5 Factors that Determine Your Congregation’s Readiness for Change

By Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

One of my favorite cartoons shows a speaker standing in front of a group of people. In the first frame, he asks the group, “Who wants change?” They all raise their hands. In the second frame, he inquires “Who wants to change?” This time, not a single hand is raised.

This cartoon captures an essential truth of being human: We all want change, but we usually want someone else to do it. This is true not just in our personal lives but also in congregational life. In order to bring about change in a congregation, its leaders need to be ready for it.

Over the years, as the URJ has launched new cohort-based learning opportunities, such as Communities of Practice and Active Learning Networks, one of the questions we have considered has been: When is a congregation ready for change?

Why is that an important calculation? One of the goals of URJ Communities of Practice is to bring change into a congregation in service of its larger purpose and mission. It doesn’t have to be transformational change, in which the congregation’s goals change – in many cases, it is strategic change, in which the congregation tries something new to achieve the same goals. But because part of the mission of a community of practice is to move a congregation from point A to point B, it is important that a congregation demonstrate willingness to change, and some readiness to innovate and create a culture of experimentation.

Through our work with 192 congregations that participated in URJ Communities of Practice, 100 congregations that participated in URJ Active Learning Networks, and other congregations that have inquired about participation, we have begun to identify patterns in congregations that have exemplified a readiness for change.

Our work has shown that there are five key factors to a congregation being ready for change:

1. Sacred partnership
Imagine, for a moment, a congregation in Springfield. An eager president wants to greatly expand what adult learning looks like in the congregation. Will this president be successful without partnership with her rabbi? An educator wants to make major changes to the religious school. Will this educator be successful without the partnership of the parents?

If we want change that is lasting, effective, motivating and inspiring, then it needs to be done collaboratively, with partners. In congregations led by a large clergy and staff team, that partnership needs to be with the board and other significant lay leaders. In smaller congregations without staff support, lay leaders need to work together to make the change happen. The important thing to remember – for a congregation of any size – is that in a congregation, this is a unique partnership, a sacred partnership.

2. Strong advocates
In addition to a partnership, all change needs its champions, a group of individuals who support, cheer on, and in general use their skills as advocates to promote the work or the change. Some have called this the “coalition of the willing.” These are the risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who see how things are but dream of how things could be, and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

3. Clear, missiondriven purpose
One of the questions we ask every leader in a congregation before they join a URJ Community of Practice is why. As we have learned from the leadership expert Simon Sinek, it is important that leaders ask themselves: What are they hoping to achieve? Why is this topic important to them? How does their participation in this initiative fit into their overall mission and purpose of the organization? Is it mission critical or tangential to the life of the congregation?

Those who have a clear “why” and understand how the changes they may undergo through experimentation relate to their mission are often the most successful in this work. Having a clear goal and target helps them along, especially when there are tough moments in the process.

4. Consistency in leadership
One of the lessons we learned through an independent evaluation of six of our communities of practice is that there needs to be consistent lay leadership and staff. In the words of our evaluator, Ilana Horwitz, “having staff or lay leader transitions [during a change process] is recipe for disaster.” When there is such a transition, often the new leader doesn’t yet have the strong relationships needed to manage the change, and often comes with a sharp learning curve on the topic the congregation is experimenting with.

We have seen congregations have to hit the reset button due to a leadership transition, often after months of work and experimentation. What we didn’t anticipate and what was fascinating to learn, is that because communities of practice are based on a network model of shared learning, when one congregation experienced such transitions, it affected the other congregations in the community of practice. In the other words, the strength of the network was affected, as well.

5. Stability
It is important that a congregation be on stable footing before it can contemplate change. Being in the middle of a major renovation, a construction plan, or a capital campaign is often not the right time for a congregation to dedicate additional resources to make programmatic or cultural changes.

In order to be ready for change, the congregation needs to have the right individuals, relationships, and conditions. Even then, it isn’t easy. Change is hard and often makes us afraid. But without it, we won’t succeed in adapting to new realities – the way Judaism has done so for thousands of years.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of Communities of Practice.