Before I agree to work with a planning team, I determine if the leadership is ready for the test. Congregations are different. Some are doing great and don’t need to do developmental planning now. Others lack a readiness to plan. I have developed some characteristics of successful planning teams for leaders to consider. If a congregation does not have enough of these assets, they may need to set more modest goals. They may not be a candidate for serious planning. Even if they feel they are ready, many still struggle with key issues related to readiness. Look for signs of readiness for planning. Have a mental checklist: Do we have board approval? Is the clergy on board? Do we have planning chairs? Do we have a budget?

There are three key elements to sustain change: honest assessment of the present, hopeful vision of the future, and practical steps to move forward. Although you may find that everything appears ready on the surface, one of the challenges is to try to understand the deeper readiness of the culture for change. All congregations have informal norms that they don’t articulate. There are also deep, unconscious (tacit) norms that they may not be aware of. The planning team must be humble about the ability of new plans to overcome the underlying DNA of the congregation. Planners need to check readiness but to expect surprises.

Let’s look at some of the factors to consider.

1. Clergy Must Be Supportive, Enthusiastic, and Committed to Planning

While the administration and lay leadership play key roles, if the clergy is not committed, it will be hard to sustain change. Programmatic initiatives that require professional staff to follow up may lose focus. Key members of the leadership supporting change may go unsupported or even be actively resisted. When the rabbi or pastor is not ready, it does not make sense to embark on visioning and planning.

2. There Must Be Urgency for Change

Some congregations are performing quite well. They may be in a great location with wonderful demographics for new members. They may have experienced and effective professional and lay leadership. The congregation has direction and is working effectively. These congregations may feel that their current governance and the leadership and management tools they have are quite adequate. They do not feel the need to mobilize co-planners or take the time to do visioning and planning. They may simply want a small long-range planning committee to upgrade financial plans.

3. Key Lay Leaders Must Be Committed to Planning

There is seldom well-defined readiness for leadership development programs. Even when I get a contract to work with a congregation on visioning and planning, the leaders usually have an incomplete agreement. Some do not endorse the plan. Others actively oppose the process. Still others are passive-aggressive. They will listen attentively but not agree to work on implementation. I try to review the plan with the core leadership and then ask for a meeting with the board. The entire leadership community needs to work through the issues. This models the kind of consensus-building skills needed in the process later.

4. There Needs to Be a Financial Commitment to Planning

Planning requires resources. Even if a congregation self-guides their process, they will need to budget for meals, the preparation of materials, etc. This requires a planning budget. The process of getting some money in the next year’s budget for planning will bring all of the other readiness issues into better focus. When the board has to vote on spending the money, they will dig deeper to explore their readiness.

5. Planning Should Not Be Directly Competing with Other Major Projects

During visioning and planning, congregations need to be focused. They cannot be distracted by another major congregation-wide project. If they are in the midst of doing a capital campaign or at the start of a building campaign, they may not be ready. Their focus needs to be on the other task. There is seldom enough energy to do both tasks. In this kind of situation, I would suggest a short-term leadership development training rather than a whole congregational visioning plan.

6. Planning Requires Some Capacity for Creativity

Some congregations have little capacity for creative vision exercises. They are so resistant to change that they won’t allow creative stakeholders room to brainstorm. They tend to interrupt brainstorming verbally or nonverbally. They discourage creative thinking in group sessions. Older established leaders remind new leaders that their ideas “have been tried before.” They provide background information on why the culture won’t respond to a proposed idea. I put a premium on creativity and collaborative learning to help overcome the reluctance of some stakeholders.

7. Planning Requires a Tolerance for Feedback

Some congregations are not used to getting feedback. They don’t have much of a history of trust. It follows that these groups are often reluctant to empower new individuals or groups. Empowered groups will provide the leadership with the opportunity for new energy and creativity (as I noted above), but they will also ask questions, raise concerns, and provide some challenging feedback.

8. Planners Need Conflict Management Skills

Potential visioning and planning congregations should not be in the midst of a high-level conflict. It is too difficult to recruit participants when people are in warring camps. Visioning and planning requires a lot of energy. You have to sell others on the value of the planning and its value to the congregation. Planning is somewhat abstract. Congregations need to trust the assumptions and processes. In a culture where relationships are strained and conflicts are raging, it is hard to get people to trust you. If you have a major conflict, it is important to delay visioning and planning and work to acknowledge the conflicts and mediate the concerns of the various parties. After six months it may be possible to start some parts of visioning and planning. At some point the community needs to begin to focus more on the future and less on the past. Visioning and planning can be a helpful bridge from the period of conflict to the period of promise, but visioning stirs the congregational pot. Congregations need sufficient health to manage what bubbles up.

Taking the Right Journey

Some congregations are not ready to do planning. Most can gain from a board retreat that helps clarify values and goals. Many could build on this with a series of leadership development workshops. Most could gain insight into their position, their identity, and their challenges and opportunities by doing parlor meetings. Congregations need to reflect on their readiness and find the leadership-development tasks they have energy and capacity for.

Adapted from Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.

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AL321_SMStepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning by Robert Leventhal

Drawing on his extensive and fruitful consulting work in diverse synagogue contexts, Alban senior consultant Robert Leventhal presents his Synagogue Visioning and Planning (SVP) model to a wider audience for the first time. Using this substantial yet accessible model, Leventhal has helped numerous congregations with visioning and planning, leadership development, and team building. Congregations that engage with SVP will uncover hidden depths of vision and vitality as they grow into a clearer understanding of their God-given ministries and gifts.


AL342_SMByachad: Synagogue Board Development by Robert Leventhal

The companion piece to Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning & Planning, Byachad is a 72-page workbook that every synagogue board member should have. By focusing on shared congregational goals, leaders will provide the right direction, make the right assessments, and provide the right feedback–building enduring relationships as they do important leadership work.


AL323_SMThis House We Build: Lessons for Healthy Synagogues and the People Who Dwell There by Terry Bookman and William Kahn

This one-volume guide to a healthy congregation combines the wisdom of a rabbi with the expertise of an organizational development consultant to demonstrate the power of positive relationships and show how to avoid some of the common traps that can lead to serious conflict. Using the life of the synagogue as its central illustration, this book gives vital lessons for congregations of any faith on how to be a healthy community of believers.

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