Church AGM season

At this time of year, most of the churches I know best in this part of the world are having their Annual General Meeting. In some denominations it is called something different, but whether it is the AGM or the Annual Congregational Meeting or the Annual Stated Meeting or whatever, the dynamics are generally pretty similar.

Here’s a secret – most clergy absolutely hate the AGM. It is something that people in my job often dread.

It is perhaps worth thinking about what an AGM is for and even better, what it is not for.

The annual general meeting is a legal device to make sure that the church is being run properly. It is particularly there to make sure that no-one is running off with the money. It is also there to give the congregation the opportunity to elect people to the body (here’s it is a Vestry) which has control of the affairs of the church. This is the group which makes sure that the gas bills are paid, the stipended clergy have somewhere to live and an income stop them having to seek work, the building is secure and insured and things like that. In my own denomination, the Vestry also has a responsibility for sharing with the clergy the spiritual oversight of the congregation. This works differently in different places.

One of the reasons that many clergy feel miserable about AGMs is that they can be used by the grumpy to have a go at other people. It is very easy for someone to get on their soapbox and have an audience for clergy bashing. And clergy often feel the expectations that they will be nice and calm and loving when dealing with people.

Here’s a quick guide to how to upset your clergy at an AGM:

  • Criticise the worship – “Why don’t we keep the Feast of St Eucalyptus that you know is so dear to us?”
  • Criticise the preaching – “I once heard a really good preacher, someone who managed to keep me awake during the sermon…”
  • Criticise the spouse of the clergy person – “Why are we putting in a new kitchen in the rectory for her when she never teaches in the Sunday School?”
  • Criticise just about anything – “It is obvious why no-one comes to this church, it is because….”
  • Criticise what the clergy cost – “Now, if we could move onto the next page and talk about these travel expenses…”

The truth is, there are better ways of dealing with most of the issues that might be bugging you than raising them at an AGM. If you’ve got comments about the liturgy then don’t wait a year to make your point before an audience. Most clergy will be happy to talk about how and why things are done in church. Mostly they have the job of balancing the needs and expectations of a diverse group of people. The thing to remember is that clergy are put in charge of trying to put on worship that will attract, inspire, encourage and move a group of people with needs that differ. Worship in particular isn’t there to meet any one person’s needs and isn’t just about what the clergy want either.

If a church is running well then there’s usually better ways of getting answers to questions than waiting to ask the question at the AGM. “Why didn’t you wear that beautiful ephod that my family gave in memory of my grandmother?” is likely to get a better answer if you ask the priest directly.

The best guideline for AGM questions is to ask whether you need an audience to ask the question. If you don’t need an audience then approach the church treasurer to ask for clarification about something in the accounts before the meeting. If you don’t need an audience then don’t wait for the AGM to ask why the priest never preached on the book of Obediah. You’ll probably get a better answer from her if you have a coffee to talk about it rather than raising it on AGM day.

Some churches manage to reach above all this and have refocused their church AGM as a vision building exercise. I’m impressed by that and want to learn more about it.

And I’ve been saving up a couple of announcements for this Sunday’s AGM which I hope will give joy to the heart. (But my lips are sealed for now).

St Mary’s AGM will take place on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it because it gives me the chance to reflect on the immense thing that we are doing in being the congregation of St Mary’s, Glasgow in our day. The reports and the agenda are all in the Annual Report which is available online. At the AGM I get to look at the people responsible for all that is represented in that report and to be thankful for all that people do. The invitation to those coming to the AGM is for the members of the congregation to read that report and to do the same.



  1. Pity some people never go online …

  2. Robin says

    > Criticise the worship – “Why don’t we keep the Feast of St Eucalyptus that you know is so dear to us?”

    I wonder if members of the clergy ever stop to think about the effect of liturgical changes on the laity? Alienating people and driving them away, or so upsetting them that their commitment and faith withers, is horribly easy. The impression is often given that changes to the liturgy are made for no other reason than to make it plain to the laity who’s boss. One priest described to me the changes made by a new incumbent as being “like a dog p***ing round the boundary of the garden to mark out his territory”. I thought this unusually apt and honest.

    • I don’t think any member of the clergy ever introduces changes to the liturgy without thinking about the effect that it will have on the congregation. There’s usually a reason worth finding out about.

      I also don’t recognise your description as a motivation for introducing change in any church I’ve known.

      I do think that if faith depends on an ever unchanging liturgy it is likely to whither even more quickly out there in the world than it may do in church.

      If we are a church in debt to Cranmer we probably should expect things to change quite a lot. That was, after all, his business.

  3. Robin says

    My experience is obviously different from yours! I’ve seen changes made as a deliberate power play and also as a way of driving out members of the congregation whom the new incumbent expects will create difficulties and try to block his plans to introduce his own pet changes. Sorry, but it’s true.

    • Well, as I said above, the priest does has a responsibility to look for the interests of the congregation as a whole. That will inevitably mean that not everyone is going to be pleased all the time.

      Sometimes that does all go pearshaped and people leave whom one would prefer not to leave.

