Thinking Deliberately About Gathering

Inspired by Priya Parker’s work, The Art of Gathering

It’s starting to happen…meetings in person, happy hours, birthday parties, committees, councils, church!  As we emerge from the enforced isolation that characterized our pandemic response so many of us are eager to gather.  Now seems a most appropriate time, maybe even a once-in-one hundred years time, to consider the quality of our gatherings.  What are we really eager to experience with others?  How do we create gatherings that give life, that transform, that have meaning and purpose and whose format matches the purpose?  This next series of blogs will explore these questions (and a little more) within the context of church, with the intention of inspiring ecclesial leaders to really think deliberately about all the gatherings that are part of church.  How can they be moments of meaning and transformation?  How can they avoid becoming dreaded calendar items…times and places people hope they can find reasons NOT to have to attend?

Priya Parker’s first observation about our gathering behavior is this:  gatherings are important to the human experience, but too often we don’t give them much thought.  When I read this, I thought about all the uninspiring, boring, useless gatherings I’ve been part of at my parish:  councils, committees, staff meetings, adult faith formation, retreats, missions and, well you know what I mean.  Priya defines a gathering as having three or more people in attendance so all of those events I listed would meet her basic criteria.  And I can honestly say rarely, rarely have any of them been deeply meaningful or transformative.  The ones that have been?  Those where it was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into them, and where the host of the gathering was intentional, prepared, and creative.

Maybe this is what your church gatherings are always like:  meaningful, intentional, well-thought through, creative and therefore inspiring.  If so, please please use the comment feature and describe those gatherings for us all so that we can learn how this happens.  If this is not characteristic of your gatherings, Priya would say it’s because they are on auto-pilot.  They have a standard way they are done:  agenda, zipper prayers, minutes, reports, off-the-cuff comments or opinions about an issue, and limp closings, often with no real sense of anything significant having occurred.  They happen in the same place, in the same format, with the same people and the reason they happen is because they always happen.  That’s it. 

So let’s take the example of a staff meeting…unless your staff is just the pastor and one other person, these meetings are what Priya calls “gatherings.”  Three or more people…the basic criterion.  What kinds of questions can help you know you have given deliberate thought to this meeting?

  1. Why are we having this meeting? What is its deep, real purpose?  Can what we do at this meeting be done via email?  If so, then why are we having the gathering?
  2. Who is invited to this gathering? Are there people whose presence is not required or who are not needed at this gathering for it to achieve its purpose?  Are there people who should be included?  Why?
  3. Does the host of the meeting give its participants handrails so everyone knows what the rules are for this gathering? For example, is this gathering happening because of a crisis?  If so, handrails/pop-up rules might include such things as an extended or repeated prayer experience, sharing of feelings before moving on to other dimensions of the crisis, and agreed upon discussion format that is specific to leaders in a crisis.
  4. What are the expectations around this meeting? With whom have they been communicated?  How and why?
  5. Should this gathering take place in a special location? How should the location be arranged?

As you can see, being thoughtful about gatherings can make all the difference in their potential to meet the very real, human need for connection.  Does this require that someone be designated as the host?  Yes.  Does this take time?  Yes.  Might it take practice?  Yes.  Will you hit a home run every time?  No.  Will it make a difference to those with whom you gather when they see the thoughtfulness?  Every time.  Every.  Single. Time.

Next week, I’ll take a look at what Priya says follows a commitment to being deliberately thoughtful about every gathering:  committing to a clear purpose.  Please plan to check this blog out…because this is more complex and more overlooked than you might imagine!  Besides, I am wagering that everyone reading this has left a church gathering and said, “Well, that was a waste of time!”  So committing to a clear purpose is more important than it might seem on the surface.  Until next week…let’s commit to being thoughtful about our much anticipated gatherings!


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