Q: We are undertaking a capital campaign to finance the renovation of our synagogue’s 35-year-old sanctuary and the building of new classroom space, changes our board recently decided were necessary for our growth. But some members of the congregation are very angry about this plan. They see no need for more classroom space and they love the sanctuary as it is. How can we convince them they are wrong without losing them as members?

A: There are a number of things to keep in mind in this situation. First of all, change is very difficult for many people, and change in their religious institution is even more so; there is often much emotionality attached to a house of worship. Second, there is no growth without change, and no change without conflict, so the question becomes how to handle the conflict and resistance that arise when our institutions need to change. Two axioms that may be helpful in these situations are “patience and perseverance” and “embrace the resistance.”

Patience is needed to go slowly in introducing the change, and perseverance is necessary to keep from losing the focus of why you want to make the change. The board members are way ahead of the congregation in thinking through all the issues about renovating the building. They have been talking about it for months and are familiar and comfortable with the costs and the benefits of the project. By the time it is introduced to the congregation, the board is ready to go. The congregants, however, are not in the same place and need time to absorb the necessity for the changes, their financial implications, and, most importantly, the emotions accompanying the changes. Consequently, a lot of communication and patience are necessary.

Resistance appears when people are in different stages of understanding the need for and the details of a change. This is where it is helpful to recall the second axiom, “embrace the resistance.” As hard as it might be, it is necessary to respect those who resist, and to listen to their concerns with an open heart and mind. One of the reasons this is so difficult is that it is counterintuitive. What you want to do is avoid those who don’t agree, but if your goal is to build commitment for the capital campaign and the changes to the building, you need to know what might prevent you from getting that commitment. Who opposes you? What is their opposition? Are there ongoing animosities toward the board? Without exploring the resistance, you can only guess at the barriers to commitment to the change you are proposing. The voice of resistance tells you what’s wrong. Once you know the concerns people have, you have an opportunity to find common ground.

Support for change is the opposite of resistance. The board and the capital campaign committee need to do what they can to show the resisters what the change will do for them. “What’s in it for me?” is an important question to answer.

Relax and Focus
Dealing with resistance is draining, so it is important to relax and stay focused on your goal—easy to say, hard to do when people are attacking what you hold dear. Sometimes they show no respect for you. They shout, they use innuendo, and in general just don’t “get it.” But the best results can be gained by remaining calm and receptive. The Chinese martial art of tai chi teaches this in a very physical way. Opponents begin to spar by pushing. As one pushes, the other pulls when the natural inclination is to push back. When you pull back, you yield, giving nothing to resist. So stay relaxed, calm, and engaged. This does not mean giving up. It simply means staying present to what people are feeling and saying without actively opposing these feelings or opinions. In order to build support, think about the possibility of combining the question “What’s in it for me?” with “What’s in it for them?”

As you explore resistance, listen for common fears and common interests. Listen for ways to join in a common vision. Although the goals of the parties may differ, the solution should attempt to capture the concerns of all those affected—in the above scenario, perhaps there are compromises that can be made that might not be too offensive to the new design, that people can live with, and that can be redone at a later date. That said, there are some people who will never change their minds. Don’t spend a lot of energy or time trying to convince them they are wrong. It won’t help. In fact, it will probably cause them to dig in their heels and become more resistant. Stay engaged with them—as people, not in regard to the proposed changes. Say hello, ask how they are, have a light conversation. That way the chance of making an enemy of them is lessened. And who knows? In the long run, they might even like the changes.

Dr. Suzanne Stier is president of Stier Associates, a company offering consulting services to religious institutions and family-owned businesses. Dr. Stier, who lives in Cromwell, Connecticut, does executive coaching with clergy, and provides training and consulting to new and established congregations and boards.