Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Keeping shuls from eating their rabbis

Back in May I wrote a post, “Why shuls eat their rabbis,” on the tendency of congregations to consume their rabbis (with or without ketchup, even on Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av).

I have since followed up, within a group of rabbis, regarding some ideas of what rabbis might do to mitigate the problems inherent in the rabbi-congregation relationship. My list of ideas was popular enough that I will present an updated version here:

1) Make sure the shul membership and board are clear on the rabbi's job description.
This may be done with a clearly-written contract, with shul surveys and questionnaires, and with personal conversations, among other means.

A few years ago I felt my board wasn't presenting a clear sense of my job. I distributed a survey at a board meeting, listing a dozen different scenarios from different aspects of shul life, and asking them to prioritize what they felt should, and should not, be the rabbi's job. The results were enlightening for me.

2) Stoop to PR
Rabbi, remember! The shul at large doesn't see what you do. Even individuals often don't see what you do for them, as individuals.

Rabbis (not me, but others) are often so good at what they do, that they make it look easy. People don't see the time spent preparing a shiur or derashah, or arranging a shidduch, or quelling a dispute, or counseling a troubled teen, or visiting a prison, etc.

The answer may be to do a little subtle PR, letting people know (in general, without specifics) what's going on. I strongly dislike doing this, finding it both distasteful and self-serving, but sometimes a little PR is necessary.

3) Do what they recommend

Situation: A committee/individual makes a recommendation for a program, or a way to approach something in davening, or a way to address a community need, and the rabbi feels another way would be better. Sometimes that rabbi and congregant have entirely different agenda. So the rabbi does what he thinks is right.

The rabbi is often right, but people grow bitter if they think the rabbi isn't listening to them.

I know that I have a tendency to want to do things my way; something in me rebels automatically when I am told, "You should visit X" or "You should do it this way," particularly because congregants are often not tactful in making those suggestions. But - when I am in a good frame of mind - I swallow that rebellion, listen, and sometimes even try the suggestion despite being certain it won't work.

Note: Of course, congregants sometime expect unreasonable things, and yes, the rabbi must say No. Hopefully, though, the rabbi will have a strong Yes background against which the No will be viewed.

4) Help congregants see the big picture

Shul members, including the president, don't "live" the shul in the way that the rabbi does. The shul occupies only a small portion of their activities, let alone attention. The result is that they often don't think about the chesed and shiurim and minyanim and maintenance issues and kitchen issues and so on. They likely don’t even know many of the members.

Find ways to bring people in on what’s happening beyond their personal space, so that they will be aware of the life of the Shul, its needs and demands. This is not about PR for the rabbi, but PR for the shul itself.

5) Remember that you are a hired hand
Keeping this in mind might help a rabbi hold on to his sanity.

To some people in a shul, everything the rabbi does is automatic and required, because he is paid. A volunteer who puts in two hours for the weekly kiddush or comes to a weekly meeting and makes phone calls is doing more than a rabbi who puts in 80 hours per week, because the rabbi is drawing a salary for his time.

And there is truth to this view. Granted that the rabbi will never be compensated for the extra work he puts in, he signed on for this job of his own free will. He competed against other candidates for it, and negotiated a contract to do it. It’s hardly fair for him to expect to be honored as a volunteer, granted all of his extra work.

Hopefully, the rabbi who keeps this in mind will maintain realistic expectations.

Those are some things that rabbis can do to avoid strife. Now: What can congregants do toward the same end?


  1. If you can get the shul to agree to a realistic description (not-we know it when we see it)

    She-nir'eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu


  2. Joel-
    I believe it can be done, in general terms.

  3. This really is an excellent post and important for people in all sorts of positions.

    I'm sure you love to be tagged.

  4. can you post a copy of the survey that you distributed? id find it very helpful

  5. Ugh. I'm reading this and thinking: What kind of rabbi are you? Also: What kind of congregation do you have?

    No offense, but this makes me glad I didn't go into the rabbinate.

  6. CJ-
    Thanks for commenting. I'm guessing you didn't look at the post I referenced here, "Why shuls eat their rabbis."

    I wrote there:
    Thank Gd and thank the good people of my community, we don’t have that nonsense here (for the most part, anyway; there's always one or two), and I appreciate it. I think it’s helped me do a better job; people function at a higher level, especially in a position as personal as the rabbinate, when they don’t need to constantly look over their shoulders.

    The Gotcha! game is the main reason I refused to contemplate the pulpit even as I was studying for semichah (ordination). As a teen I saw a significant number of communities where the game was played, where rabbis were treated harshly on the basis of events that did not reflect the majority of their work, or even as a result of simple mistakes. Shuls would eat their rabbis.

  7. Muse-
    Thanks, and thanks for the tag. I hope to get to it eventually...

    I hear. Maybe next week; we'll see.

  8. what a great way of putting it..."shuls eating their rabbis"....but now that i live in Australia, it is the other way around...all the rabbi has to do is whisper to himself in the middle of the night, some outlandish idea for a project and miraculously the Board will vote to fully fund it. "the rabbi knows best..." is always their answer, even if it is way obvious that he's really wrong in a particular case.