Coaching to Unlock Congregational Change

By Debra Brosan and Rebecca Missel

Synagogue leaders often focus on the necessary, day-to-day work of running a nonprofit. Making sure the budget is balanced and the facilities are maintained can crowd out more strategic thinking. At the same time, setting a grand vision and formulating a plan to achieve it may lie beyond the capacity of most synagogue teams.

Recognizing this reality, SYNERGY, a division of UJA-Federation of New York dedicated to helping synagogues thrive, has developed the Coaching Network, a new pathway of working with our New York synagogues. SYNERGY has engaged professional coaches with experience in organizational development and synagogue life, who help teams of synagogue leaders get unstuck and move into action across a range of topics.

Let’s begin with what coaching is not. Coaches do not offer solutions.

At times, it may seem easier to tell someone what to do or what they need to know. That behavior is defined as mentoring, managing/supervising or consulting. There is a misconception that coaches add value by delivering brilliant solutions. Instead, coaches ask questions to help clients unearth solutions.

Coaching is not therapy. Therapy deals with the past; coaching deals with the present and future. These boundaries can become blurred, as our past often shows up in the present. However, a coach would not delve into past to heal. Instead, coaches utilize the past as a window to inform the present and identify blocks in the way of moving forward. A client may be stuck in the present with “unfinished business” from the past. As a coach, we would ask, “How might what you are holding from the past get in your way in the present?

Though coaching is a relatively new field, it already has proven effective in enabling organizations to make adaptive changes in an increasingly fluid and dynamic world. As synagogues face challenges in maintaining what is traditional and honored while simultaneously confronting emergent models of gathering and shifting methods of engagement, coaching builds their ability to try new things, to succeed, to fail and to try again. Coaches provide the process, structure and support leaders need to be able to shift mindsets and realize new ideas.

As coaches help people, teams and congregations develop, they inherently believe those they coach have their own answers. Steeped in ideation and experimentation, the goal of coaching is to help our clients heighten their awareness of the situation and to mobilize. Deeper understanding enables greater choice points, and greater choice points create fluidity and nimbleness. Coaches nurture safe environment for our clients to try on new behaviors, explore new ways of being and experimenting.

Sometimes coaches facilitate guiding the team of clergy, staff and volunteers through the process of forming, storming, norming and performing. Other times, when teams are not functioning at their highest level, coaches may need to intervene and redirect. These relationships among team members and between the coaches and congregational leaders form the core of successful coaching and are co-created. Coaches begin each engagement by developing a shared set of terms, roles and commitments. This models effective team management for the synagogue to use in future projects.

One thing that was so important about coaching was the way our coach pointed out to us what we already do well. We had a moment when we realized that many of the things we want to evolve immediately were actually already happening organically around our institution. He made us all feel proud of the work we have done that allowed for change to start happening on every level.”
– A cantor and executive director reflecting on their coaching experience

Participating in coaching builds congregational capacity by working together on a finite, concrete project with clear goals and objectives. Often, the skills and tools developed in one area of synagogue life, such as revising by-laws, can model and duplicate the same process for convening community-wide conversations or reflecting on people’s experiences on committees. Coaching also gives congregations an opportunity to engage lay leaders with untapped potential or in new ways.

In the first year of SYNERGY’s coaching program, 30 synagogues have participated, gaining momentum to move forward on key goals.

Examples of successful coaching include

  • Becoming a welcoming congregation – When a congregation shared that they were struggling to increase membership and engagement, a SYNERGY team member recommended them for coaching. Rather than focus just on the numbers, their coach invited them to think about welcoming beyond just a tagline on a website. Through a series of conversations, the membership task force and leaders reflected on the needs of existing members, shifted to an attitude of abundance and created policies and procedures for welcoming prospective and new members. Their coach helped them consider the question, “How might we make everyone who walks through our doors feel like they matter?
  • Leadership development – A congregation wanted to create a process where lay leaders felt more comfortable leading change and where more members had access to leadership opportunities. After assessing their current systems, the coach helped the congregation identify their core strengths and use them to build a comprehensive plan and a set of recommendations for the senior rabbi and president. One of their biggest shifts was the decision that no job is done until people are thanked for their work. Together, they explored, “How might we understand the role of leadership, show gratitude and sensitively transition people from one role to the next?
  • Congregational merger – Two congregations had formally merged, selected a new name, moved into a single space and hired their first executive director. However, members still clung to their former congregational identities and struggled with issues such as where to place the yahrtzeit plaques from the congregation that had been sold. Through a series of listening sessions led by a task force from both legacy congregations, the coach helped them to fully integrate the communities and redefine roles. The listening sessions identified action items, opportunities to communicate across groups and draft a new facilities plan. The coach invited a congregation-wide conversation on, “How might we merge our cultures and start to become one community?

Is your synagogue ready for coaching?

Whether your synagogue wants to change, is stuck or frustrated, needs to engage its leaders or has a desire to innovate – coaching can help move the needle. If you can answer yes to the questions below, now might be the right time to explore coaching in your community.

  • Is there a specific issue or challenge your synagogue can identify that could benefit from coaching?
  • Can our synagogue identify a team of professional and lay leaders willing and able to lead a short-term congregational change project?
  • Does our leadership team have the time and energy to focus on a coaching engagement at this time?

Debra Brosan, MA OD, is an organizational consultant and an ICF-certified professional development coach. In addition to her work with the SYNERGY Coaching Network, Debra is the CEO of gestaltworks and a faculty member at St. Joseph’s University.

Rebecca Missel, MPP/MAJCS, helps synagogues thrive as the program manager for SYNERGY at UJA-Federation of NY. She was the founder of Jersey Tribe and was named to the Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 for her work engaging young Jewish adults.