in your work.” Rather, it is: “guess what: you  can find satisfaction in your work, whatever it is.” It is pointing to an opportunity, not one more burden a person has to carry.

And MLK here captures it perfectly. We can all find meaning in our work, whatever it is, by doing it for Christ and doing it with creativity and excellence. This is something any person can do in any vocation — even street sweeping or collecting the garbage.

In fact, in my view, a sweet sweeper who does his work with excellence and diligence and creativity is creating just as much a work of art as anything Michelangelo did. Michelangelo’s art was on the canvas; the street sweepers is on the streets and the beneficiaries are everyone who walks by.

Art is more than just paintings and poetry. Anything you do with emotional investment and creativity is a type of art, and all work is to be done in an artful — rather than merely utilitarian — way.

How Can Work in the Church and Marketplace be Equally Important?

It is an important truth that work in the marketplace is just as important as work in the church.

Nonetheless, sometimes saying this doesn’t necessarily feel right. For example, we can easily think something like this: “But work in the church seems more directly connected with issues of eternal salvation, so how can that not be more important?”

Part of the answer lies in recognizing that the gospel is not just about individual salvation, but also entails the renewal of all creation. So even the work we do in the secular arena is connected to God’s ultimate work of redemption. Further, all work is equally valuable because all work can be done as worship.

But I think another key part of the answer may also be this: when we say that work in the marketplace is of equal importance to work in the church, sometimes we can unconsciously interpret that to mean that work in the marketplace is more important than work in the church. We can almost hear this great truth as a diminishing of church work rather than an elevation of marketplace work.

If the equality of all vocations is taken to subtly mean that church work is less important, that should feel off-kilter. But when we recognize that the equality of all vocations truly means the equality of all vocations, we see that it is an affirmation of the significance of church work just as much as it is an affirmation of the significance of marketplace work.

This is a very liberating reality. If you work in ministry, what you are doing is incredibly important. And if you are working in the marketplace, what you are doing is also incredibly important. The equality of all vocations means that both marketplace work and ministry work matter immensely.

The equality of all vocations is a radical affirmation of the significance of work in the marketplace as well as work in the church. 

So no matter where you work, be encouraged and know that your work has immense value.


John Stott on Christian Ambition

A great quote on ambition from John Stott, via the blog That Happy Certainty:

Ambitions for self may be quite modest. . . . Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honour, and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere. (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP, 1993), 172–173).

Introducing MereChurch: Get a Usable, Effective Website for Your Church

This week, Mere Agency is launching a brand new service called MereChurch. MereChurch provides powerful and effective websites for small churches and ministries.

If you need a church website, or if you are looking to improve your church website, MereChurch is absolutely worth checking out. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

There are two things especially that set it apart.

First Distinctive: Usability
The first thing that sets it apart is the usability that it offers for your site. Good usability is the key to an effective website. Yet, many web agencies tend to overlook this, or at least fail understand the principles behind what actually makes a site usable. This is the reason that so many church websites are hard to use and sometimes very frustrating.

Mere Agency understands usability and has built MereChurch on the basis of world class usability principles. Matt Heerema, the founder of Mere Agency, worked with me at Desiring God, where he served as the web manager. We have the same usability philosophy, and his thinking on and attention to information architecture and the basics of good usability were key in helping make that site great. (For more on usability, you can see the various articles and presentations I’ve done here.)

Second Distinctive: Price
The second thing that sets MereChurch apart is its price. It’s the most competitive price among all the comparison offerings I know of.

Hence, you don’t need to choose between saving money or having a usable website. Now, it is possible to bring both together.

And a Bonus Example: Mere is Behind the New Look on This Site
One last thing: You may have noticed that my site has a new look! That is thanks to Matt Heerema and Mere Agency as well. He took it upon himself to update my site to this new look and template, for which I am super grateful. I love it. Thank you, Matt! This is just a small example of the type of work Matt does, and has been doing for almost 15 years now.

For more on MereChurch, check out the site and this video where Matt talks more about it:

Introducing MereChurch from Mere Agency on Vimeo.