Never does a congregation have more at stake than when it selects its next minister or rabbi. No congregation—large or small, rich or poor—can escape this turning point when the future seems fragile and malleable. For each faith community a good choice can mean years of vital congregational ministry. The wrong choice can usher in years of conflict, floundering, or ennui. For more than a few congregations, the inability to negotiate this transition proves fatal.
For candidates, the stakes are equally high. A good “match” can leave a clergy leader feeling that she or he has won the pastoral lottery. A great congregation and a good way of life are the prizes. A mistake here, however, can lead to years of wandering in the vocational wilderness, a lifetime of “if onlys,” family or personal breakdowns, or relentless forays at playing the game again and again.
The road to congregational vitality is dotted with potholes. A potentially dangerous one suddenly looms each time a congregation sets out to choose a new leader. For years, I have watched congregations and clergy approach this pothole. Some hurtle toward it at full speed, denying reality until the last moment, pretending that the incumbent minister will live and serve forever. Others overanticipate. With warning lights flashing miles in advance, they slow down, bringing congregational momentum to a standstill. They seek to control the uncontrollable future with succession plans, insider candidates, backroom deals, and expensive headhunters. The vast majority of congregations muddle through, slowing a bit and keeping fingers crossed that the hazard ahead will not cause much damage.
If ever there was a leverage point for change in American religious life, it is at this pothole moment. Sadly, most lever-pullers operate in ambiguous circumstances that make it difficult to know which way to pull or push.
Frequently, I speak with travelers on this busy religious highway. Ministers tell me horror stories of how their new congregations ambushed them with hidden problems and festering wounds. Congregational leaders complain that their new clergy leader turned out to have an abrasive style, conflicting priorities, or concealed personal problems. Denominational and seminary placement officers often remark on the fictions that distort the “call process”—congregations present idealized portraits of themselves to candidates, and candidates play the same game.
All these realities—and more—come into view in a rare journalistic account of a congregational search. Stephen Fried’s The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) recounts the one-year process that turned into three years of hapless groping. Fried’s nonfiction account tells of a great synagogue, Har Zion of Philadelphia, as it came to the end of a historic rabbinate, the 30-year tenure of Gerald I. Wolpe. Har Zion is a powerhouse congregation of 1,400 families, a flagship of Conservative Judaism. But with all its resources—money, tradition, power brokers (Fried calls them big machers)—Har Zion flounders and struggles at the moment of decision.
What struck me as I read Fried’s account was that everyone had tried to do the right thing. Rabbi Wolpe tried to prepare his congregation by announcing his retirement a year in advance. Then he valiantly tried to stay out of the search process. The young assistant rabbi tried to hold the community together in what was expected to be a yearlong transition. The congregation carefully picked a search committee. That team faithfully met, pondered, and reviewed résumés. Candidates came and went. Denominational leaders presented lists of approved candidates and sought to protect both synagogue and rabbis.
The results of the first year were disappointing. Few candidates seemed worthy of an interview. One “great candidate” raised the search committee’s hopes, but then had second thoughts and withdrew. The search process came up empty, and the congregation started over again.
Meanwhile the remaining wheels of congregational life continued to turn. Bar and bat mitzvahs, holy days, and tragedies in the lives of members did not wait for search committee action. The congregation struggled to fill its ministerial needs, bringing in an interim to supplement the work of the young assistant, who over time became—to his surprise—a candidate. Finally, the congregation made a decision—as much by default as by design. (Those who want to know the outcome must read the book.)
Glimpses of Reality
Few journalists take time to explore the day-to-day realities of congregational life. Few congregations let their lives be examined in depth as the people of Har Zion did. But on those rare occasions when storytellers and story-makers align, we see glimpses of our own reality.
Such stories raise major questions. How do we better prepare congregations for this pothole moment? How do we help congregations define their leadership needs more clearly? How do we help search committees—often made up of people who have never been down this road—play their role more effectively? How do our denominational polities need to change if they are to support congregations through decision-making processes quite unlike those for which the polities were designed? Answers to these questions—and others—are essential if our congregations are to be vital and if our leaders are to thrive.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.