We Need Leadership, Not Leaders

April 1, 2004
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By Richard Hirsh

I ONCE WORKED for a congregation that invited members to hold forth for five minutes on a topic of their choice on Yom Kippur afternoon, during what was known as “open microphone.” In my second year with the congregation, two minutes before Kol Nidre, a member handed me a copy of his presentation for the next afternoon.

A quick scan suggested a problem and I passed the sheet of paper to the chairperson of the High Holiday committee; after all, my job was simply to arrange the presentations. I did not pick the team; my job was to make up the batting order.

Two minutes after the end of the service, the same member stormed the bima to scream that I had censored him, although it was the High Holiday committee chairperson who had made the call. He reported his resignation from the shul, and that he was going to bring the issue to the board and demand justice (in that inverted order).

Who was in charge? Where was the authority? The power? Where would a resolution be found? What in fact was the issue?

The initial board discussions focused on ameliorating the aggrieved congregant and assigning blame, when the real question should have been: What kind of a synagogue system could account for such chaos?

Much of what passes for discussion of “best practices” in synagogue governance and rabbi-congregation relations still revolves around debates regarding power and authority: What belongs to the rabbi? The president? The board? The congregation? And when issues do not fall neatly into the reshut (domain) of one party or another, the result is confusion (at best) and chaos (at worst).

What holds out the promise of being more productive is shifting the discussion from the polarizing issues of power and authority to the collaborative conversation that focuses on leadership, a term that, tellingly, has come to be conflated with and assumed to be the same as “leaders.” Of leaders, we have plenty; of leadership, properly understood, we have barely any.

“Collaborative,” “partnership,” and “systemic” are the terms of currency in the emerging “best practices” of organizational life. In his helpful book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz suggests leadership does not live in a person, a role, or a title (rabbi, president, board); leadership is an activity of the congregational system.

Leadership, Heifetz argues, is the ability to mobilize people to tap their collective resources in order to respond to the daily challenges, small and large, of keeping a system moving forward in a healthy way. Leadership is evidenced in the ability to get people to see the issues they face and to bring competing viewpoints into play; in the creating of a safe and sustained conversation where issues can be addressed; and in helping people understand that it is the shared meaning created in community, rather than in the insatiable individual happiness of each member, by which a congregation should evaluate itself.

Among the key findings in a Reconstructionist movement report titled The Rabbi-Congregational Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century was the importance of refocusing the power struggles between rabbis and congregants. In shorthand, the report advocated focusing less on the “rabbi” and “congregation” and more on the hyphen in the “rabbi-congregation relationship.”

The “sense of community” that people identify as a key motivation for affiliation can only be achieved when people focus on relationships rather than rules. Relationships, especially those we wish to imbue with kedusha (holiness), are predicated on respect, mediated on compromise, and maintained by loyalty.

Day-to-day synagogue governance has to be vested in appropriate staff and lay leaders, with lines of authority well understood. But ultimately the management of the congregational system is the project and responsibility of the entire community. What leaders can do is exercise leadership: help a community understand that people of good will can see shared issues in different ways, and that living in community is predicated on compromise. Ultimately, it is not happiness but meaning that religious communities provide. Or as Peter Steinke teaches in Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach: “A healthy congregation is not one with an absence of troubles, but one that actively and responsibly addresses or heals its disturbances.”

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Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and was the chair of the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi. For a copy of the report mentioned above, email: info@therra.org.

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