The Rabbi as C.E.O.: Yes or No?

Posted on: March 30th, 2009 by Hayim Herring



Rabbis often express ambivalence about their executive leadership roles.  By executive leadership roles, I’m referring to supporting the board, supervising staff, delegating work appropriately to volunteer and professional staff, playing a role in budgeting and staffing decisions at all levels, and undertaking tasks which are typically referred to as “administrative.” This ambivalence flows from several sources:

  • The rabbi’s dislike, lack of training and discomfort with these kinds of tasks.
  • Unclear boundaries between rabbi and executive director, in synagogues which have an executive or administrative director.
  • The extent of the involvement of lay leadership in operational matters relating to the synagogue, and their trust in the rabbi’s expertise and experience in these matters.

rabbi as ceo

Given these many variables, there is no one ideal, clear definition about how rabbis should assume executive leadership roles. However, one thing is certain: the rabbi should not be absent from what we typically called the administrative aspects of synagogue life.  Why?

  • Lack of involvement in these roles is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the rabbi, who is the chief professional officer of the organization. Rabbis may therefore wind up bearing the implementation of some decisions which are just plain wrong within a synagogue context.
  • We do not believe in a division between “church” (the religious) and “state” (the secular) when it comes to synagogues.  That is to say, even the business aspects of a congregation should be infused with Jewish values and sensitivities.  Those are likely to come only with rabbinic involvement.
  • The involvement of a Rabbi in these executive leadership functions often creates a vacuum of influence where people who are not properly trained or authorized wind up making decisions that lack proper process and therefore become a source of contention in the congregation.

When the synagogue has a skilled executive director, the rabbi can work with that staff person to ensure that decisions which the executive director makes come from a place of Jewish wisdom.  When a synagogue does not have an executive director or one that functions at a low level, the rabbi will have to be more involved in what he or she considers are the “mundane” aspects of synagogue life.  In either scenario, we need to abandon the distinction between the secular and religious aspects of synagogue life, or what others call the spiritual and administrative aspects of synagogue life.  These are false distinctions because ideally every aspect of congregation life should express and be shape by Jewish teachings.

Like it or not, rabbis must master the fundamentals of basic executive leadership skills.  While other members of the staff and membership may have greater expertise in these areas, the rabbi must at least have a working knowledge of how organizations function, what the role of boards and committees are and how budgets work.  Only that way does the synagogue have a chance to become a holy and holistically Jewish venue.

Most rabbis would much rather be teaching, providing pastoral counseling or studying Torah – things that the rabbi would rather do and is better trained to do.  However, I believe that neglecting the “business” aspects of the synagogue creates the likelihood of ultimate unhappiness for the rabbi because when problems result, he or she will be called in to clean them up.  So it’s better to thoughtfully and proactively define the rabbi’s role in this area than to constantly be putting out fires which could’ve been avoided in the first place.

So rabbis and synagogue leaders-you’ve had these discussions before.  What do you think?  Have your views changed over the years?  Thanks for sharing your insights.

Rabbi Hayim Herring



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