ASK THE ARCHITECT: Town hall meeting builds consensus in congregation - Word&Way

ASK THE ARCHITECT: Town hall meeting builds consensus in congregation

What is this town hall meeting all about? Last month I promised a discussion on the purpose and format for a successful town hall meeting that should be sandwiched between those building committee workshops.

Speaking of sandwiches, that is precisely the place to begin for a successful town hall meeting — include food and they will come!

Actually, there is one small preliminary step that a church needs to take. Promote the meeting in advance with messages from the pulpit, a public statement from the building committee chair and/or newsletter and email notices. Invite the congregation and do promise food. Also promise that this is their opportunity to be heard by the architect.

Over the 30-plus years we have been doing this, we have noticed that people tend to dribble in for dinner. By its completion, however, everyone is there at the same place and same time, to start on the same page. This is crucial to the success of the meeting that will follow.

So we now have, say, 120 members who show up. Dinner is over by 7 p.m. and the architect convenes the meeting after a welcome to all by the building committee chair. The first step is to create small groups. With our example of 120, eight groups of 15 persons each would work. Conduct a count-off, spread out the groups within the space, and even assign adjacent rooms if necessary. Ask each group to select a leader, based upon birthday. (We always use a birthdate closest to Christmas or Easter, which promotes lively discussion). Remind building committee members to have a representative at each table and, more importantly, that they are there to quietly serve as a fly on the wall — this evening is for the congregation to do the talking. The architect will then distribute a one-question topic to each table leader. The topic per table varies, and it is identified as it is handed over to the leader.

Sample topics include:

• Thoughts about our site?

• What do today’s worshippers need?

• Children’s programs?

• Adult programs?

• How can we serve the unchurched?

• What are the foreseen needs of the  community for the next 20 years?

• What is the one thing you wish to say to our architect?

The fun begins! Stick with a succinct 20-minute discussion time. The leader referees and takes copius notes, the architect circulates to hear voices and everyone is in fifth gear talking up a storm! Notice that the topics I suggest are general rather than specific. Let the building committee bog down with specifics during their in-depth workshops. Keep the town hall meeting on a general plain and have no concern that it will not be productive, for it will be. Participants will provide plenty of input, and it can then be at a level that can be managed.

So now our 20 minutes is over. Each table leader provides a verbal report, the architect posts the information on large newsprint sheets on the walls and everyone who attends gets to hear and see the input. Just as important is the opportunity for any attendee to comment after each leader’s report. A particular member, for example, could have come chomping at the bit to talk about nursery needs but been assigned to a table for discussion about adult programs.

Report-ins will take about 45 minutes and the entire process will consume about an hour and a quarter, plus dinner. The congregation will depart filled with enthusiasm, knowing they have been heard and eagerly awaiting the subsequent presentation of drawings and design recommendations by the architect. Besides, they will have been well fed!

But, back on a serious note, a town hall meeting:

• Builds consensus.

• Develops congregational support for that upcoming capital campaign.

• Serves as a collaborative planning endeavor between the architect and congregation.

• And, most of all, energizes the congregation.

Next month we will take a look at a few snappy theme opportunities for a church building program.

Jim DePasquale, AIA, a member of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, is currently chair of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture of the Virginia Society, AIA, and a partner in a Richmond architectural firm. This column is a regular feature of the Religious Herald, appearing in the first issue of each month. Send building, landscape or site-related questions to the editor at or directly to Jim DePasquale at