The story of Abraham has much to teach the rabbi assuming the leadership of a congregation. Rabbinic tradition teaches that Abraham was subjected to 10 trials. God’s call to Abraham to “go forth” was not without its challenges, and Abraham continually had to prove himself worthy of the title “av raham,” father of a multitude. So, too, when a congregation engages a new rabbi, the rabbi must understand that he or she will be subjected to a series of trials—tests of his or her leadership, skill, and wisdom.

This is not something that is widely understood. In fact, the quality of the first year of a rabbinic transition is highly misunderstood. While many believe it is a “honeymoon” time of constant good feeling when the new rabbi can introduce new ideas and new styles in a welcoming atmosphere, it is not. It is also surely not, as many suggest, a time of observation, a time when the new rabbi quietly observes the culture and process of the congregation and refrains from making any changes or suggestions. Rather, the first year of rabbinic transition is a time when the leadership, congregation, and incumbent staff watch the new rabbi carefully to see how he or she will respond to the myriad challenges that arise, and the degree of the rabbi’s success in meeting those challenges will determine the successfulness of the transition.1

The first challenge: Remain involved with the search committee.

Those who hired the new rabbi have a definite investment in his or her success. After all, these are the people who made the recommendation to the congregation; they have placed their collective judgment on display. During the first few months, the search committee members will often “step back” to allow the new rabbi to engage with as many members of the congregation as possible. This is natural and well-intentioned. However, a new rabbi must remain engaged and involved with the members of the search committee, utilizing the committee as a sounding board for ideas, problems, and feedback. These are the individuals who will most want to help the new rabbi succeed and they will eventually come to miss the relationship they once enjoyed in the heady “courtship” days if the new rabbi does not invest time in maintaining a relationship. Some congregations use “transition committees” to assist the new rabbi, and while these committees are effective and useful, the rabbi must stay connected at all costs to those who hired her.

I learned this firsthand. In my first major transition I focused all my energies on accomplishing the goals agreed upon during the search process—to create a warmer, more dynamic, and more pastorally focused experience for the congregation, including an environment that was more amenable to children. I employed my usual, dynamic preaching style. I began making pastoral visits. I allowed children into the worship service. I failed, though, to maintain the kind of close contact and continual conversation with members of the search committee that would have guided me in those first critical months. I took for granted that these key leaders would be pleased that I was focusing so tirelessly on manifesting the vision they had described to me, forgetting that they needed contact with “their” rabbi as well.

I soon found that some in the congregation had serious concerns about my pulpit style, finding it a great deal more dynamic than that of my predecessor. The change was too sudden, too dramatic, and it made them uncomfortable. Similarly, my practice of pastoral visits was unfamiliar and therefore discomfiting, and the introduction of children into the worship service was experienced as jarring, being in conflict with the congregation’s cultural norm of a more formal worship service. Through it all, I continued to try to fulfill what I thought was the search committee’s vision. Had I maintained closer contact with the members of that committee and received much more frequent feedback and guidance, I would have learned much sooner that my understanding of the committee’s vision was inaccurate and been able to modify my approach. Instead, I spent many counterproductive months devoting more and more energy to creating the experience I thought the search committee—and the congregation—wanted, rather than the one they truly desired. I now know that regular contact and conversation with members of the search committee, and the solicitation of feedback from them, are essential to a smooth rabbinical transition. There are potential “landmines” in any new pulpit, and the search committee is the natural group of people who can show the new rabbi how to avoid them. A rabbi who loses the support of his or her search committee is in a precarious state indeed.

The second challenge: The incumbent staff was there first.

