When it comes to the flow, outcome, and inclusivity of church meetings, a lot rests on the shoulders of the moderator. During a workshop last week at the Moderators’ Conference in Louisville, staff from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of the General Assembly led attendees through a discussion on how to make that process more successful and inclusive.

Molly Casteel, OGA’s manager for equity and representation, led the discussion on successful preparation and planning.

“I would encourage you to consider, in your circles of influence, to think about physical locations of your meetings. Where are they? Do you meet in a fellowship hall, hotel, conference center, or sanctuary?” she asked. “There are a lot of ways to gather Presbyterians, but the physical layout of your meeting space may influence who comes and participates.”

Casteel says the layout of the meeting, such as a sanctuary, can make it difficult to have inclusive, small group discussions.

“Only those physically able to get in and out of those pews will be able to fully participate. Everyone is looking forward and the main action is ahead. If you want to mix up the meeting style and you are in a restrictive location, it impacts participation,” she said. “If the building you’re meeting in has no ramp or elevator, you can imagine that the folks who attend the meeting either have to compromise their dignity or decide not to come because their capacity to come to the meeting is adjusted. The room can discourage participation for those with physical challenges.”

Casteel says moderators can challenge the presbyteries on how they plan to address physical issues of a location to maximize full participation and inclusion.

The geography of a presbytery and the location of churches present their own physical challenges. One conference participant indicated that the furthest distance between two congregations in her presbytery is 700 miles.

“If you have great distances, you’ve got people who will have to stay over to participate in the meetings. How long are your meetings? What capacity does your presbytery have for helping those that stay overnight who face the burden of childcare or dependent care?” Casteel asked. “Is there interpretation or other means for folks who speak a different language or deal with disability issues?”

Casteel says moderators often don’t think about these types of logistics when considering whether their meetings are inclusive.

Moderators face a number of logistical challenges when planning meetings within their presbyteries. Photo by Rick Jones.

Moderators face a number of logistical challenges when planning meetings within their presbyteries. Photo by Rick Jones.

Workshop attendees indicated that most of the people at their meetings are predominantly white, over the age of 55, with Type A personalities, and the meetings mostly follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

“We have picked decision-making methods of groups we have designed the system to serve. Process observation say 55-year-old white male teaching elders are the most dominant participants using Robert’s rules,” she said. “This provides artificial advantages with those familiar with the rules.”

Casteel says the times and frequency of meetings can also impact who participates and who does not.

“If you have meetings three times a year during the day, you have narrowed your capacity to hear from everyone. When you do that, you also maximize the power for those who attend every meeting, so you have to be clear and help the ruling elder who comes to one or two meetings a year, to show up fully,” she said. “A variety of meeting practices can welcome participation across the year. Also consider child or dependent care. What is the price of access and inclusion at the presbytery? Consider policies around food. Is the meal free or do folks have to pay for it?”

Casteel says meeting leaders often make assumptions that everyone can afford to attend, but she adds that there are people who are hurting in this economy. “We have folks that cannot work and those on hourly wages, who are barely making it. Think about context around the way we do this,” she said.

Technology, she adds, can also impact participation.

“What about video conferencing? Some can’t afford the internet. Do you have interpretation for the languages in your group?” Casteel asks. “Moderators are holding the space for the room. You are the traffic cop. No one can tell you how to hold the meeting. Please use it for good.”

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