Sign or don’t sign?

Time was tight. Sign or don’t sign? The organization that would soon become the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) had just emailed a draft contract that would save twelve religious institutions over $100,000 on their annual energy bills. The congregations had two hours to review and sign.

Executive Director of Temple Sinai, Ellen Agler, responded with a list of non-negotiable revisions. The fate of the deal hung in the balance. Felipe Witchger moved quickly, solicited feedback, revised the contract, and an hour later sealed the deal that redirected over $100,000 to directly support the mission and vision of twelve congregations in Washington, DC.

It takes more than networking and transactional exchanges to build the kind of trust necessary to make significant decisions on a tight timeline. That energy deal was the beginning of the Community Purchasing Alliance, and it was the result of twelve leaders investing deeply in one another to cultivate a relational culture capable of building trust and discovering aligned self-interest.

A few weeks after the contract was signed, Felipe knew that he needed to get to know Ellen better. What motivated her in this work? How could they continue to build trust with one another in order to sign even bigger contracts to redirect even more resources to directly benefit the mission and vision of religious institutions and non-profits throughout DC?

Relationship, the kind that builds trust, is an interruption to the overly transactional culture most Americans inhabit in their daily lives. So when Felipe asked Ellen for a relational meeting, it felt like an interruption -- it felt like a risk.

Long-time organizer and Executive Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Ed Chambers spent a lifetime teaching and practicing relational culture in institutions and neighborhoods across the country. He insisted that, “Relational meetings are the glue that brings diverse collectives together and allows them to embrace the tension of living between the ‘world as it is’ and the ‘world as it should be.’” A relational meeting, Chambers taught, is not chit-chat, nor is it an interview. It is not an attempt to discover agreement or similarity along personal, political, religious, or ideological lines. “A solid relational meeting”, Chambers maintained, “brings up stories that reveal people’s deepest commitments and the experiences that gave rise to them.” This does not mean that it is an occasion to pry into a person’s private life. Rather, a relational meeting is a sort of focused probe aimed at discovering the commitments or experiences that propel that person into public action -- “an attempt to find the other’s center.” “The art and discipline of consistent relational meetings”, Chambers argued, “is the most most radical thing we teach.”

Looking across the table at Ellen, Felipe was searching for the experiences and commitments that motivated Ellen’s focused attention that helped seal the deal. “Why” questions risk interrupting cultures of efficiency and production, and yet it is precisely those kinds of questions that are fundamental to building trust between diverse people and institutions. Felipe took a risk that day by asking “why”, and Ellen took a risk by sharing her experience working her way into upper level management of senior care facilities in Maryland, only to be frustrated by the glass ceiling so many women face professionally. Ellen’s move to Temple Sinai was a move grounded not only in her religious convictions, but also in her journey to grow professionally, to take on bigger challenges, and to contribute her skills as a highly effective leader to effect positive change on a larger scale. The risk of seeking out, and the sharing of, this experience in Ellen’s life would become key to the further cultivation of mutual trust between these two leaders -- a trust made possible because of a shared investment in the practice of a relational culture.

The risk of a good relational meeting is not limited to the “why” question, nor does it end when a story is shared. A good relational meeting includes the further risk of agitation. Upon discovering key experiences that propel a particular leader into action, a good organizer goes deeper in order to better understand how that person acts upon their stated values. “Agitation”, as the Gamaliel National Training Manual describes it, “is the art of challenging a person to be true to their values, true to self and to act on those values out of their own self-interest. It is the art of pointing out the contradictions between what a person professes and how she or he acts.” Or, as one organizer puts it, “in the act [of agitation], we are refusing to settle for anything less than all of what a person has to offer the world.”

Having taken the initial risk of that first relational meeting with Ellen, Felipe took the additional risk of agitation. What if the initial group purchase agreement that saved twelve institutions $100,000 in annual energy expense was just the beginning of something much bigger? What if settling for this one deal would be settling for yet another glass ceiling? Felipe knew Ellen as a talented and effective leader -- what if they were standing together at the edge of the glass? He took a risk and agitated Ellen to have relational meetings with and recruit more leaders into the group purchasing initiative. Two years later, Ellen had recruited three new synagogues into the new cooperative now called the Community Purchasing Alliance.

By investing in one another and cultivating a truly relational culture, Felipe and Ellen collaborated with leaders across the city to grow CPA into a cooperative that has aggregated more than $10.7 million in annual service contracts and saves member institutions more than $1.1 million each year.


Guest post by Cullen McKenney
Co-Founder of CPA Durham and Minister of Adult Discipleship and Witness @ Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, NC

Lauren Greenspan