      Hard though it is to say out loud in the times where “Everyone is Welcome” has become our mantra, sometimes a congregation will grow/thrive/survive better if changes are made which may trouble someone so much that they feel they need to leave.

      And yes, some clergy are able to help a congregation navigate change more easily than others. And yes, some don’t and make a hash of it.

      I believe the same dynamics can be seen at work in Gilbert and Sullivan Societies.

  4. Robin says

    > sometimes a congregation will grow/thrive/survive better if changes are made which may trouble someone so much that they feel they need to leave.

    And sometimes it won’t.

    And the reference to Gilbert & Sullivan Societies is typical of the dismissive clerical attitude to laypeople’s concerns about which I was complaining!

    • No Robin – it isn’t a dismissive clerical attitude at all. It is a fact that similar patterns play out in different groups. The more one cares about the thing that binds the group together (which is why I picked on Gilbert and Sullivan) then the more hurt people become when those dynamics are at work.

      Yes – you are right that sometimes things are not better if someone leaves but I don’t think that invalidates the point I was making.

      Clergy are called by their congregations into a job where sometimes the community wants and needs them to make decisions on their own, sometimes the community wants and needs decisions to be made collaboratively and sometimes the community needs decisions to be made by groups that don’t include the clergy at all. It takes a long time to learn how to judge which form of decision making is appropriate for situations and there’s not much of a roadmap to guide the way. Sometimes clergy have a natural instinct for it. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people learn more as life goes on and sometimes, obviously, that doesn’t seem to happen.

      • Robin says

        > No Robin – it isn’t a dismissive clerical attitude at all.

        I suppose this is a good illustration of how honest misunderstandings can make dialogue go wrong! When I saw the reference to “Gilbert & Sullivan” I immediately assumed – going on past experience in other times and places – that you were belittling the point I was trying to make by suggesting that I was the sort of congregant who made a religion out of preciosity, liturgical finickiness and Victorian high camp, and who was therefore unworthy of a serious answer or of being engaged with in a serious way. You wouldn’t have been the first member of the clergy to have tried to avoid discussion of a deeply-felt grievance or concern with a smart, flip remark as an attempted ‘solvitur risu’ which in fact comes across as patronising and alienating!

        Of course it can be hard to be a member of the clergy, but it can also be hard to be a member of the laity. It’s vital that members of the laity should feel taken seriously, ‘listened to’ and ‘heard’. There are quite a few more things I could say on the subject, but perhaps this isn’t the best forum in which to air them!

  5. Meg Rosenfeld says

    On a much lighter note, this Californian–living in a place where eucalyptus trees are probably the most common arboreal import outside of fruit trees–laughed aloud at your mention of St. Eucalyptus Day! If such a feast really existed, it would be celebrated up and down the length of the state! or perhaps picketed; the trees catch fire quite easily and are often blamed for the deadly wildfires which sweep the drought-stricken state from time to time.

    I do not, of course, know Robin, but his or her comments do ring a persistent bell. There ARE many members of the clergy who would rather give a flip dismissal to the laity’s concerns than deal with them in a human-to-human manner. I doubt that you are one of them, however.

  6. Robin your observation, no doubt true in some places as Meg points out, reminds me of a UK teacher training course I did where student teacher after student teacher complained of sabotage of their prepared lessons by permanent teachers. I asked, as mammals temporarily invading the territory of another mammal, what we should do to mark our territory. The tutor’s answer was, “piss round the walls?”
    Kelvin, the only thing I’d like to say pre-AGM is if there is any voting by acclaim then can there be a space for the acclaim to be heard rather than assumed? I know this only happens where there is overwhelming support, time is short and the nominee is eminently qualified and sensible but it’s good practice to be seen (and heard) to be giving the Ayes and Nays a chance to be heard.

  7. Richard says

    It’s a pity the grumpies never make it beyond reading your bullet point 5.

  8. Aware that I run the risk of being called grumpy, can I ask for a clarification on AGM process Kelvin? Perhaps it’s my inexperience but I’ve never attended an AGM where posts or proposals are nominated, seconded but then not voted on. I do admire brisk meetings and I’m all for avoiding minispeeches by people who like their own voice and vetos for the sake of being awkward grumpy naysayers, however I do believe in a space for democracy not being filled by an assumption. At Glasgow Uni, all uncontested posts are always up against RON (re-open nominations). This may seem a pedantic move, surely better to have anyone at all rather than no-one in post? However a vote for RON as an option means that there is shared ownership of the process of nomination. I wouldn’t have used the RON option for any of the posts at St Mary’s AGM yesterday but I would have been glad of it being made available, especially as I had commented on its lack (not so explicitly) here.

  9. Uncontested posts in the Scottish Episcopal Church are not run against “Re-open nominations”. There might be a good case for it, but it is not the process by which elections in the Scottish Episcopal Church are held.

    I phrased my words very carefully yesterday to reflect the actual process and not what I might wish it to be. (I checked as a result of your question).

    The only exception to this is that there is a procedure in Canon 4 when electing a bishop whereby if more than a third of the Electoral Synod vote “None” in response to a list of candidates the election is rendered void.

Speak Your Mind