“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Chairs and priests often struggle with convening parish council meetings of substance, urgency and great relevance to the mission of the parish or the larger mission of the church. If parish councils do not deliberate on these critical matters with their priest, who will? Entire meetings are taken up by passionate discussion of the ticket price of this year’s festival or unsubstantiated rumors supposedly circulating in the community, or some grievance from last year long since resolved that must be discussed all over again.
Consent agendas are used to save parish council meeting time and to help ensure that parish council meetings focus on substantive topics that are worth discussing. This assumes that parish council chairs and priests will provide substantive matters to discuss, arrange for a formal substantive teaching event to occur or undertake exercises and activities that focus on strategic intent! Through the “bundling” process of a consent agenda, an entire set of items of business that are not worth parish council meeting time can be voted on in one action versus taking the time to vote on each individual item. As is known, it seems there are always one or two members who delight in scrutinizing and discussing miniscule financial items or leading discussions far from the topic at hand with stories and anecdotes! A consent agenda helps to contain these often unnecessary distractions.
A consent agenda is a way by which the mundane and non-controversial parish council action items are organized apart from the rest of the agenda and approved as a group. This includes all of the business items that require formal parish council approval and yet, because they are not controversial, there is no need for parish council discussion.
Samples of common consent agenda items include the following:
- Minor changes in a procedure
- Routine revisions of a policy
- Updating documents
- Standard contracts that are used regularly
- Confirmation of conventional actions that are required by by-laws
- Parish council minutes of previous meetings
- Innocuous clearly presented in writing monthly financial reports
- Committee progress reports containing non controversial items
Consent agendas should be used when there are a number of non-controversial business items on which the parish council needs to vote. The key here is “non-controversial,” and the definition of non-controversial may vary from parish to parish. Consent agenda items often are matters that a by-law or some other rule or regulation requires to be formally approved by the parish council, yet there is no value added by engaging the parish council in discussion about the item (e.g., a routine lease renewal for a facility already included in the approved annual parish budget). Consent agendas are not to be used to hide actions that will be perceived as controversial. This undermines the value of the practice and breaks the trust that must exist in every parish council for it to function faithfully and effectively.
The consent agenda typically appears very near the beginning of the regular meeting. This allows any item removed from the consent agenda to be placed onto the overall agenda for discussion and action later in the meeting. As with all formal parish council action, a quorum must be present to in order for action on the consent agenda items to be legitimate and binding.
The key to success is to provide all consent agenda information to parish council members well in advance of the meeting. It is essential that parish council members have ample time prior to a meeting to become familiar with each item on the consent agenda. That way, if a member or members have a concern about any item(s) that they believe need further discussion, then they will ask for the item(s) to be removed from the consent agenda and addressed separately. At the time in the regular agenda when there is to be action on the consent agenda, the chair will first inquire whether there are any items that need to be removed from the consent agenda. If any member wishes an item to be removed, it must be removed and placed on the regular agenda. Immediately following the opportunity to remove any items for separate discussion, the consent agenda is moved and approved as a set. (For example: "I move the consent agenda." Another member: "I second the motion.") It may be useful to those who plan the overall meeting agenda and the consent agenda (usually the parish council chair and the priest) to have guidelines, developed in consultation with the parish council, to clarify which types of items might be appropriate for the consent agenda.
The consent agenda practice should not be used unless all members of the parish council understand and agree to its use. This approach places more responsibility upon members to prepare prior to the meeting. Obviously, if members do not read the information on the consent agenda prior to the meeting, they cannot responsibly agree to the inclusion of any particular item on the consent agenda. The worst outcome would be to take action on a matter of significant item bearing upon the spiritual well being of the community without truly having the parish council's informed consent.
If priests and parish council chairs will then utilize the additional time available for focusing on strategic intent, policy formulation regarding important matters, an open discussion on church growth, a study of the meaning of governance, an all-parish survey to learn more about the needs and wants of the community, brainstorming about the position of Chief volunteer Officer, one who manages volunteers, etc., then parish council meetings become events that people look forward to attending.