by Robert Leventhal

While attending a rabbinic conference, I joined a group discussion on what lay leaders expect of rabbis. The rabbis described various stories of unfair one-sided reviews that had injured their self-esteem and weakened their relationship with the congregation. When they expressed concerns about many lay leaders’ lack of understanding, I began to feel pangs of guilt. Were we lay leaders really that insensitive?

Americans are familiar with evaluation. Schools give grades. Employees undergo performance reviews. Products are evaluated in consumer magazines. Critics rate restaurants, movies, and CDs. In our era of extraordinary information, the customer is king, according to consultant Michael Hammer.1In such an environment, no one is above review.

Denominational executives cited the rabbi–lay leader partnership as the number-one factor correlated with congregational success.2 These partnerships can be productive, but they require that conflict be managed. Feedback is a critical part of coping with conflict. What kind of feedback should leaders encourage? “Evaluate” is defined by Webster’s as “to judge or determine the worth” of something. In contrast, “review” is defined (from the Latin revisidere, to see again) as a re-examination. Review suggests a commitment to reflect and reconsider, but it is not as judgmental and quantitative in tone. Rabbi David Wolfman argues that mutual review and reflection are critical because mutuality supports the development of “sacred partnerships.3

I encourage partners to state their assumptions, and so I will note some of mine. I assume that most of the forces affecting the congregation (e.g., demographics, economics, lifestyles, family structure) are beyond the control of congregational leadership. I assume that many of the stress factors reported in the Alban Special Report, The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations, apply to rabbis and their congregations as well as to Protestant clergy.4 While Alban has determined that a majority of Protestant clergy had received an evaluation in the past two years, my assumption in regard to synagogues is that very little formal written review of rabbinic lay leadership was occurring.5

When evaluation does occur, it is often associated with rabbinic contract negotiations. Regional executives report that they get requests from lay leaders in February or March for evaluation surveys. The timing of these reviews usually coincides with discussions about the renewal of contracts in July and also parallels discussions about next year’s budget. Issues of review are thus mixed with anxieties about financial resources and contract negotiations.

The Partnership Process
As I reflected on the current state of the rabbinic–lay leader partnership I began to feel that a stronger foundation needed to be formed. The Partnership Process (PP) described below is a model that provides four stepping stones toward better partnerships. Each stage helps create the conditions for success in the next. The model attempts to build shared meaning, clarify assumptions, encourage shared values, and lead to mutual review and feedback between partners. The process requires the kind of deliberate planning that was a core element in our Jewish agricultural past. The tradition asks, “[I]f one does not plant in the summer, what will one eat in the winter? (Midrash Misle 6). Like crops, relationships need to be planned and nurtured.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Steven R. Covey suggests that effective leaders “think with the end in mind.” In this case one would start the Partnership Process. If we think about mutual review as the desired ending, then we might work backward to define the foundational steps needed to support it. Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has written that “when partners have clear expectations, empowerment, processes to recognize contributions, and opportunities for personal bonding and trust,” then partnerships can endure and prosper.6

The Partnership Avoidance Model
The “Partnership Avoidance Model,” in contrast, does not build a foundation of trust. It is described by the following characteristics:

  1. Partners are overwhelmed by the forces of change around them.
  2. Poor communications weaken the potential for empathy.
  3. Values to ensure a shared culture of civility are few (lack of derech eretz, or manners).
  4. Without a solid foundation for the relationship, a tendency grows to avoid mutual review and ongoing dialogue. Issues are allowed to “build up,” a process that leads eventually to confrontation.

We will look at how the PP model can overcome the dangers of the Avoidance model and help create a strong foundation for partnerships.

1. From Overwhelmed Thinking to Shared Meaning. If congregations cannot agree about their current situations, how will they ever be able to develop shared values or create mutual goals? We believe that shared meaning lays the foundation for all the other stepping stones in the reframing process. Jeff Woods argues that Protestant congregations cannot assume a “one-room schoolhouse” where everyone is on the “same page.”7 Woods argues that we need to educate and assimilate diverse members.

