My clients know I was a business executive before I was a congregational consultant, so when I arrive at a synagogue to teach a workshop it is not uncommon for the treasurer to corner me in the hall and say, “Thank God you’re here. I’ve been trying to convince this group that the synagogue needs to be run like a business, and I know you understand how important business is.” Later, in the workshop, this same treasurer often appears crestfallen when I announce that the synagogue is not, in fact, a business. However, I quickly offer a clarification that relieves that disappointment. “The synagogue is not a business,” I say, “but it is in great need of the skills and tools that many business leaders have. It is in great need of leadership and management. It is in great need of financial planning, operational procedures, human resource development, and marketing. It must work with these tools in the context of the congregation’s tradition to create a unique synagogue leadership agenda. Synagogues may not have the time, skills, or resources to do exhaustive strategic planning, but they will find it helpful to develop some basic strategic working ideas.”

The way I help synagogues to do this developed out of my own experiences in both lay leadership and family business. As a lay leader, I had an idealistic vision that synagogues could be very transformational. My own experiences, however, had been disappointing. Using what is known as “action research,” I tested out a number of different theories about why. I learned a great deal from my experimentation—much of it coming as a surprise.

Synagogues, I came to discover, are substantially less equipped to vision than we were in my family’s business. For all of our conflicts, we were usually on the same page. We knew each other and our history. We had shared incentives to do well. When I began to look at the synagogue, however, I realized that people in this setting often did not share the same history. They were not on the same page. For instance, interviews with groups of congregational leaders revealed that few of their congregations were doing any ongoing leadership development. Even fewer were doing visioning and planning. As a practical matter, some congregations would not have the time or energy for extensive planning. They would be able to manage a program of no more than two or three sessions. Others would be at a critical stage where they needed to invest 12 to 18 months in building a consensus about the future. They would need a process that could hold a visioning group together through the extensive planning steps.

These and other insights gained through my work with synagogues over the last four years ultimately led to the development of the following 12 “guiding principles,” which provide the foundation for a book I am writing called The Synagogue Leadership Agenda.

Guiding Principles: The Synagogue Leadership Agenda
1. Leaders can develop shared meaning about their changing synagogue environment. A number of trends, factors, and forces are affecting Jewish life in general and synagogue life in particular, so an awareness of these trends—as well as the challenges and opportunities they represent—is essential for effective synagogue leadership.

When the Israelites were planning to enter the land of Canaan, Moses was instructed to send spies to “see what the land is, whether the land is rich or poor” (Num. 13:18-20). There is a lesson here: leaders must be aware of the “lay of the land.” In Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnum describes the current social landscape. He traces the decline of many once popular social institutions, from the bowling league to the PTA. We see this same decline in the Jewish community, which has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. In 1970 the intermarriage rate was about 17 percent. By 2000 it had risen to close to 49 percent, according to the Jewish Population Survey from that year. In the 1950s and 1960s, affiliation was at about 50 percent; today it is at about 40 percent overall, and the percentages fall into the 20s in the new Sunbelt areas of California and Florida.

Jewish life has been affected in other ways as well. In many Jewish families, both spouses are working longer hours on the job and under greater pressures. Job security is a significant concern for many of these couples because the loss of one of their incomes can place the family at risk. In addition, because Jewish families value education, they often must compete with others for homes in desirable school districts. This inflates the cost of homes and raises the percentage of family income devoted to housing costs. The cost of full Jewish “citizenship” (day schools, Jewish camps, synagogue memberships, JCC memberships, etc.) adds to Jewish families’ stress. Family discretionary time has eroded and traditional volunteerism has been impacted. There is a greater array of consumer choices for leisure time, but less time is available.

These are the well-known forces that synagogue leaders discuss in my workshops. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that the Jewish community has been extraordinarily successful. Jewish immigrants came to America for economic opportunity and political freedom. They have achieved both. Jews have prospered and gained respected positions in government, the professions, and business, and anti-Semitism has substantially declined in the 60 years since World War II.

While Jewish leaders are concerned about intermarriage, one of the reasons it is so prevalent is that non-Jews are far more accepting of Jews than they once were. Some Jews may look with nostalgia at the old pre-emancipation Jewish world of the 18th century. That was a time when Jews were more frequently on the same page, but, on the other hand, they had never been allowed to freely choose what page they wanted to be on. Today, Jews have greater access to resources of Western knowledge and commerce than they ever have before, but must relearn the skills of Jewish community building.

