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Governing Communities Of Faith

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

One response I often get to the idea of a taking a consensus building approach to governance is that it won’t work because people with conflicting values and interests can’t possibly reach agreement through informal conversation. The only way to settle their differences (peacefully), or so the argument goes,  is to let the majority rule.  While I don’t agree, what possible reason, then, could there be for communities-of-faith (i.e. groups associated with particular temples, parishes, or churches) to operate by majority voting?  They are, by definition, groups that share common values and interests.

I am part of one community-of-faith that used to spend far too much time bickering about budget allocations, hiring, and management of our religious programs and building.  While religious events were inspirational and all-embracing, our annual meetings at which budgets had to be set and general policies made, were painful.  In fact, people stopped coming. The same people who couldn’t be more considerate of their co-religionists at Sabbath services, behaved like the most cynical and power-hungry state legislators or municipal town meeting members when it was time for annual meetings. In my Congregation, several hundred families meet for the better part of the afternoon to make policy, hiring and budget decisions. For many years, they almost always got tangled up in the logistics of parliamentary procedure  – with its seconding of motions, formal amendments, votes to move the question, etc.   Along with a small group that couldn’t stand it any more, I proposed that we adopt a consensus building approach (CBA) to governing ourselves.  We re-wrote our by-laws (which, by state and federal law, we must have) to substitute the key elements of CBA as our operating manual.   We actually used Robert’s Rules to vote out Robert’s Rules (at least for a three year trial period).  Annual meetings are now run very differently.  Pre-meetings are used to ensure wide-spread involvement in generating proposals and draft budgets. A facilitator guides the annual meeting discussion.  Instead of formal debate, we have collaborative problem-solving.  We search for ways of making sure that we meet almost everyone’s interests. We never settle for a bare majority when with a little more work we can usually reach an informed consensus. While we are not quite as demanding as Quaker meeting (which will remain in conversation until everyone has had their say and everyone is in agreement), members now come away feeling proud about how we govern ourselves.
For more on CBA see Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus and Get Results (Oxford, 2006) with modified versions in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch (forthcoming) and French (forthcoming).  Or, see the web site 

Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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