I sat in my study waiting for the first of my six elders to arrive for the session meeting. Under the Presbyterian form of government the congregation elected a designated number of elders to make the major spiritual and practical decisions on behalf of the congregation. I knew Dr. Jim would be the first to arrive; he always came thirty minutes early to “shoot the bull.” He was not your normal church leader. His transparency appealed to almost all people in our community. I always said if I were starting a church with just one couple; I would enlist the help of Jim and Elnora. He would arrive with his trademark cigar hanging from the right side of his chubby lips.
I loved this guy; he almost always supported my vision for strengthening the church and was ready for any innovative strategy for reaching more people for Christ. New church growth techniques that appeared threatening to many traditionalists tweaked his interest. I always mused what he might say or do next to entertain me without intending to do so. Sure enough, the Dr. knocked on the door three times and then entered before I could say, “Come in!”
“Good God, Elnora is going to drive me to drink more than I already do. I knew he liked to drink a cold beer on occasion and I envied his unwillingness to conform to other people’s religious expectation and mandates. Jim married his polar opposite. He was earthy and she radiated aristocracy. He could be corny and liberal; she was “starched” and staunch. Both were bright. Born into the old wealth of Benton County, she raised the bar of her family’s influence by being one of the first to receive an education at an Ivy League school. She returned from the Northeast and quickly worked her way to top of the county’s school administration. Her very presence brought dignity to any group—by now her skin reflected years of responsibility; but her elegant dress, carefully applied makeup, erect posture, and Southern drawl pulled your mind to the backyard under the shade of scented Magnolias on a plantation.
Dr. Jim pulled off his Panama straw Fedora with a little pheasant feather stuck under its black band and laid it gently on my desk, totally covering my phone. He sat down with an exhausted groan. “Elnora is hell-bent on me putting new chains on the porch swing. The swing is just fine, but she thinks it might not hold under my weight. You know, I think she lays awake at night thinking of unnecessary things for me to do to keep me away from going to the Elk’s Lodge.”
The guy was significantly overweight especially around his waist. I smirked and said, “Listen, you are probably right about the swing, but if you would drop a few pounds from that expanse hanging over your belt, maybe she would quit ragging you about anything related to weight. I hate to admit it, but you bring a lot of this on yourself. I think she just wants to keep you around for many more years. That would be okay with me as well. But carrying around thirty extra pounds of sugar day in and day out is not good for the person or his swing!”
“And, by the way, Jim, why don’t you sign your death warrant and tell her that she is the one that needs to take off a few pounds?”
He just scorned hard at me, trying to think of someway to say something ugly, but fortunately another elder, Mr. Pratt entered the open door.
I learned very quickly in my profession that people tend to behave in two time-consuming ways to extend meetings. First, if you allow it, most people will stray from the main point to follow all kinds of paths in an endless forest only to make a big loop and come back to where they began; and second, everyone has an irrelevant personal story they are aching to tell. I often wondered if some people really wanted to go home from church or enjoyed sitting in an unproductive meeting destined to go no where. So, after a year of boring business meetings, I set up three non-parliamentary rules:
- Personal stories were anathema.
- All recommendations for action must arrive in writing on my desk 24 hours before an official meeting. Non-submitted concerns would be postponed until the following month. Recommendations had to include a specific plan for accomplishing the recommendation.
- No meetings longer than two hours.
Among the five agenda items of the evening, we had a rather heated discussion about strengthening the recruitment of volunteers in the church. It produced the consensus that the elders had to step forward as examples of the joy of service. I tried to manipulate the discussion toward some of the leaders actually identifying some of the concrete ways they would serve, besides attending this monthly meeting. And, they decided I needed to prepare a list of specific responsibilities for current programs that were lacking leaders to present at the next meeting.
The stated rules of the Presbyterian Church require all session meetings begin and end with prayer. I usually called on one of the individual participants to lead such prayers. So, I asked, “Dr. Jim, would you mind dismissing us in prayer?”
His prayer was brief and focused: “God, help us to get off our butts and do what we already know we should! Amen.” People left shaking their heads. I left knowing I needed to buy some softer pillows on which for people to sit.