In recent years, Jewish knowledge has expanded exponentially. Few cities are without significant adult study opportunities, and anyone with an Internet connection can quickly access a host of Jewish Web sites offering everything from commentaries on the week’s Torah portion to essays on Jewish communal issues.

Regardless of whether a trend is positive or negative (“rich or poor”), it needs to be understood and managed. Even strengths like the Internet create challenges: How do we use this tool? How do we leverage it? How do we avoid some of the negative side effects associated with it—its impersonality and intemperate e-mail, for instance? In times of change, managing the environment takes work.

2. Synagogues can better understand the talents, interests, and needs of members. Synagogue leaders consistently tell me that they do not have a method for identifying the skills, talents, and interests of their members, nor to make appropriate leadership opportunities available to them. These assertions are supported by the findings of a 2004 Brandeis University study on the congregations of Westchester, New York, and have been echoed in other studies of volunteerism. A 2003 Urban Institute survey of volunteer management capacity among charities and congregations found that more than 40 percent of those who were no longer volunteering had withdrawn their efforts because of poor experiences they had had as volunteers. Not only has there been a decline in association, but those who have tried to “make the connection” have often been disappointed. In the Urban Institute study, volunteers reported that their volunteer tasks were often poorly designed and were inadequately supervised or supported. In addition, volunteers with little discretionary time often found the work did not meet their expectations.

The Jewish Federation in Baltimore did e
xtensive interviews with prospective leaders between the ages of 25 and 35. The following is a composite portrait of the members’ discussions:1 Interviewer: Would you consider volunteering with the federation?
Prospect: I don’t really have the time.
Interviewer: Would you consider making time for this?
Prospect: I might if the work was really important.
Interviewer: What would it mean for the work to be important?
Prospect: I would want to know that this work will make a difference. I would also want to know that the work would be a good match for my talents.
Interviewer: What else would make you consider volunteering?
Prospect: I want to have staff support so that I can be confident that the project will be a success. On the other hand, I don’t want the staff person to try to control everything. I’d want to have some autonomy.

As a former leader, my first instinct upon hearing this demanding agenda was to mutter (rather grumpily), “Is that all they want?” But if we utilize our active listening skills—and a little patience—we can gain some insights about these potential volunteers. And by listening to their thoughts we can better manage their conflicting desires, such as the need for both support and autonomy, or the desire to do important work while not spending a great deal of time on it.

3. A focus on the future can increase hope and motivation for leaders. Most planning processes identify strengths and weaknesses. They look at the gap between the leader’s expectations and congregational performance. Most congregations that agree to embark on planning feel some pressing need to invest the time and money to do so. Rob Weinberg, director of the Experiment in Congregational Education, one of several pioneering synagogue transformation projects, has discovered that the elements that create a “readiness for change” are dissatisfaction with the present, a vision of the future, a belief that change is possible, and practical first steps.

I believe a positive vision of the future is instrumental in increasing the belief that change is possible. The belief that change is possible reinforces and energizes the ability to vision. For this reason, when leaders are overly focused on “gaps and deficits,” congregational planning will be weakened. Most congregational leaderships excel in certain areas (sermons, social action, facility, board, etc.). Part of the art of planning is to review the congregational landscape and to bring these various strengths into focus and inspire hope. The biblical spies who were sent to do reconnaissance of the promised land of Canaan were encouraged to “take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:17). God knew that leaders needed to promise a sweet future to help sustain the people’s hopes.

4. Synagogue leaders can be more strategic by doing leadership tasks. Alban Institute research has shown that most clergy and lay leaders are tactical and managerial rather than strategic or transformational thinkers. Although strategic skills are not common, they are critical in times of change, according to leadership expert and Harvard professor John Kotter. Strategic planning skills help leaders overcome their internal focus, learn from the changing environment, and manage the inefficiencies of the synagogue organization.

A successful planning model must simplify the process enough to ensure that the volunteer organization can be success-ful with strategic work. (Remember our volunteer prospects’ desire to be certain their projects would succeed).

While it is clear that strategic thinking is important today, the history of strategic and long-range planning in congregations is mixed. It is not uncommon for congregations to do facility planning with a fundraising consultant in preparation for a capital campaign. In this case, planning is tied to a very concrete goal. But when congregations face size transitions, changes in demographics, cultural changes, increased diversity, or generational changes, they are less likely to see these as planning opportunities. Elite and relatively small leadership groups have sometimes gone through reflection and written plans only to find that their plans are never implemented. Sometimes this is because of the way in which the plans were written; a new synagogue visioning and planning process must be able to translate abstract ideas about values and strategic goals into specific actions that can be tracked and implemented.

