Overcoming Cultural Dissonance

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As an organization, a faith community has multi-dimensional views of what constitutes the “good” that it aspires to reflect. Some constituents may define it as tending to the emotional and spiritual needs of the congregational flock, while others may interpret the good as integration with and serving the broader community. Fulfilling the teachings of the Torah, Bible or other sacred texts may constitute the good to others, and still others may interpret it as maintaining a well managed, fiscally sound organization that represents responsible stewardship of the community’s collective resources.

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Myriad stories reflect these and other diverse perspectives to form the community of memory, connecting learnings from the past through the present to inform the unseen future of the organization. By virtue of its role in interpreting information and making decisions that have broad cultural implications, the leadership of the faith community, in the form of the board of trustees or equivalent, is at the nexus of this continuous transformation.

I once served on a task team that was charged by our board with updating and amending the congregational by-laws. One of the chief tasks was to reduce the number of trustees. Leading up to this assignment, a strategic planning process had determined that the board’s size was encumbering its ability to make decisions and conduct the Temple’s affairs effectively.

Our team recommended a systematic reduction in the number of at-large board members during subsequent nominating classes, and elimination of permanent reserved slots for the presidents of three affinity groups Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.28.50 PMwithin the congregation. These groups represented three large and influential demographic segments, the Brotherhood for men, the Sisterhood for women, and SPICE (“Special Programs of Interest and Concern to Elders”) for seniors. Our reasoning was that most board members were members of at least one of the groups, and thus, the interests of the groups were already being served. The benefit to having their leaders on the board was superseded by the organizational imperative of reducing the size of the governing body.

The negative reaction from these groups and their agents was loud and emotional, and constituted a rhetorical interruption within the temple. Their leaders, citing the importance of the respective groups to the congregation, Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.04.25 PMmaintained that not only was the “routine” of their appointment appropriate, but our suggestion was an affront. The situation was exacerbated by perceptions
among Brotherhood leaders that the board did not adequately acknowledge their group’s volunteer and financial support for the congregation. Ultimately the board approved our recommendation to reduce at-large seats but rejected the other suggestion, largely as a result of a vigorous lobbying by the Brotherhood and SPICE. (The Sisterhood was ambivalent.)

In hindsight, I believe we adhered to several ethical communications behaviors to mitigate the rhetorical interruption – although we didn’t know it at the time (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 163)! The task team  met with the leaders of each group to explain our reasoning, and held “town hall” style meetings with the congregation. Although neither activity was particularly pleasant for us, both represented attempts to listen without demand and be attentive to the situational dynamics and the ground of the Other(s).

But had we followed the dictates of dialogic ethics more closely, there may have been a different outcome. For example, we might have leaned less Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.03.25 PMtoward “telling” about our reasoning and more to learning from the Other in the moment, thus serving the need for reflective understanding of communicative action in the given situation. The history of these groups’ representation on the board was an important contextual element, to which we clearly did not give adequate regard. We certainly were open to compromise from the outset, but making a proposal instead of engaging in dialogic negotiation probably “poisoned the well” in terms of building trust.

I guess we should have seen it coming. Pragmatism and sound reasoning alone are not enough to win the day; when it comes to organizational and intercultural communications, the soft skills of listening, attentiveness, and dialogic negotiation define ethical competence, and enhance the likelihood for success (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 152).


Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.



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