Our identity as spiritual leaders, like the collective identities of our sacred communities, is directly connected to the story we tell about ourselves and the story others tell about us. The idea of brit, or covenant, has been core to the partnership between spiritual leaders and their communities; it is also core to the partnership the Jewish people have with God. This brit is shaped by our history, relationships, rituals, shared values, and the dance between tradition and innovation. There is enormous power in the narrative we create as spiritual and communal leaders, and there is great power in the covenant we create with each other — how we co-create our life and work in sacred community.
Over the past several decades, the clergy field has been professionalized; we have also expanded the roles clergy now play. And yet, it is still the covenantal relationship that makes our work more than a job, even with its contractual and administrative dimensions. The covenant between clergy and community embodies the commitment of the professional leadership and the members and board of an institution; it also mirrors the vision and mission of the organization.
A coventantal approach, or what I term a “sacred systems” approach — building on family and organizational systems but using spiritual language and religious philosophy — examines and nurtures the network of relationships and activities in a community rather than looking at specific roles, functions, and programs. Viewed in this way, the work of a spiritual leader (clergy or lay leader in a congregation or Jewish organization) is to help clarify the vision of the network. The tasks are to grow new leaders and engaged participants; to respond to the needs surrounding programming, lifecycle events, and holidays; to actively participate in meeting the social justice and larger communal and global challenges of the day; and to adapt to change continuously and as consciously as possible.
For example, in a brit, leadership is an activity of the congregational system rather than the job of one or more persons. Leadership is not just a role; it is a function of a sacred community. Authority, power, and accountability are a shared responsibility in a covenant — even if they depend on the context of a specific situation. For example, instead of the default job descriptions most clergy are presented with, one would lay out the shared mission, vision, and weighted priorities of the congregation or organization, and then articulate the role of the rabbi in helping to fulfill this vision and the mutually understood and agreed-upon priorities. Finally, one would articulate clearly how the lay leadership and community would support the rabbi in helping to fulfill these priorities, as well as evaluate how the covenantal journey is unfolding. Leadership is not simply hired, rehired (or not), elected, or pushed out, according to a review of one person’s job description.
A brit between spiritual leader and community means that rabbinical searches or reviews are to be influenced by Jewish traditions, values, conscious communication, and mutual respect. From a covenantal perspective, we would approach the human resource or contractual processes in any clergy-institutional relationship as an ongoing endeavor in which each party approaches the other with dignity and admiration.
I see an increasing number of Jewish spiritual leaders from congregations and institutions engaged with faith-based community organizing as well as interfaith-based social justice coalitions. In those environments, democratic processes and working covenants are foundational to the enterprise. By having covenantal consciousness and commitment already active within our Jewish communities, we will be more effective partners for issues we embrace outside our own walls.
A covenantal approach will not immunize a community against misunderstandings and ruptured relationships. Covenantal communities will still run aground or “shatter” on occasion. As we know from our own Jewish history and religious narrative, a brit can weaken or tether a relationship; it may also need to reboot itself to remain alive. Both the first engraving of the Ten Commandments that were shattered and the second that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were kept in the same ark; the shattered and the whole were kept together.1
In addition to naming the dynamics of power, authority, and responsibility, making transparent the specific details of a professional’s contract or brit can help all members of a community to feel a sense of ownership of the process and a relationship with the leader.
An example of this occurred recently in my own life when I became the visiting rabbi of a lay-led congregation, Dor Hadash, in Pittsburgh. The faith community was experimenting with a hybrid of leadership models, and the community hired me. My contract became a ritual event: The congregation’s president convened the evening and shared thoughts about what this change — hiring a professional leader — meant in the community’s trajectory. Then, the havurah’s liaison and I each shared our reflections on how the contract negotiations were understood as a holy conversation. We then discussed the themes of power, authority, and accountability as they occur in any group or organizational system; we studied biblical and contemporary texts on leadership, and we explored our vision for the rabbi-congregational relationship we hoped to create.
Next, using a ritual format often found in Jewish weddings, the president handed me the contract and asked if I agreed to the terms of the covenant. He then did the same with the havurah liaison. After we had signed the document (which excluded the specifics of clergy compensation), community members were invited to sign as witnesses if they were so inclined. We chanted the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer, thanking God for being the sustaining source and for bringing us to this day. This was followed by a shared meal during which we traded stories about our personal journeys. Finally, we embarked on a three-hour planning session that laid out the year’s activities and how those activities would interface with the congregation’s mission.
At the evening’s end, I invited the leadership to share what they were taking away from our first collective working session. A number of congregants who had initially worried about being disempowered by the hiring of a rabbi said that they felt greater empowerment and energy. Weaving together ritual, individual and congregational stories, study, prayer, a shared meal, administrative objectives, and program planning created a sense of sacred community.
A covenantal approach can help to narrow the divide between expressed values and day-to-day practices. Housed in the holiness of a brit, process, outcome, form and content become mutually enhancing and interdependent ways of realizing the divine potential of individuals, communities, and larger organizational systems.
1 These thoughts are derived from many years of working with congregations and organizations as well as studying integrated, non-dual approaches of kabbalah, organizational theory, spiritual direction and systems work. rabbizevit.com.email print