Many congregations are in rabbinic search mode this time of year. Given the instability that congregations often face, many will seek rabbis who can initiate and lead the kinds of change that will reinvigorate congregational life. The intuition of these congregations is right on target, as rabbinical leadership ultimately determines the impact and sustainability of congregational change efforts. Of course, it takes the collective effort of an inspired rabbi and excellent, focused volunteer leaders to make congregations vital. However, a rabbi’s personal and ongoing involvement is a critical and key success factor to the achievement of lasting and significant congregational change. I therefore focus on insights about rabbinical leadership that increase the likelihood of success of broad and deep congregational change initiatives.
My colleagues who have successfully transformed congregations have a repertoire of leadership stances. They practice leading in front, leading beside and leading in the middle. They move in and out of these roles as they initiate and attempt to anchor transformational change. These observations flow from my primary research on denominational and independent rabbis and congregations, a review of substantial secondary research on congregations and nonprofit organizations, scholarly literature on leadership, and extensive work with rabbis, congregations and nonprofit organizations.* While certain fundamentals of leadership are enduring, other needed attributes of leadership are emerging in today’s environment of expected transparency, immediacy of communications, disruptive technologies and the chaos they engender.
Leading in Front
Every successful change effort begins with a person’s inspirational vision and passion. An effective change mobilizer maintains the passion but seeks out a core team of people who enrich it because it resonates within them. Competent stewards of congregations and organizations invest significant energy into management, a complex set of activities and skills that include issues such as board and professional leadership development and adherence to the highest professional standards of governance. Rabbis who execute these responsibilities well are fulfilling a reasonable expectation of professionalism. But effective rabbinical change leaders view stewardship as the beginning of their work.