How to Identify and Train Emerging Leaders at Your Congregation

Among the many responsibilities of lay leaders, cultivating a pipeline of vibrant, knowledgeable leaders is one of the most central.

LightbulbsBy Jason Fenster and Karen Sirota

In recent years, a number of studies have explored the benefits of dedicated leadership programs. In the corporate world, studies have shown that more than one-third of new hires have had little or no training, and nearly 20 percent of employees who quit within the first six months said it was because they didn’t receive sufficient training.

It’s a cautionary tale for the synagogue world, too.

Among the many responsibilities of lay leaders, cultivating a pipeline of vibrant, knowledgeable leaders is one of the most central – and ensures a worthy legacy. It leads to seamless leadership transitions and helps ensure the vitality of the congregation’s future.

We at the URJ have spent several months working with congregations of all sizes to learn more about their leadership programs and hearing from others about their interest in creating one. Our research and congregational conversations taught us that these principles are important when training leaders:

Congregational leadership is a sacred task.

A synagogue leadership development program must continuously and intentionally emphasize what it means to be a Jewish leader, including how to fuse both the spiritual and practical, and how to connect to the sacredness of our work. Curriculum should be infused with references and thoughtful opportunities that ground the work in our historic traditions, guided by our sacred texts.

For example, “Leading with a Jewish Heart,” a program developed by Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, has used a triangular model to underscore their sacred work. The base forms the Jewish values, and the core beliefs, group processes, institutional knowledge, and systems information radiate outward from that base.

Another great example is Atidaynu (Future Leaders), the leadership training and development program at Temple Sinai in Atlanta, GA. The program includes a hands-on examination of the congregation’s Torah scroll to connect participants to its history and teachings, nuances of the scribe’s style, and its relation.

Essential skills and visionary leadership are both taught and modeled.

Creating effective training for congregational leaders requires a delicate balance of subjects covered. Though basic skills such as bylaws, budget, finances, governance, communication, etc. are essential, it is important to include more esoteric topics such as visionary leadership, change management, direction-setting, member motivation, etc.

It is important that the teaching of both these topic areas model effective leadership. Sessions should be carefully constructed to include pre-readings, appropriate agendas with realistic time expectations, opportunities for respectful conversation both in large and small group gatherings, and time to reflect on lessons learned. Aspects of these sessions should be later discussed to reinforce how they model good leadership.

Meaningful relationships deepen congregational engagement and commitment, making leadership a shared responsibility.

It has often been said that synagogue engagement is “all about relationships.” Connections lead to commitment and dedication to leadership, as well as to the understanding that leadership is a shared experience. At every juncture, leadership development training must include opportunities for participants to share their Jewish stories and personal reflections, and engage in small group conversations.

Atid (Future), the leadership program and part of the robust learning experience at Community Synagogue of Rye in Rye, N.Y, works to establish a trusting environment as participants share their Jewish journeys and engage in meaningful, targeted conversations. Participants establish a growing relationship with each other throughout the time spent together and the curriculum is woven into these conversations – forming connections that often last beyond the confines of the sessions.

At Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, N.J., their leadership program Hineini (“Here I Am / I Am Ready”) demonstrates the importance of relationship-building. After a casual dinner, participants share personal stories and reflections related to the topic for the evening. These interactions build important connections among participants and to the community.

Leadership development is an ongoing process that should engage all leaders at all levels.

As leaders grow into new congregational positions, they need to continue learning. A robust leadership development program must not only include key curricular elements, but opportunities to support work and deepen skillsets as they move through new areas of leadership.

In our conversations with congregational leaders, we’ve heard recurring themes: “We need to be better at developing leadership talent.” “We used to have a great program…” “Our program is tired.” “We need one, but we just don’t know where to begin.”

The most prevalent response was simply, “We need help!”

As a result, the URJ is creating a program for new and emerging leaders as part of our URJ Leadership Institute. This multi-topic curriculum will offer modules for congregations to access, modify according to their unique culture, and implement at home. We’re excited about this new program for emerging leaders, which is part of a number of offerings from the URJ designed to support congregational leaders of all levels and, hopefully, strengthen the conversation around leadership throughout our movement.

As we continue to fine-tune this initiative, we welcome your questions and comments. Soon, we’ll be inviting a small group of diverse-sized congregations to participate in a pilot program. If your congregation is interested, please let us know.

Jason Fenster is a rabbinic intern with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Leadership Institute and Karen Sirota is the URJ’s director of large congregations. They are both part of the URJ’s Strengthening Congregations team.

Cross-posted on the URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog