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Mar 26, 201409:51 AMOpen for Business

with Jody Glynn Patrick

Lessons learned serving (hard time) on a church committee

(page 1 of 2)

Several years ago, I left a church over philosophical differences having nothing to do with religious doctrine. Members of the church were expected to sit on committees — which I agreed with heartily. Like many nonprofit organizations, the (small) church faced a constant struggle to “get businesspeople involved,” but it needed specific acumen or connections to raise money or streamline operations. I therefore was cajoled into attending a “convenient” night or weekend meeting of my choice. Given expected budget cuts during that year, I opted to serve on the finance committee.

Unlike my more recent and very pleasurable experience sitting on the finance committee at the Salvation Army, where most board members do come from the business community, the other church’s finance committee was comprised primarily of folks with limited professional board experience. There, I quickly discovered that I don’t play well with non-business personality types in a committee setting.

Serving on the finance committee — always one of the most powerful collectives in a church — was a chance to have one’s voice heard on important matters. However, I felt our committee fell under the spell of “Parkinson’s Law” — and the corollary now popularly dubbed as “The Bike Rack Effect” — which made the weekly meetings something I absolutely dreaded rather than anticipated.

Parkinson’s Law, first formally introduced by C. Northcote Parkinson, is quite simply put: A task will take as long to complete as the time allotted to it. Whether you allocate one hour or two hours to an agenda, the business at hand will consume the appropriated amount of time because we all unconsciously speed up or slow down according to attached deadlines.

The “Law of Triviality,” or The Bike Rack Effect, is the additional idea that a group will discuss, ad nauseam, those agenda matters of least cost. As Parkinson put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” For example, a governmental unit will spend a few minutes approving a nuclear reactor plant but, theory predicts, will spend hours discussing where to site a proposed city bike rack, what color to paint it, etc.

There are reasons why a church committee would quickly vote to approve a capital improvement costing thousands of dollars and then labor over whether to fund root beer floats or send the budget back to the events committee to suggest they save $100 by serving lemonade at the next social. First, members rely on expert advice when the agenda item is expensive or complex. Who wants to flag a lack of knowledge? Often, even the bravest will bracket an inquiry with “I know this is probably a stupid question, but …”. We don’t want to present ourselves as uninformed or ill prepared.

Conversely, everybody has an opinion about the merits of soda and ice cream versus water and lemons, and they all have knowledge of church tradition (tangential comments often take center stage). Also, everyone has personal experience spending or saving $100. Everybody, then, holds expert status.


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Mar 28, 2014 06:18 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Interesting thoughts. I do think one issue might be the kind of people who serve on the committee. In a business, there are generally two kinds of people: the interactive, social, idea-generating people, and the quiet, organized, detail-oriented people who don't come up with the ideas but make the ideas happen. With voluntary boards, I suspect you get too many of the social, idea-generating people and not enough organized, detail-oriented people to say "ok, we've discussed this and this and this. Let's vote on it." Yes, committees and boards can drive you crazy!

Mar 28, 2014 07:12 am
 Posted by  Linda Abbott

Great post Jody! So true and in your telling, entertaining. Interesting to learn of Parkinson's Law and The Bike Rack Effect, I've seen this in my personal and professional life, especially as a journalist when I used to cover government meetings like plan commissions and village boards. One solution is a facilitator -- a business professional would be great choice -- who keeps things focused, on track and on time!

Mar 28, 2014 11:30 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Entertaining and thought provoking as usual Jody! I have served on several church committees and have been frustrated with the process. Too many "church ladies", both male and female, unrelentingly clutch their little bit of power to the detriment of progress. When allocating large dollars, their are plenty of people involved to assume the responsibility. However, no one can mess with their corner of expertise, especially a newcomer, because they are used to doing things their way, and won't change. I have withdrawn from all church committee involvement and feel my time is put to better use. As a bonus, I am less frustrated and much happier.

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