How to Manage Change in Your Congregation

Inside Leadership

How to Manage Change in Your Congregation

Scrabble tiles spelling out the word change with a random assortment of tiles surrounding the word

There is nothing sacred about ginger ale.

At least that’s what the congregation’s executive director thought when he suggested eliminating it from the Oneg Shabbat budget. The budget committee agreed, as it would save $750 a year. This decision also aligned with the wellness education theme the rabbi and educator had in the works for the new year.

Despite the fact that three or four half-finished two-liter bottles of ginger ale ended up in the dumpster every week, eliminating ginger ale from the oneg prompted a flurry of emails, phone calls, and even visits to the rabbi’s study from disgruntled congregants.

The “ginger ale coup” illustrates that even seemingly small, mission-aligned changes that incorporate cost-cutting measures can result in a sense of loss. If eliminating ginger ale can lead to this sense of crisis and havoc, changing worship times, shifting board meeting modalities, or celebrating non-Jewish holidays in the early childhood center can feel catastrophic.

According to change management expert Dr. William Bridges, these reactions are simply “the human side of change.” As leaders, any change we introduce requires us to understand the experience of the individuals in our community and help them navigate through three phases:

  1. Saying goodbye to what they’ve lost
  2. Living in an ambiguous “neutral zone” between the old and the new
  3. Embracing the new beginning

In many cases, board decisions receive due process through discussion and consideration of all angles before a vote ensues. When the board makes decisions that affect congregants, bringing congregants’ voices into the decision-making process and soliciting their help to plan for its aftereffects can help you, as leaders, move your community through the transition in a way that reflects your mission and values.

Throughout this process, it’s important to be mindful of how change is communicated and what effect it has on individuals.

Stakeholders

In any change, it is critical to identify and consider the stakeholders who will be most affected. Important questions to ask include:

  • Who is directly impacted by this change?
  • Who will receive feedback and/or backlash from the change?
  • What responsibility do we, as leaders, have to prepare those people for the backlash?
  • How can we help stakeholders understand the broad context of the change as a first step in helping them transition to the new reality?

Communications

It is also important to consider how the change will be communicated. As noted, the decision to stop serving ginger ale was not only budgetary, but also conflicted with the congregation’s annual education theme focused on wellness and health, which included programs on nutrition, sugar, and food chemistry, as well as Jewish teachings about caring for our bodies. In this case, there was a disconnect between serving full-sugar ginger ale at the Oneg Shabbat and the dietary values being preached and taught in the congregation.

Ideally, the congregation’s leaders would use the theme of health and wellness to communicate the ginger ale decision to the most affected stakeholders, putting it in context, providing a mission-aligned response, and forestalling gasps when congregants arrived at the oneg expecting ginger ale, but finding only water and coffee.

Emotional Attachment

Change results in loss, which is exacerbated when there is an emotional attachment to what is lost. Founding congregants, many of whom are now in their 80s and have been attending onegs for five decades, may feel that an oneg without ginger ale is not really a full oneg and represents a significant change to “how it has always been done here.”

What are they really mourning?

Perhaps friends, partners, and spouses are becoming ill or dying or their living situations and health are changing. Amidst all these changes, they always could count on ginger ale at the oneg. Recognizing that this seemingly small change may symbolize other, much more significant changes in congregants’ lives and not minimizing their reactions are is imperative to helping them through the larger grief process that is no doubt at play in this scenario. No matter what the change, remember that people experience various emotions and adapt to change in their own ways and at their own pace. Most of all, keep in mind that the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) offers an array of resources and support services to help guide your congregation through change.

To learn more about how the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) can help your congregation navigate a rabbinic transition, request access to the URJ’s Rabbinic Transition Roadmap.

Julie Lambert, RJE, is an associate director of Congregational Innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Rabbi Janet Offel is the URJ’s director of Consulting and Transition Management.

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