Building Consensus and Making Tough Decisions



As a congregational board member, you are, in many cases, charged with the task of deciding how to preserve your synagogue’s past, how to maintain the synagogue in the present and what to do to ensure its vitality in the future. This is important work, though it’s not always easy: Challenges present themselves regardless of how thorough the plan was; resources you used to be able to count on suddenly (or not so suddenly) become much less dependable; and not everyone supports the cause.

Decision makers of all stripes often find themselves faced with that last hurdle: They wrestle with the choice of doing what is right or doing what is popular. Sometimes these are one in the same. Sometimes they are not. In the case of the latter, how should you and your board proceed?

One of the first steps is to figure out why there is opposition to the proposal. Is it because of the cost? Is it because it’s a break from tradition? Whatever the case may be, understanding people’s concerns helps a great deal is constructively addressing the challenge. What tactics does your congregation employ to discern this information? Many congregations discuss these issues at all-congregation meetings; others hold informal focus groups that are representative of your synagogue’s demographics; still others invite congregants to share their feedback via one-on-one chats with board members, or staff people if applicable.

A parallel step is to get the word out. It is quite possible that congregants’, or even other board members’, concerns over a proposal stem from a lack of information (or a lack of clarity within the information.) This makes a get-the-word-out campaign all the more essential. Two great places to launch and carry out this campaign are in your synagogue’s bulletin and website. (Yes, “and.” You want to have this information accessible in as many places as possible – people tend to use any number of entry points when it comes to information gathering.) Planning in advance, ask your bulletin coordinator for some space in the next issue. Gather your team – fellow board members, professional staff, committee chairs, etc., – and lay out the facts. Explain what you want to do, why you want to do it, how it will happen (including cost breakdowns and people-power,) and how these changes or improvements will be felt by or be of benefit to the congregation and its members.  Post the same analysis on your website. If your congregation does not circulate a bulletin or does not have its own website, you may consider disseminating this information via a mailing – whether through the regular post or through email. (Emailing a letter has fewer costs associated with it –no paper, ink, envelope or postage – but remember that some congregants may not use email.) In fact, this more personalized distribution may be a great addition to spreading the word through the bulletin and website.

These two steps, in tandem, can help you build consensus. They work to inform congregants and other interested parties (and thereby hopefully ease or eliminate some fears or concerns,); they also help you understand why there is disagreement over how to proceed and from there you can make appropriate changes.

Of course, there will be occasions when you and your board have made a proposal, fully and clearly informed your fellow congregants and tweaked according to valuable feedback – and still there is not full buy-in from congregants. In these cases, depending on your synagogue’s bylaws, the culture of your congregation and precedent set by boards past, it may be appropriate for you and your fellow board members to follow through with the proposed action only after considering the following:

  • Does the board have all the information available about this subject?
  • Have we listened to opposition and given it due consideration?
  • Have we offered compromises or reservations addressing the concerns held by those whose opinion differs?
  • Are we sure this is the right move for the congregation and not just the board (or a particular board member and his or her personal interest?)
  • Do we fully understand the implications of our decision?

If these criteria are satisfactorily met it may be prudent to forge ahead with the unpopular – but right for the congregation – decision.

badge-leadershipFor more information about decision making in the congregation, visit the Board and Governance section of the Union website. Suggested reading:

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Robin Riegelhaupt

About Robin Riegelhaupt

Robin Riegelhaupt is the Assistant Manager of the URJ Knowledge Network. Throughout her tenure at the URJ, she has served as a writer for the Congregational Consulting Group and the information resource specialist for the Department of Synagogue Management. Prior to joining the URJ, Robin was a web editor at the Washington Action Office of the Jewish Federations of North America and a grassroots organizer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Theatre from the University of Central Florida. A native New Yorker, Robin lives in Astoria, NY, and writes about the arts.

One Response to “Building Consensus and Making Tough Decisions”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    There are two things that get congregants “worked up” — money and change. And most money issues can get diffused in the general discussion of the budget (where nobody cares that much about the line-by-line, or even the bottom line, but only about what are they asking of me dues-wise.) Ongoing communication about thhe positive programs on which the money is being spent will help — people feel good about supporting opportunity, and hate rescuing crisis.

    When it comes to change, it’s inevitable that some people are going to feel threatened by it, and you are unlikely ever to please everybody. But again, a lot of animosity can be diffused, as Robin suggests, by focus groups, parlor meetings, even surveys so that the members feel they have been consulted and considered and are not just being handed a fait accompli.

    Robin’s most disconcerting question is Are we sure this is the right move for the congregation and not just the board (or a particular board member and his or her personal interest?) Hopefully the congregation has a Conflict of Interest policy in place to preclude anyone pursuing an inappropriate personal interest, but more important, hopefully the Nominating Committee is evaluating people based on their total character.

    In my experience with Temple boards, even when people are looking out for themselves, it’s usually over trivia and not venal; e.g., the board member who wants to keep reserved seats in the sanctuary, at least for himself and his family.

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