One of the greatest challenges facing the new rabbi in the transition year is integrating with the incumbent members of the staff. Depending on the size of the congregation, there might be an assistant rabbi, an educator, a cantor, an executive director, and a number of support staff. The new rabbi is wise to remember that the incumbent staff members have developed relationships and ways of relating and communicating with one another that might not be readily apparent. And while they might tell you the office works in a particular way, it usually works in a quite different fashion. For example, most staffs get together at least once a week for meetings. Presumably, plans are made, information is shared, and issues are resolved. The new rabbi might assume that the weekly staff meeting is the primary location of sharing, planning, growing, and learning together. However, what might not be readily apparent or even consciously shared with the new rabbi is that the real work gets done in private meetings between staff members, e-mails or phone calls, or even discussions at a local café. Learning how staff members who have worked together actually communicate with one another, solve problems, and deal with interpersonal issues is an enormous challenge to the new rabbi, but one crucial to his success. Lay leaders watch carefully to see how the new rabbi handles the challenges of integrating with the staff, and judge him accordingly. The new rabbi also should not look to the lay leadership to immediately support him in disagreements with the incumbent staff; after all, laity are invested in their success as well as the rabbi’s.

To establish a good working relationship with incumbent staff members, the new rabbi should meet individually with every member of the senior staff early on in her tenure and learn each person’s understanding of his or her job description and areas of responsibility. There should be absolute clarity between the new rabbi and each of the incumbent staff members regarding the scope of his or her duties and responsibilities. It is up to the new rabbi, not the staff member, to make sure that this clarity exists.

Similarly, in the transition year, it is the new rabbi’s responsibility to make sure there is clarity of communication among the staff. Staff have their own ways of communicating with one another; the new rabbi who ignores working toward clear communication does so at his own peril; staff morale breakdown and staff disaffection are often traced to poor communication and ambiguous job responsibilities. “Communication is a two-way street” is a mantra the new rabbi can introduce after the second contract is signed. Until then, he should work hard to ensure that he communicates clearly and concretely and takes full responsibility for breakdowns in communication.2

Rabbis need to remember that staff members are used to working with another rabbi whose tastes and desires are well-known, so the new rabbi must to work extra hard to make sure that it is clearly understood where she stands on an issue or idea. Remember, as well, that part of the new rabbi’s job is to stand by h
er staff—to take responsibility for mistakes and lavishly share the credit for successes. Rabbis who do this will be rewarded with loyalty. It is up to the rabbi to establish trust.

Above all, a new rabbi should not try to immediately “fix” a staff that functions poorly. Even dysfunctional families function, and the new rabbi will be resented for imposing modes that do not fit the existing culture.3 For example, Rabbi X is called to a new pulpit and quickly finds that her predecessor was known for an authoritarian and brusque style that bred great resentment among the staff. She is welcomed as “a breath of fresh air.” However, her new easygoing style emphasizing team-building and joint decision making is met, to her astonishment, with confusion and even anger. Why? Because she immediately tried to change the culture of the senior staff without first understanding that, despite the voiced resentment, the staff had learned to function, and at times even function well, within their previous system. Her predecessor, though brusque, was clear in his preferences, and the new rabbi’s desire to reach consensus is misunderstood as ambiguity and lack of authoritative leadership. As a result of the shift in leadership, the staff flounders and becomes demoralized.4

The third challenge: The new rabbi’s relationship with his or her predecessor will be closely observed, and judged accordingly.

Just as the investment of the search committee in the success of the new rabbi affects the transition, so does the attitude of the retiring rabbi. The chance of a transition succeeding is immeasurably enhanced if the retiring rabbi is invested in the new rabbi’s success. If the retiring rabbi is able to say clearly and repeatedly to the lay leadership,“I am no longer your rabbi; Rabbi X is the spiritual leader and I have full confidence in him and expect you to work with him to advance the congregation,” then the new rabbi can feel some assurance that his predecessor is invested in his success. This has been my experience in my most recent rabbinical transition and it has made an enormous difference. Long before my name ever came up in the search process, the retiring rabbi had begun to talk to the congregation about his impending retirement and his desire for them to accept his replacement. This practice of saying, essentially, “I stand by the new rabbi” benefits everyone concerned. It gives both the congregation and the new rabbi a sense of security and lays a foundation of trust between them. In this latest transition, the retiring rabbi also introduced me to his most ardent supporters in the congregation, again sending the message that it was his desire for them to transfer their support of him to me when the time of transition arrived.

