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Rethink your annual meeting to zero in on what matters most

Columnist Emily Carson says now is the time to keep a meeting concise and coherent.

Holy Everything — Emily Carson column sig
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A simplified, coherent structure will improve the quality of this year’s annual meetings.

Most nonprofit organizations have annual meetings; most congregations do, too. They are required by organizational constitutions and usually take place in January or early February. During such gatherings, updates are shared, visions are cast, and budgets are passed. Then everyone heads home.

A few years back, soon before the pandemic, I wrote a column containing congregational annual meeting suggestions. Now, in light of COVID-19 and the omicron wave sweeping the country, I’d like to adapt those suggestions and offer a simplified four-part model for how you might structure your organization’s annual meeting in the weeks ahead.

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This template is built with the goal of helping a group of people zero-in on what matters most and release the rest.

Folks are weary; this includes constituents/church members, boards and staffs. Many households are dealing with sick family members and quarantining logistics. Everyone is just trying to hang in.

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When designing an annual meeting, it’s helpful to acknowledge the real-time, lived experiences of those with whom we’re trying to connect. So rather than add an overly complex meeting to anyone’s agenda, keep it concise and coherent.

The four elements of this annual meeting model include: center, reflect, thank and imagine.

Center: Think about why you have come together

Whether the meeting is in-person or online, prioritize finding a way to welcome all participants. Extend gratitude for their care and presence. Then take time to collectively "center." If it is a secular nonprofit, consider stating the mission of the organization and then taking a few moments for silence and reflection. Give people a moment to reflect upon what brought them there. If it’s a congregation, perhaps invite the chairperson to read a Scripture or poem. Invite people into silence so they can slow down and connect with the presence of the divine. A candle, bell, gong or other sound can be a useful tool in helping a group of people to center together.

Reflect: Make it an honest behind-the-scenes look

Annual meetings generally include a number of written and spoken reports. These documents are composed by staff members and teams and provide a behind-the-scenes look at the organization’s efforts. Reflections are best when they’re honest. They name the challenges and the joys, the celebrations and the failures. Most nonprofits and churches want to invite more people to support their mission. Shape your reflections in a way that creates space for people to consider how their gifts, passions and time might be of use.

Thank those who have shared time, money

Intentional, personalized gratitude is profoundly important. There is ample research highlighting the connection between thankfulness and organizational success. At your meeting, prioritize gratitude — especially this year at this meeting. People to thank might include board members, council members, teams, staff members, volunteers, donors, people served and the wider community. Thank the people who stayed steadfast. Thank the people who tried new things. Invite the board to work together in advance to think about who to thank. It is useful for people to hear that their sharing of time and money and heart space has made a difference.

Imagine programs that go beyond survival mode

Annual meetings aren’t only about looking backward. They’re also about looking forward with openness and hope. As those facilitating the meeting present budgets and reports, seek to do so in a way that invites people to be co-builders of a future still unfolding. In the midst of what feels like a never-ending pandemic, it can be easy for churches and nonprofits to turn almost exclusively inward, focusing primarily on organizational survival. Reconnecting with our capacity to imagine helps us to turn our focus outward toward relationships, connection and service to neighbor.

Annual meetings are meaningful opportunities to connect with constituents, so craft an intentional, simplified agenda and rehearse. Center, reflect, thank and imagine. Then go home and get some rest.

"Holy Everything" is a weekly column by Emily Carson. She is a Lutheran pastor. Visit her website emilyannecarson.com .

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