How to Better Involve Your Synagogue's Stakeholders in the Work You Do

Inside Leadership

How to Better Involve Your Synagogue's Stakeholders in the Work You Do

Two silhouetted men pushing giant puzzle pieces toward one another

Imagine the sight of dozens of face-painted children and the smell of barbeque. Imagine listening to their voices join in song for "Bim Bam Shabbat Shalom" and "Hinei Mah Tov." Soon, you hear squeals of delight from a bouncy castle and excited parents chatting about plans to bring their families back for similar outside fun at future Summer Shabbat Series events.

This engaging community experience actually happened as part of the Young Family Shabbat Carnival at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO. How did it come about? The parents, professional staff, teachers, and board created it together, using a process that took time to learn and implement successfully. 

Involving participants and all stakeholders in the decision-making process is the secret to success. It is one of eight principles that drive strong congregations. In the field of education, we often refer to this intentionally shared design approach as “co-construction.”

"What is co-construction?"

Co-construction is an approach that includes participants in the process of designing offerings intended for them. This approach relies heavily on experimentation, involving all relevant stakeholders, and on creating an environment in which any change can occur – including changes to current or future policies, programs, and event offerings.

This discipline is often confused with the popular contemporary concept of design thinking, which, according to Tim Brown of the Harvard Business Review, is “a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way.”

While both methodologies strive to put the participants’ needs at the center, design thinking is a higher-level collaborative practice and is intended to induce radical change. In our experience working with congregations, design thinking cannot be successful without a solid culture of co-construction.

"Why is co-construction important?"

Dick Axelrod, author of the book Terms of Engagement, distills the importance of this method into one simple principle: “People support what they help to create!”

In other words, co-construction leads to greater ownership on the part of participants, as well as other staff members who will be tasked with implementing various aspects of your programs. When those participating and staffing your programs feel more ownership, they become more involved, and you have a greater likelihood of achieving your mission.

"How do we co-construct?"

When you bring the stakeholders into the design process, you can move mountains and even change the world! Here are four steps toward co-construction:

1. Identify all relevant stakeholders. Synagogue stakeholders are clergy, professional staff members, and lay leadership, including board members and other volunteers. Of course, expected participants must be recognized as stakeholders, as well. In the case of the Shabbat Carnival at Temple Sinai, the stakeholders were the synagogue’s preschool families, as well as professional staff and board members who are invested in creating family engagement opportunities.

2. Invite all stakeholders to participate in a congregational leadership team that will be involved in the thought and design process of relevant future offerings. At Temple Sinai, the leadership team that was formed to design offerings for families was made up of six to eight school parents, the preschool director, the assistant director, two teachers, a rabbi, the executive director, the religious school director, and one or two lay-leaders from the board of trustees.
Involving so many stakeholders in the creation of new offerings isn’t necessarily an intuitive process, and this shift also doesn’t happen overnight. Accordingly, the family programming operational meetings at Temple Sinai weren’t always this populated. As part of BUILDing Jewish ECE (BUILD), a cross-denominational project which was designed to strengthen Jewish Early Childhood Education (ECE) centers in the Denver/Boulder community, Temple Sinai spent 18 months bridging the gaps between the various silos that had previously kept its leaders and families apart. Gradually, their leadership team grew to make sure that all voice would be heard, and the ownership to the important priority of family programming expanded beyond those who were spearheading these efforts originally.

3. Once your leadership team has been formed, create a shared vision and common goals, which will serve as the foundation for an action plan. This process should begin with asking your stakeholders to define why they are there, both individually and as a team. Similar to defining a congregational “why,” this process will clarify this leadership team’s joint mission, and will help in articulating a collective vision for what you aspire for this area of congregational life to look like. Once there is clarity around the mission and goals, an action plan can be developed, which charts each goal and lists action steps, people responsible, target dates for completion, outcomes, deliverables, and evaluation methods.

4. The process of co-construction cannot exist without a sense of sacred partnership, and building this kind of trust takes time. Temple Sinai’s team members progressively became more comfortable trusting one another and planning together. Eventually they began to co-construct several action plans which yielded events such as the Shabbat Carnival.

Co-construction lifts-up the role of the participants by making them a part of the design process. When co-construction is driven by sacred partnership and shared vision, the results can be exceptional.

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Cathy Rolland is the Union for Reform Judaism 's director of engaging families with young children, where she oversees all of the Reform Movement’s initiatives that focus on early childhood education and young family engagement. She and her team develop innovative approaches for communities to meet the needs of today’s families with young children based on research and shifting landscapes. Cathy is also the inaugural president of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ), an affiliate of the URJ, and serves as the URJ’s liaison to ECE-RJ. Cathy recently earned a master of arts in religious education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and she also holds a certification in Jewish early childhood leadership from Gratz College. Cathy and her husband recently moved to Denver, CO, to be near their three adult sons and to enjoy the Rocky Mountains.


Cathy Rolland

Published: 5/18/2017

Categories: Strengthening Congregations, Leadership Institute

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