Q: Congregational leaders are challenged to help staff and volunteers work cooperatively—in other words, to be aligned. What should a leader do when a valued volunteer is on the wrong track?

A: To help congregational leaders and members have the difficult conversations they sometimes need to have, I have developed a process called the Covenantal Caring Conversation, based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s work in nonviolent communication (see www.NVC.org). Covenantal caring is not servitude. Rabbi Hillel’s famous words speak of the need to find a balance between our own needs and the needs of others: “If I am not for myself who will be for me; if I am only for myself what am I?” (Avot 1:14). Rosenberg suggests that we can make our concerns known, but in a nonjudgmental way. He suggests that leaders let others know the following:

  • their observations: the concrete actions they are observing that are affecting their well-being
  • their feelings: how they feel in relationship to what they are observing
  • their needs: the needs, values, and desires that are creating these feelings for them
  • their requests: the concrete actions they request in order to enrich their lives (and to enrich their communities)

The following example may be helpful to illustrate how this approach can work: Sue is an active, capable, and valued member of the Beth Shalom’s Welcoming Task Force, but several times in the last year she has left tasks incomplete until shortly before an event was to take place, then reacted with anxiety and the expectation that others should drop everything to help her complete the tasks on time. Most recently, she noticed two days before a Friday dinner she was planning that the reservations for the dinner were a little light. She wanted help in calling at least 100 members. She came into the office on Wednesday, demanding that the administrative assistant, Barbara, make this an immediate priority. She did so without working through the executive director, Frank, and without knowing that one of the other staff members was scheduled to be on leave half a day on Thursday. When Barbara informed Sue that her request would be difficult to manage, Sue called the president to make her case. The president responded by communicating his observations, feelings, needs, and requests:

Observations: “I understand that you spoke to Barb at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday to ask her to help in setting up plans for this Friday. Barb was doing a priority assignment for Frank.”

Feelings: “I appreciate all of the projects here at Beth Shalom, but I get concerned when members ask our office staff to do things without coordinating with Frank. I feel it confuses the staff.”

Needs: “I have been encouraging Frank to improve communications and planning with the whole staff and between the staff and the lay leadership. As you know, we have been working under tough budget constraints and we have asked the staff to learn to work more effectively with the resources they have. Your request to call 100 members on Wednesday and Thursday for a Friday dinner would have to move ahead of current priorities we have set.”

Requests: “I would like you to know how much we appreciate your commitment to these Friday dinners. I hope you can appreciate our needs for planning and prioritization. We will see if we have time to make a few calls. Do you have a list of 15 to 20 members you think might be prime prospects? I would also like to hear how you feel about the concerns I just raised. I am always looking for ways to create better communications, planning, and teamwork.”

Notice that the president’s words are not full of anger. He does not shame Sue by generalizing (“You have no concerns for the needs of staff”). He does not label her (“Your judgment is poor”). Rather, he focuses on the concrete issue he is concerned about. The process of nonviolent communication starts with reflection rather than reaction: First we discipline ourselves to describe our observations and next we hold ourselves accountable to disclose what we are feeling.

Next the president speaks about his needs to be responsible, accountable, and community-focused. He communicates not merely from a personal agenda but instead combines his personal needs with his need for an accountable community. He then proposes some ideas he would like Sue to consider. Note that he does not ask her to admit she is wrong or demand that she do something. In these ways, the Covenantal Caring Conversation helps get the volunteer back on track, at the same time modeling what caring collaboration looks like.

Robert Leventhal is an Alban Institute senior consultant specializing in synagogues. Prior to joining Alban, he worked as a marketing executive and management consultant. His book Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning (Alban Institute) was published earlier this year.

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