Judaism argues that we get major insights about God, holiness, and righteousness by “doing” things. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people answer God’s challenge by saying “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear [understand]” (Exodus 24:7). We comprehend the abstract by doing the concrete—observing mitzvot (commandments). One of the ways leaders can attain such qualities as credibility, integrity, authenticity, and foresight is by “doing leadership tasks.” When leaders look at their environments, convene important conversations with volunteers, and encourage them to think about the future, these individuals begin to shift to a strategic leadership mind-set.

5. Consultants and facilitators can help increase the perceived value of volunteerism. Consultants and facilitators can be helpful (okay, I’m a little biased) in creating a sense of urgency by identifying areas of concern. They can help maintain momentum and energy by helping planning leaders imagine a promising future. They can also overcome the disruption in the process when certain events take center stage, or when leadership changes leave the board with a short-term deficit of energy.

In my work with synagogues I may have a group of 50 planners working for a minimum of 25 volunteer hours over a 12- to 15-month initial planning process. In such situations I have found it helpful to build a model of the cost of their effort. If we figure an average cost of $50 per hour, we are talking about a personal investment of about $1,250 per volunteer, or more than $62,500 in collective volunteer time. What is going to make such a significant contribution worthwhile to the volunteers involved in the effort? As we learned earlier, volunteers want to make a difference, do important work, and use some of their higher-order professional skills. When synagogues use facilitators to help institute effective volunteer processes, they can increase volunteer satisfaction in leadership work and increase expectations for volunteer effectiveness.

6. Teamwork is an essential synagogue skill. Contemporary organizational experts emphasize the importance of building more effective teams. The Center for Creative Leadership called teamwork “the most frequently valued managerial competence,” and, according to John Seely Brown, head of Xerox’s Research Park, “If you ask successful people, they will tell you that they learned the most from and with each other.”3

Synagogues have diverse members, so their leadership needs to reflect this diversity. Members can learn from each other if their talents are meshed with a worthwhile mission and team-building processes. Teamwork reduces the barriers to volunteer effectiveness.

7. Synagogue change requires a guiding coalition to ensure a “critical mass” for action. One of the problems with strategic planning efforts by long-range planning groups is that they may create a document that has little “buy in.” In an era of declining volunteerism, planning efforts need to create new energy and momentum. If only eight people go into the board room and “knock the plan out,” who will implement it? How will this work engage new leadership prospects? The top complaints of core leaders are “we cannot engage new leaders” and “we feel burned out.” How does the work of a small elite planning group change that dynamic? Effective leadership development and change management will involve a wide
array of current and potential leadership to build a critical mass for change.

8. Leadership approaches need to be experiential to engage and value the adult learner. How do adults learn something new? It helps if they enter a learning process that is well-structured, with a clear overview of the work ahead. Adults are energized, according to Malcolm S. Knowles, author of The Adult Learner, when they are able to apply their life experiences and professional expertise to their new congregational work. Leaders need to assure adult learners that their experience will be valued.

Successful leadership development processes involve the creation of small groups where individuals can bounce ideas off each other and gain an appreciation for one another’s contributions. These processes create spaces for volunteers to be heard and help them learn to hear others better.

9. Jewish values can inspire new leaders. When boards are too tactical they often fail to define and communicate the board’s essential mission, values, and strategies. They may fail to get the clergy and other staff involved in designing a synagogue leadership agenda. It is popular today to remind board members that their tactical managerial efforts are sacred work because they serve a sacred purpose. Unfortunately, if the board’s culture and processes look like any other secular task, the idea of the management of the sacred can look…well…quite secular. A five-minute dvar Torah (text commentary), however well-intended, does not transform board workers into a dynamic leadership community. The whole design of the board’s work needs to be reviewed.

Hildy Gottlieb, president of Help4Nonprofits & Tribes, writes in her online article “10 ‘Stop’ Signs on the Road to Board Recruitment”4 that too many boards try to get out of trouble by recruiting new members. She argues that organizations need to have a good product before they can promote it. When boards lack a vision, shared values, and goals, it’s hard to convince prospects that sitting on the board is a great—let alone sacred—volunteer opportunity.

When a board has dysfunctional conflicts, poor lay staff relationships, and few policies, it is simply not ready to recruit the kind of talent it needs. Clarifying Jewish values and behavioral expectations for leaders can help reduce board conflict and inspire volunteerism.

10. Volunteer management systems can help recruit, assign, and assess talent. Some observers emphasize the importance of recruiting people with natural leadership qualities. I agree that talent matters, but the synagogue is not like corporate America. Some leadership positions will be occupied by major givers, longstanding past leaders, and loyal workers of modest ability, many of whom may lack a capacity for change.