We believe this same diversity is affecting the synagogue. Dr. Arnold Eisen and Dr. Stephen Cohen talk about the “exercise of autonomy” among moderately affiliated Jews in their study. Three-quarters of the Jews that participated in their survey agreed with the statement, “I have the right to reject those Jewish observances that I don’t find meaningful.”8

2. From Low Empathy to Shared Assumptions. Much of the conflict in the synagogue world comes from a lack of communication about roles and responsibilities. Both rabbis and lay leaders have their narratives and often try to sell their partners on their view. Rabbi Paul Menitoff (CCAR) argues that rabbis should help lay leaders understand the rabbi’s strengths and weaknesses, work preferences, professional growth needs, and the kind of congregational support necessary to compensate for areas of weakness. The Gallup Organization has published a study based on interviews with more than 80,00 supervisors in an effort to identify the characteristics of successful managers. The researchers determined that one important quality of successful managers was that “they focused on people’s strengths rather than trying to fix them.”9

Menitoff suggests that these candid conversations about strengths and weaknesses would ideally occur in the placement-process interviews. Unfortunately this type of mutual and candid exchange often fails to develop. The PP seeks to create the kind of candid conversations that may be difficult in the placement process when both parties are trying to put the best possible face on their roles as applicant or recruiter.

Lay leaders are anxious about the survival of their congregations during these times of change. According to one denominational leader, many presidents are just trying to “get through” their two years of office without a crisis.10 Many have not made the investments in leadership development and synagogue envisioning that would provide them with a stronger background for the partnership. Thus when budgets are strained, lay leaders often focus on concrete elements of their relationships, such as the rising costs of the rabbi’s total compensation or administrative support costs. This focus on finances feeds a desire to gain more control in the relationship and to hold the rabbi accountable, as lay leaders hold accountable the other professionals with whom they contract.

The challenges of the rabbinic role must be better understood. While management consultants encourage today’s business managers to specialize, the rabbi’s role runs against this current management trend. Rabbis are challenged to be true generalists. They function as spiritual leaders, counselors, educators, managers, marketers, administrators, and community organizers. Is it any wonder that the Alban Special Report found so many clergy who felt overwhelmed by their jobs?

3. From Incivility to Shared Values. Alban field research experience suggests that most of what clergy do is invisible to congregants most of the time. Rabbis are often out of their offices managing community roles, life-cycle events, and counseling. Some members complain in frustration that they did not find the rabbi in his office at 11 a.m. or that they did not see the rabbi on the day they were in the hospital. Others may feel that the rabbi is not adequately invested in their favorite synagogue program. The Reconstructionist Denominational Movement studied the relationship between rabbis and their lay leaders and found that members were often passing judgment on the rabbi without a complete holistic understanding of the rabbi’s roles and responsibilities.11 This “rush to judgment” sometimes created an environment of incivility that became a major barrier to “sacred partnerships.”

Once the rabbi and the lay leader have begun to understand each other, they can move beyond their personal positions and look at their relationship on the current “congregational stage.” When partners can look at these issues from a distance (what Alban Consultant Gil Rendle calls “the balcony”), they can look beyond the specific points of contention and see the larger relationship.12 For lay leaders and rabbis to find common ground, they must find Jewish principles they can agree on to support their mission; that is, “for the sake of heaven.”

4. From Avoidance and Confrontation to Mutual Review. In many Protestant denominations a bishop can remove a minister. In the Jewish world a denominational placement system is a resource to lay leaders, but the ultimate choice to engage a rabbi or sever a relationships lies with the congregation’s lay board. Given this fiduciary relationship, lay leaders must consider evaluation as a serious responsibility.

Mutual Ministry Review (MMR) is a process whereby both lay and professional staffs accept the responsibility to review their ministry. Research shows that clergy feel the process is far more successful if it is mutual.13

Lay leaders are anxious about review. If they are to develop literacy about building sacred Jewish communities, they need to work in partnership with their rabbis. Rabbis should advocate for synagogue leadership training because, as the tradition says, community leadership “is too heavy for anyone to carry alone” (Deut. Rabbah 1:10). Rabbis need a welleducated partner. We discussed creating a rabbinic relations committee to help provide feedback from the rabbi to lay leader, and from lay leaders to the rabbi. We also considered a trustees committee concept, which strengthens lay leader performance by coordinating nominations, board process, and leadership development. We reviewed a process in which the board and the rabbi would both rank their priorities for the rabbi and then compare notes.

The four-step Partnership Process works to address shared meaning, assumptions, expectations, shared values, and mutual review. The Avoidance model leads to a reactive relationship in which evaluations are rushed to meet deadlines. The Partnership Process can take from two to three years to develop. It can’t be rushed. The preliminary evidence suggests that if the partners commit to a plan, they may create the foundation for relationships that can endure and prosper.

Case Study: Synagogue Leadership Initiative
Rivers Edge, New Jersey

We sought to test out the Partnership Process by designing a series of partnership dialogues. I had seen elements of this type of dialogue in a workshop at a Union of Hebrew Congregations (Now URJ) Regional Biennial in 2001 led by Rabbi David Wolfman. A regional director in New England,Wolfman staffs the National Commission on Rabbinic Congregational Relations (NCRCR). He worked with rabbis and their presidents to look at the assumptions each had about the others’roles and responsibilities. Both partners seemed to be positively engaged by this form of active listening.This experience led me to explore the Partnership Process in more detail. I would soon get the opportunity to test the model. Judy Beck, director of the Synagogue Leadership Institute (SLI) of the United Jewish Appeal in Bergen (N.J.) and North Hudson (N.Y.) Jewish Federation, suggested that we test the model with a group of interested synagogues. She supported our plan to recruit the partners.Ultimately a group of seven rabbis and their synagogue presidents were recruited, and the workshops began in September 2001.

Workshop 1: Assumptions
In workshop 1 a lay leader and rabbi group was formed. The rabbis worked together and listed on a chart what they considered to be their key job requirements, and lay leaders listed what they considered to be the key requirements for a rabbi. Then the roles were reversed and both sides reviewed the key elements for lay leaders. The rabbis realized that because of their common training they used more Judaic language to describe their roles. They emphasized concepts that lay leaders didn’t, such as rabbinic authority (marah d’atrah). The rabbis noted that their list of rabbinic responsibilities was much longer than the lay leaders’ list for them. Lay leaders described the rabbis’ role as a more public, extroverted one involving congregational communications and education, while the rabbis emphasized a more introverted role with an internal focus on study and prayer.

Workshop 2: Systems
We administered the Congregational Systems Inventory (CSI) questionnaire to the professional staffs and the lay leaders of each participating synagogue. The CSI provides a portrait of the congregation’s leadership preferences across seven leadership dimensions. The Alban polarity management approach encourages leaders to become more aware of the tensions between opposite poles, such as a centralized authority versus dispersed authority. The assessment gives partners a vocabulary to talk about lay and rabbinic leadership styles in the congregation. Rabbis and presidents saw that their leadership styles had an impact on one another.When they thought of their relationship, they tended to focus less on blaming their partners and chose to address areas of weakness.

Workshop 3: Values and Norms
To begin this discussion we needed to understand the formal and informal norms in the congregational organizations.We explored how study of Jewish values can create derech eretz (community manners) that could support healthy partnerships. Each group looked at examples of uncivil behavior in the general community and in their congregations. Each identified five Jewish values that could help improve their culture. Each group identified the behaviors that they would monitor if the value had been accepted and embraced in the congregation.

Workshop 4: Mutual Review
We looked at the role evaluation plays in most nonprofit organizations and the fiduciary responsibilities for volunteer leadership. We recognized the complexity of synagogue evaluation and worked to present a range of feedback processes that could support an incremental and ongoing dialogue. Once the participants had explored their assumptions about each other’s roles, reflected on the leadership system, and accepted the challenge of proactively creating a healthy culture based on Jewish values (i.e.“the stepping-stones”), they were ready to look at mutual review.We presented the partners with a range of mutual feedback approaches—from simple letters of appreciation to more formal feedback such as a mutual review of job priorities.


1.Michael Hammer, The Agenda (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 6–7.
2.Interviews with 13 regional executives, January–April 2001.
3.Rabbi David Wolfman, UAHC regional director, interview, May 15, 2002.
4.James Wind and Gilbert Rendle, The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2001).
5.“Refocusing Evaluation,” Congregations, Alban Institute, March–April 2002, 24.
6.Paul Menitoff, A Formula For Successful Rabbinical Congregational Relationships (New York: CCAR Journal, 1993).
7.Jeff C. Woods, Congregational Megatrends (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1999).
8.Arnold M. Eisen and Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
9.Marcus Buckingham, First Break All of the Rules (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 144.
10.Rabbi Moshe Edelman, interview, May 5, 2001.
11.The Role of the Rabbi in the Congregation (Wyncote, Pa.: Reconstructionist Commission, 2001).
12.Gilbert R. Rendle, Behavioral Covenants (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1999).
13.Jill Hudson, Evaluating Ministry (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1988), 64–68.

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3

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