The new rabbi is also wise to treat the retiring rabbi in the same manner as he treats the search committee. Despite the retiring rabbi’s well-intentioned efforts to involve the new rabbi with others in the congregation, the new rabbit should maintain communication and relationship with the retiring rabbi. Just as with the incumbent staff, clarity is essential in establishing a healthy relationship with the emeritus. The new rabbi should take full responsibility for making clear and concrete his or her relationship to the emeritus and the relationship of the emeritus to the congregation. The new rabbi would be wise to remember that the lay leadership views the new rabbi’s relationship with the emeritus as another test. While it is common during the interview process for search committee members to delineate what they consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the outgoing rabbi and to praise the new rabbi as “giving us something we haven’t had before,” the new rabbi should not be misled into believing that congregants and lay leaders will express gratitude for these “new strengths” he or she brings to the pulpit. On the contrary, the contrasts with the emeritus might prove discomfiting to many—after all, they are used to a certain style of leadership.

For example, a new rabbi is hired to replace a retiring rabbi who, although beloved, was considered by many in the leadership to be staid and somewhat lackadaisical on the pulpit. The new rabbi is touted as “dynamic” and “energetic,” a great preacher and teller of fabulous stories. To the congregation, however, the newcomer’s energy and presence comes across as intrusive and jarring rather than uplifting. They have been conditioned to accept a certain pulpit style as authentic. The new rabbi’s style will take some time for the congregation to embrace, and the support of the search committee, rabbinic predecessor, and senior staff will be crucial to effect this change.

The new rabbi faces a particularly difficult situation when the emeritus is retiring unwillingly or when the previous rabbi left under a cloud. Such a congregation is usually better served by an interim rabbi before the search for a successor begins, so the new rabbi is well-advised to pick his predecessor carefully.

The fourth challenge: Much rides on the first High Holydays, and yes, it’s unfair.

New rabbinates often begin in July, and this offers an opportunity to preach and even teach some members of the congregation before the High Holydays, when the majority of congregants will witness their new rabbi for the first time. However, most in the congregation will not have had the opportunity to interact with the new rabbi before the fall. First impressions do count and the new rabbi will be compared to her predecessor in manner of dress, delivery, presence on the pulpit, interaction with the other clergy, and sermon content. Success in meeting this immensely difficult challenge can be increased by heeding the following advice:

  • Use the summer months to meet with congregants and share ideas and visions. Use forums and informal gatherings to learn about the congregation from long-time members, hear the concerns of the newer members, and, above all, share clear and concrete thoughts about the future. The more clearly these thoughts are articulated, the more the members will recognize that their new rabbi has something to say and a vision to share. Remember that a true vision is a cooperative endeavor; it must take into account the thoughts and aspirations of the membership, but if the search process has worked successfully, it is highly likely that the new rabbi’s vision is compelling.
  • Use the first summer to integrate with the incumbent staff. Take genuine interest in their ideas, thoughts, and concerns, and reach out to them consistently. The message that “the new rabbi gets along with the staff” will percolate into the congregation quickly and be a source of relief for the lay leadership.
  • Do not expect the lay leaders to be united in preparing a smooth and uncomplicated first year. First of all, they are excited, eager to experiment with change, and impatient to implement new ideas. Second, it is quite likely that certain challenges will be left over from the previous rabbi; they must be addressed. Finally, a congregation is not a static organism; it is constantly changing and confronting new challenges. How the new rabbi reacts to the immediate challenges in that first year is perhaps the greatest test of all.
  • Preach to your strengths in your first sermons. The new rabbi is at an enormous disadvantage; she does not truly “know” the congregation; that will come only with years of living together. Every rabbi has some “gold” in her preaching bag, some ideas, insights, and teachings that never have failed to move and inspire. Use the “gold” in the first sermons; don’t worry about preaching to “their” issues. You don’t know what they are yet.

The fifth challenge: The transition is not over until the second contract—and beyond.

Transition issue
s will pop up during the first year, the second year, and the third. While it may be exhausting and time consuming in the first few years of the new rabbinate to have to pay attention to transition, it is necessary in order for the transition to take root among the members of the congregation. New challenges will arise continually—families confronting a “strange rabbi” officiating at a life cycle event, the death or illness of past leaders whose connection was primarily to the former rabbi, changes in the staff related to the natural course of synagogue staff turnover—and these are all additional tests of the new rabbi in his new congregation.

In the story of Abraham, there came a time when “[God] reckoned according to [Abraham’s] merit” (Gen. 15:6). Similarly, if transition has proceeded well, there will come a time when most matters will be reckoned to the new rabbi’s merit. In other words, he will be perceived as loving the congregation and its members and his decisions will be viewed most often in a positive light. The members will come to see their rabbi—even when they disagree with him—as a loving and caring individual who has their best interests at heart. At that point the transition can be effectively viewed as completed.

A New Paradigm

More attention has been paid to the challenges confronting the new rabbi than the challenges confronting the lay leadership and congregation. This view of transition holds the rabbi more than the lay leaders accountable for the success or failure of the transition experience. This is not to diminish the importance of sensitive and skillful lay leaders who can play an extraordinary role in the success of a rabbinic transition. Indeed, if a new rabbi is blessed with lay leaders who are sensitive to the immense difficulties inherent in rabbinic transition, work with the rabbi to overcome the challenges and tests that come her way, and provide honest and appropriate counsel with the goal of ensuring the success of the transition, the possibility of ultimate success is immeasurably enhanced. However, the reality of the transition as time of testing rather than honeymoon or quiet observation period calls for increased self-reliance on the part of the rabbi to manage the difficult shoals of the transition period. This does not mean, however, that a failed transition is exclusively or even primarily the fault of the rabbi. The new paradigm of transition as testing means that some congregations may have obstacles that prove to be insurmountable for a time. The arrival of a new rabbi is often a catalyst for long-buried congregational secrets and tensions to be brought to the light of day, sometimes with shattering results. Infidelities, broken trusts, pastor/parishioner boundary violations or embezzlements long hushed up or unresolved, conflicts among staff members, or even long-standing grudges among lay leaders may all be stirred to the surface with the change in clergy leadership. Even the most skillful of rabbis may find the issues beyond solving. This is precisely the reason why wiser congregations choose to engage an interim rabbi who can help address pressing issues before the successor rabbi is called to the pulpit.

This new paradigm of transition as testing calls for new skills to be taught to rabbis while in seminary and in the field. Management and communication skills are now crucial factors in determining the ultimate success of the new rabbi. In addition, a wise new rabbi will find mentors and advisors outside of the congregation to provide perspective and counsel.

Although I describe in this article aspects of a difficult transition in which I was involved, I do not want the reader to assume that the experience was wholly negative. On the contrary, I learned a tremendous amount during those years and benefited enormously from my interaction with the devoted members, lay leaders, and staff of that congregation. As a wise Episcopal colleague once advised me, “The difficult experience prepares you for the successful one.” With luck, there will be many successful ones, such as the one I have recently been blessed with, in which the counsel, guidance, and honest dialogue of a gifted lay leadership and a sensitive and wise rabbi emeritus have been invaluable to me.

Regardless of the circumstances into which a new rabbi comes, however, I place primary responsibility on him or her for the success of the transition experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rabbinic transitions are getting harder, not easier. The paradigm of “transition as testing,” I have found, provides a framework through which a properly trained and skillfully supported rabbi might manage the transition with success. 

1. I am indebted to Pastor Glenn E. Ludwig for the insight that the transition is a “time of testing.” See In It for the Long Haul (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2002). Ludwig’s study of successful transition in the church is directly applicable to the rabbinate.
2. See Erwin Berry, The Alban Personnel Handbook for Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 1999) for an extended discussion of the importance of clear communication and clear job responsibilities.
3. The insight that “even dysfunctional families function” and that clergy should be careful in immediately imposing change was offered by the Rev. Frank Wade as part of an Alban Institute course on senior pastorates. I am grateful for this insight.
4. See Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Friedman’s masterful book clearly demonstrates the validity of viewing the congregation as a “system,” and he offers guidance on how to effect change in a system in a healthy manner.