Americans have a passion for information. We treasure our freedom of speech and the growing access we have to all kinds of information. Some of us have a vision of governance based on the town meeting where officers are challenged to speak directly to the community. When a synagogue goes though a difficult personnel change, the leadership, staff, and congregation may struggle with how much the whole community should know. Some will demand to know the whole truth, but as Jack Nicholson’s Marine colonel in A Few Good Men claimed, some people just “can’t handle the truth.”

Is it permissible to tell less than the whole story? Can we really handle it all? When there is a controversy about a resignation, termination, or decision not to retain a staff person, members of the congregation will want to know what happened. The “fair report” is usually given by the president or the chair of a conflict mediation committee. It seeks to tell the essential lessons of what has happened. It places a focus on the contribution of all of the parties to the problem and welcomes the assistance of all in the solution. It speaks about those things that the membership must know but on a “need-to-know” basis.” It provides more than just a report of what happened—it provides the fair and appropriate report that can lead to understanding, healing, and change.

In contrast, the “unfair report” or “unhelpful report” is full of judgment but weak on compassion. In Leviticus 19 we are challenged to manage two commandments. We are to rebuke our neighbors when they have done something wrong. We also are to have empathy for them. When the community loses its empathy, its harsh criticism of the congregational leadership may be demoralizing.

The fair report addresses the organizational issues that must be changed (rebuke) to ensure healthy lay/staff relationships while preserving the dignity (empathy) of the volunteer leadership. These volunteers are more than their temporary roles in this congregational conflict. They are your friends and neighbors. How can we address the legitimate needs to inform the membership without sharing inappropriate or harmful information?

I believe in moving information into the public realm and out of the “parking lot” discussions which can be rife with gossip and misinformation. It’s vital to balance sharing information that would be helpful for the congregation to know with what “can be heard.” Some messages are so painful or critical that leaders simply will shut down rather than take in this feedback.

We also need to try to understand what Jewish tradition says about the proper use of feedback. The October issue of Moment magazine included a series of reflections that speaks to these issues. The question was raised “Is there ever a time when it is all right to tell a lie?” Several rabbinic leaders responded.

According to Rabbi Jacobson, it is permissible to tell a lie if it “upholds the respect for God’s creatures.” Many of us are familiar with the provision that argues that it is desirable to tell a bride that she is beautiful even if you believe she is not so attractive (Talmud Ketubot 17 a). One can imagine complimenting a sermon that was perhaps only partly satisfying or speaking kindly about some aspect of the departing staff person even if that quality was rather modest in your eyes.

Rabbi Jacobson references the practice of Aaron. Aaron would go to adversaries and tell how their foes “had regrets over the quarrel.” Aaron would do this even though no regrets had actually been shared. According to tradition he did this because of a profound faith that “deep in their hearts these enemies craved reconciliation” (Yevamos 65B). As a mediator in congregational conflict, I try to amplify the voices of moderation on both sides. I confess that I sometimes see more conciliatory behavior than is actually present. Like Aaron, I choose to be optimistic about the desire for reconciliation.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg asks us to consider two standards of truth.

  1. Is the statement objectively correct?
  2. Does it respect the dignity of the human speaking and the person about whom it is spoken?

When I hear a one-sided story, I know that I am hearing someone still committed to continuing conflict. They want to win their point. It may be that each charge has some objective validity, but their one-sided approach seldom meets Greenberg’s second criteria. When you speak in a one-sided way about your adversary, it is hard to say that you respect him. This is the opposite of Aaron’s leadership model. The accuser fails to give the adversary the benefit of the doubt. Telling of the evil behavior of one person to another who has no compelling need to know—even if the report is true—Greenberg argues, is prohibited and is “evil speech” (Lashon hara).That truth, told unnecessarily, becomes a lie.

Most staff members have developed significant relationships. They each have a constituency. That constituency is going to ask, “What happened?” I was in one congregation with 500 members. In one meeting 250 people came to protest the failure to renew a popular staff person’s contract. About 150 came to hear my report about all of the issues surrounding the case and my recommendations for change. When members were invited to work on these recommendations only about 50 stayed engaged. Many want the right to be heard; considerably fewer want the responsibility to maintain the community and do the hard work of implementing change.

The Rights of Members

I believe the board is obligated to develop healthy organizational structures, roles and responsibilities, and processes for constructive feedback. They need to be able to communicate these. When there is conflict, the membership does have a right to understand if these processes are in place and if they were properly utilized. If the staff person resigns with strong agreements for confidentiality, the community is sometimes denied important learning about what worked and what didn’t. They are somewhat in the dark. It is all the more important that the leadership has built sound practices and communicated them over the years.

If it turns out that there were inadequate processes, leaders need to own up to their contribution in the problem and map out a plan to address these issues. For some congregants this constitutes responsible corrective action. Other congregants may not feel that this is enough. They want to know how the lay and staff persons got along. What was said? They want to know if the person was forced out or so frustrated that resignation seemed like the only choice. They want a blow-by-blow account. Some want to look for inconsistencies in the testimonies of the parties. This creates a “gotcha” culture in the congregation. They want to hear the whole story—what they call the “truth.”

In some cases a serious breakdown in trust will lead to the call for a special meeting. These sessions can degenerate into no-holds-barred advocacy where the character and intentions of others are questioned. This is not the best environment for mediation. Most congregations do provide this option as a last resort for the rights of the membership.

Rabbi David Ellenson argues that the sages consistently stressed that “peace has priority over truth.” The Talmud, notes Ellenson, reminds us that Joseph’s brothers were justified in not telling him the whole truth lest Joseph seek revenge (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 50:16). A leader might well decide not to report sessions where lay leaders spoke in bullying tones to the staff person. They might best address this in a small executive committee session. I believe inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed but on a “need-to-know” basis. One should start with the president, move to the personnel committee, then to the executive committee, the board, and ultimately to the congregation. One of the best ways
to define need-to-know status is those who have some potential to take action to address and improve the situation.

When all of these groups have been consulted, it is important to let the board know how the issue is being managed, at least in general terms. Failing to let them know can cause them to wake up to a personnel issue that has been going on for a year or more that is now exploding onto the congregational stage. As the ultimate authority in the congregation, the board should not be put in the position of being surprised by events. They will not want to be subjected to criticism about decisions they were not included in.

The Fair Report

When the leadership is going to get feedback on their processes and their behavior, the community needs to balance chesed (mercy) and din (judgment). The biblical spies gave such a frightening report about the dangers of entering the land of Canaan that the people panicked and were unable to go on with their mission. If we rebuke the congregational leadership too much they may be immobilized. Most synagogues report a small percentage of the membership that is truly involved in the ongoing work of the community. If we strip the credibility of the 10% who have been carrying the responsibilities of the synagogue on their shoulders, who will step in to pick up the burden? Past experience suggests that recruiting newer leaders is an incremental process at best.

In most cases where a staff person has not worked out, there are a variety of contributing factors. One of the leadership challenges is to move the conversation from one of blame to contribution. In what way did we all contribute to the problem? How can we all contribute to the solution? When confidence in the leadership has been undermined, the development of the “Fair Report” can contribute to laying a better foundation of trust for the whole congregation’s future work.


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