By Gila Hadani Ward
There was a time when congregational leadership roles were clearly defined. Staff members served one role and volunteers served another. When an “expert” was needed, congregations either turned to outside consultants, or, if they were part of a denominational movement, they called the movement office to ask, “Who on your staff can work with our synagogue?”
Times have changed.
Although congregations still seek outside experts to work with congregations (and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) provides them), we also are training increasing numbers of volunteers to offer consultative service to leaders within our network of nearly 900 member congregations across North America. These volunteers are engaged members of our congregations whose backgrounds and paths to congregational leadership vary. Whether they’re congregational presidents, consultants in their professional lives, or involved in Jewish youth, education, or camping initiatives, what unites them is a love of the Reform Movement, a commitment to synagogue life, and a desire to contribute their time and talents to better our Jewish communities.
Annually, the URJ offers training for lay leaders who wish to work with congregations in different capacities. For example, some lay leaders receive training to facilitate URJ board workshops for congregations. After the training, the volunteers are matched with a congregation and spend approximately three months working exclusively with its leaders to craft a workshop or retreat tailored to the community’s specific needs. The trained volunteers then facilitate a five- or six-hour workshop on-site that focuses on topics such as clarifying board roles, defining mission and vision, enhancing volunteer engagement, and more. The volunteer facilitators’ efforts ultimately help congregations’ leaders identify and commit to action steps for the short- and long-term future.
Like other initiatives led by URJ-trained volunteers, URJ board workshops successfully help congregations not only meet their objectives for the session, but also craft plans for their future. In addition, congregations’ leaders benefit from the personal attention they receive from their facilitator, and understand that, in fact, it is the URJ that provides this valuable attention.
Lay leaders’ work as facilitators in the congregational arena negates long-held assumptions about volunteers, reshapes our work with them, and offers these other important lessons, too:
- Experts are not necessarily “people you pay.” The URJ regularly draws on the talents and expertise of volunteers. Not only do they possess a wealth of professional talent, but they also bring years of volunteer experience in synagogue life to the table – as congregational presidents, board members, and people committed to Jewish causes.
- Volunteers are accountable and can maintain the quality control an organization expects. In our work, expectations are clear for both lay leaders and professionals, and are outlined and detailed before volunteers “sign on” for their tasks. Further, volunteers are evaluated and expected to participate in ongoing learning and training, creating accountability like what is expected of staff members performing similar tasks. As part of the process, our volunteers are paired with a coach, who guides them through the various aspects of their responsibility. The coach also serves as a sounding board and a “critical friend,” who provides constructive feedback. This guidance, like support provided to professional staff, also helps ensure lay leaders have the tools to deliver at the level the organization expects.
- A rich lay–staff partnership is critical to the success of our work. We know the synergy between professional staff and volunteers is extremely important to synagogues, and our first-hand experience reinforces this assumption. According to Stephen Dobbs, Gary Tobin, and Zev Hymowitz in their study, “The Development of Professional Leadership in the Jewish Community,” “Professional staff and lay leaders and volunteers commit themselves to a shared vision, partnership and an effective working relationship. Both parties regard the other with respect and understanding of their respective roles in the organization and the community. Work gets done without irritating concerns about who is in charge or who gets credit because the common good requires and enlists everyone’s participation and contribution.”
Increasingly, Reform congregations are benefiting from the knowledge of wise, energetic, and hard-working lay leaders. We have tapped into the expertise and experience of Reform Movement volunteers not only as URJ Board Workshop facilitators, but also as Membership Engagement Ambassadors, leaders of URJ Communities, and mentors for the URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project. These partnerships enable us to strengthen Jewish communities further and build congregations that transform the lives of the people who encounter them, ultimately moving us closer to creating a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice.
Gila Hadani Ward is the director of lay resources, part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Strengthening Congregations team.
Cross-posted on the URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog