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<xTITLE>Governing Communities Of Faith</xTITLE>

Governing Communities Of Faith

by Larry Susskind
February 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
One response I often get to the idea of a taking a consensus building approach to governance is that it won't work because people with conflicting values and interests can't possibly reach agreement through informal conversation. The only way to settle their differences (peacefully), or so the argument goes,  is to let the majority rule.  While I don't agree, what possible reason, then, could there be for communities-of-faith (i.e. groups associated with particular temples, parishes, or churches) to operate by majority voting?  They are, by definition, groups that share common values and interests.

I am part of one community-of-faith that used to spend far too much time bickering about budget allocations, hiring, and management of our religious programs and building.  While religious events were inspirational and all-embracing, our annual meetings at which budgets had to be set and general policies made, were painful.  In fact, people stopped coming. The same people who couldn't be more considerate of their co-religionists at Sabbath services, behaved like the most cynical and power-hungry state legislators or municipal town meeting members when it was time for annual meetings. In my Congregation, several hundred families meet for the better part of the afternoon to make policy, hiring and budget decisions. For many years, they almost always got tangled up in the logistics of parliamentary procedure  -- with its seconding of motions, formal amendments, votes to move the question, etc.   Along with a small group that couldn't stand it any more, I proposed that we adopt a consensus building approach (CBA) to governing ourselves.  We re-wrote our by-laws (which, by state and federal law, we must have) to substitute the key elements of CBA as our operating manual.   We actually used Robert's Rules to vote out Robert's Rules (at least for a three year trial period).  Annual meetings are now run very differently.  Pre-meetings are used to ensure wide-spread involvement in generating proposals and draft budgets. A facilitator guides the annual meeting discussion.  Instead of formal debate, we have collaborative problem-solving.  We search for ways of making sure that we meet almost everyone's interests. We never settle for a bare majority when with a little more work we can usually reach an informed consensus. While we are not quite as demanding as Quaker meeting (which will remain in conversation until everyone has had their say and everyone is in agreement), members now come away feeling proud about how we govern ourselves.

For more on CBA see Breaking Robert's Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus and Get Results (Oxford, 2006) with modified versions in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch (forthcoming) and French (forthcoming).  Or, see the web site 


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

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