Rabbis can make or break a congregation. In fact the same rabbi at one stage that helps make a congregation successful can later find himself or herself the source of congregational contention. Dr. Bob Karasov, is a physician with extensive training in adaptive leadership. Bob has spent a lifetime of volunteer service to the Jewish community in Minneapolis and beyond, and is currently a president of a congregation considering a search for a full-time rabbi. As many rabbis are now considering a move to a new congregation, and many congregations are exploring the possibilities of changing rabbis, his insights are especially timely and universally applicable for rabbis, congregational presidents and members of rabbinical search committees. Bob also has an essay in my recently published book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, and you can read his outstanding essay that explores this and other topics in much greater depth.
Reflections by Dr. Bob Karasov, President of Darchei Noam Congregation, Minneapolis, MN
At Darchei Noam Congregation, where I am president, we are trying to decide whether to hire a full time, in town rabbi, or continue with our current model of an out of town rabbi who comes monthly. Members in favor of a full time rabbi are looking for spiritual growth, both as individuals and as a congregation, increased learning opportunities and growth in membership. Members opposed fear losing our lay led feeling, worry that a rabbi could be divisive and worry about hiring someone who is the wrong philosophical fit for our modern Orthodox shul. We were a breakaway 10 years ago because of rabbinic dissatisfaction at another shul and there is great fear of history repeating itself.
Passions on this issue run high. People fear losing what they love. No one answer will satisfy everyone.
This is an example of an adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges cannot be fixed by authority figures. If I, as president, ram through what I want, the congregation will become polarized and I will become the focus of anger. People look to leaders for guidance and to fix things, but adaptive problems can’t be fixed by leaders. The leader can only raise the issues, orchestrate the conflict, force people to face the competing values, which all have merit, and collectively reach a conclusion which usually involves some people giving up some of their cherished ideals. Leaders can also provide vision and make it safe for people to express their views.
Rabbis and congregations face adaptive challenges all the time. In fact, new rabbis are often hired because there is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Usually, there are factions left over from the prior rabbi. New rabbis are often ill-equipped to deal with these issues as rabbinic education typically focuses on the technical aspects of being a rabbi. There are many technical problems that require an expert to fix them. Clearly, rabbis need that expertise, becoming the expert in Halacha, TaNaCh and ritual, to name a few. Rabbis frequently play the role of sage one the stage and trusted advisor.
But in today’s society, people no longer defer to authority the way they once did. For rabbis to be successful, they need training in how to exercise leadership with adaptive problems. And, the most difficult adaptive challenges leaders must face, are their own internal ones. Rabbis and all leaders need to develop self-awareness to recognize these internal adaptive challenges and how they contribute to the problem at hand.
How are their actions driven by their need for power, control, or the need to be loved? Most people become rabbis because they want to help people and make the world a better place. When congregants come to rabbis for help or to fix things, rabbis can easily be seduced by these drives and set themselves up for failure. Then the rabbi, and what they did wrong, becomes the focus, rather than the problem he/she was trying to fix.
You have all lead groups through adaptive challenges. Rabbi Jeffrey Brown describes it in his article about intermarriage (in Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education). It is somewhat intuitive. But like everything else, some do it better than others. I teach adaptive leadership in the Physician Leadership College at St Thomas University to Drs. who are already in leadership roles. Our goals are to create capacity in them to exercise adaptive leadership, to build an educational framework so that they can better observe what is happening, interpret the situation and intervene successfully, and finally to build resilience because leading through adaptive challenges is hard, and the leader is under a lot of pressure to fix things and lower the stress. This model could work well for rabbis as well.
Teaching rabbis to recognize which problems are technical and which are adaptive and learn how to guide their congregations and themselves through adaptive challenges, will lead to happier and more successful rabbis and congregations.