Leaders sometimes survey their memberships to “find out what programs they want,” then initiate the most commonly mentioned ideas. To their surprise, few members respond. How can this be? What makes a program compelling? Yes, content matters, but people matter more. Megachurch leader Rick Warren has argued that he looks for leaders first and ministries second. If he has a leader, the leader will drive a ministry. He or she will find a way. This sentiment is echoed by management scholar Jim Collins, who contends that if one has the right people on the bus “it matters less if the bus has to change directions.”5

I start leadership development groups by asking participants why they have agreed to participate. They seldom site philosophical or intellectual (content) reasons. They come because someone they respect has volunteered in the past or asked them to help now. The right people asked.

The synagogue will often need to work with people who are not natural leaders. Ronald Heifetz, co-founder and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, has argued that leaders can be developed by doing leadership tasks. Among the most important of these tasks are recruiting talented people and finding the right work for them. Sometimes, Collins says, leaders must stop trying to put a square block into a round hole. Part of creating a great team is working to make sure people have the right assignments, ones that utilize their gifts.

Finding the right assignment for volunteers is a core Jewish value. In his “Eight-Step Ladder” of Tzedekah (righteous deeds), 12th-century Jewish philosopher, scholar, and leader Maimonides offers a spiritual hierarchy of acts that move up a ladder (sulam) to the most selfless of deeds. One of the highest forms is to empower others to take care of their own needs. The Gallup Organization, which had undertaken an extensive 25-year research project involving more than 80,000 managers, reported in 1999 that their research indicated that one of the qualities of great supervisors was that they focused on supporting and developing their employees’ strengths. They made this a priority rather than always trying to “fix” employees’ weaknesses. Most adults, they found, have a limited potential to change their weaknesses. Leaders can strive to make a “good shittac” (match) between a prospect’s strengths and the volunteer work available.

11. Synagogues can be more efficient. They can learn from business and other nonprofit organizations. Susan Shevitz, associate professor and director of Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service, has described synagogues as pluralistic, diverse, voluntary, and loosely coupled. All of these qualities make it harder to be “on the same page.”6 Shevitz also notes that synagogues keep poor records and have few written agreements. Even when they try to get people on the same page, they often fail to record the agreements, communicate them to others, or ensure a transition of their agreements from one president to another, let alone from generation to generation.

Synagogues operate in the fast-changing world of American culture. As organizations, they must compete for the hearts and minds of their members in a world of dizzying choices and constant innovation. Facing these challenges requires an external orientation and focus, one that looks for successful practices in other organizations. Organizations with this kind of focus look to benchmark or compare their own practices with the best practices of others.

12. Leadership development programs can reinforce and integrate leadership learning. Boards often allocate training to a half-day workshop every two or three years. In these settings they learn a few new ideas and do a little planning, and there are usually some exhortations to take a fresh look at the “sacred work” of congregational governance. Though well-intended, these workshops are usually too limited to make much of an impact on the synagogue culture. Church consultant Thomas Holland argues that exhortations to improve board attitudes and performance are largely unsuccessful. What he believes works is changing what board members do.

Synagogue leadership is an ongoing challenge. New leaders must be oriented every year. Boards need to do major teambuilding every three to five years. Even if they have an exciting vision or a charismatic period of leadership, they must keep reviewing and integrating that vision. In our tradition, Isaac follows his charismatic father Abraham (Gen. 26) and finds that he has to re-dig the wells his father dug before. In order to unleash the life-giving energy from the wells, they must be reworked. The agenda outlined in this article helps remind congregational leaders to redig those wells.

Questions for Reflection 

  1. How could you increase the shared meaning about the congregation within your leadership group?
  2. How are you “throwing out the net” to identify new leadership prospects?
  3. What kinds of learning activities could you plan to help your leadership be more strategic this year?
  4. Who are the people with the right talent and commitment that you could recruit to help build the congregational leadership agenda?
  5. What resources are available to help facilitate these activities?




1. Based on the author’s review of the focus group’s comments.
2. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), 202.
3. Hildy Gottlieb, “10 ‘Stop’ Signs on the Road to Board Recruitment,” Help4NonProfits and Tribes, (Resolve, Inc., 2003;
4. Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).
5. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
6. Shevitz, Susan, “An Organizational Perspective on Changing Congregational Education: What the Literature Reveals” from A Congregation of Learners, ed. Isa Aron, Sarah Lee, and Seymour Rossel (New York: UAHC Press, 1995).