Training Visionary Spiritual Leaders

Change is hard and, in most cases, institutions are resistant to deep, systemic change.

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Over the past 15 years I have been deeply involved in efforts to help synagogues and rabbis create more compelling spiritual communities. One of the patterns that I have seen again and again is where both lay leaders and rabbi are in agreement about the need for a particular change yet three years later the congregation is still in the same predicament. Institutions have built-in defaults that resist transformational change. In turn, few rabbis and lay leaders have been trained to lead and manage institutional change.

This led to the design and launch of a new program called the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) to train and support early career congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. Sponsored by Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the acronym CLI reminds us that clergy are intended to be human vessels (the Hebrew word, cli) that create sacred communities in which Jews can find meaning and purpose clei kodesh). Having just graduated our inaugural cohort there are numerous significant take-aways from the experience.

There were three stated goals of the program.

  • Voice – To help early career rabbis engage in the work of personal discovery, better identifying their particular gifts, their rabbinic calling and finding their rabbinic voice.
  • Vision – To advance the rabbi’s vision of what a vibrant, engaged spiritual community looks like so that they can help move their congregations in healthy, new directions, transforming the paradigm of their synagogues in ways that engage ever more Jews.
  • Spiritual Leadership – To provide the tools, strategy and support so that participating rabbis can become visionary spiritual leaders who have the ability to be effective change agents in their communities. Each participant works towards implementing an innovation in their respective institution that has the ability to transform the organizational culture in accordance with the vision developed in goal #2.

The Cohort

The selection process took place in the late spring of 2013. We only considered rabbis in years two to seven of their rabbinate who were either serving congregations or who were in the process of building a spiritual community. Each applicant was evaluated based on their potential to benefit from the program and also on the basis of an idea that they pitched about the kind of innovation they would like to introduce to their communities.

We placed great emphasis on diversity. We selected ten women and ten men with representation from all regions of the country. Of the twenty rabbis, ten were in solo pulpits, five were assistants working in larger congregations and five were in entrepreneurial, start-up mode, creating new kinds of spiritual community in different sections of the country. Two rabbis pulled out of the program approximately six months in. They found the time demands of the program too great for them to manage with their other professional and personal commitments.

The bios of the eighteen rabbis who graduated the CLI program can be found at:

There were four major program elements to advance the goals of the program. Each rabbi was assigned a rabbinic mentor from a national team that we developed and each rabbi was placed in a community of practice (COP) with three of their colleagues. Rabbis met with both their COP and their mentor monthly. Participants had specific readings each month that were also connected to a certain practice related to their rabbinate. Finally, we held two multi-day retreats.

Vision and Innovation Projects

As part of the program every rabbi developed a vision statement for their rabbinate as well as an innovation project idea that had the potential to dramatically change the organizational culture of the synagogue which the rabbi led. While we did not expect the vision statement to change much over time, we fully expected that the innovation project would. Indeed, the first year of CLI bore that out. Because change is hard and, in most cases, institutions are resistant to deep, systemic change, the support structures of CLI were designed to accommodate this reality. Conversations that took place in the Communities of Practice, with mentors and with me were all designed to help rabbis navigate the realities of leading bold, organizational change within their communities.

As expected, the nature of the innovation differed based on the setting in which each CLI rabbi was working. Those rabbis who were engaged in starting communities from scratch were inclined to put into place systems that helped move their fledgling start-ups to a place of stability and sustainability. The rabbis who served as assistants in larger congregations were more inclined to take on an innovation that affected one area of congregational life over which they had responsibility (e.g. the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program). The rabbis who had their own pulpits were able to think more broadly about an innovation that cut across several areas of congregational life.

One of the major “learnings” in the inaugural cohort of CLI was that the outcome of the two year attempt to introduce an innovation project in a given community was secondary to how the process taught a rabbi how to take on the role of change agent. We helped rabbis navigate their lay leadership, build a culture that was open to new ideas and understand that, if successful, subsequent efforts to introduce innovative ideas would be easier. We put a lot of emphasis on changing communal culture. One CLI rabbi commented: “I’d rate the outcome of my innovation project a B- but the change in communal culture at my congregation was an A+.”

We are convinced that CLI gave 18 early career rabbis the ability to understand what it takes to be visionary spiritual leaders. Many of these rabbis will move to new and larger congregations in the near future. They will bring their skill set with them and gain confidence from their ability to effect change early in their career. Those that stay in their current positions will think bigger and bolder about what is possible in spiritual communities.

Over time, CLI will not only help to seed new paradigm spiritual communities in North America but also create a cadre of visionary rabbis who will begin to influence their denominations and their rabbinic colleagues by virtue of their success at charting a new and vibrant future for the North American Jewish community.

Evaluation Data

An extensive survey instrument was developed to measure the effectiveness of the CLI program. It included 30 questions that explored the skill level of early career rabbis around leading their institutions, working with lay leaders, articulating a vision for the congregation, introducing innovative ideas and managing the complexities of organizational change. We administered the same survey at the beginning, middle and end of the two year program to chart change over time and to measure the effectiveness of the program.

Among the statements that showed the most dramatic, positive change over the two-year period of the program were the following:

  • I have a clear vision about how I’d like to change the congregation/community to make it a more vibrant and compelling spiritual institution and I am clear about how I can bring that vision about.
  • I have a good understanding of the organizational culture that motivates much behavior in my community.
  • I am willing to risk the disapproval of people in authority to do what is in the best interest of the group.
  • I have concrete ideas on how I can change the organizational culture in ways that would help the community thrive.

Because we did not want all of the data about the program’s effectiveness to depend on self-assessment by the CLI rabbis we also conducted a survey of lay leaders in each of the community’s served by the CLI rabbis. The survey was administered in May 2015, in month 23 of the 24 month program. The survey was intended to determine the extent to which a congregation benefited (or not) from their rabbi’s participation in CLI.

The three statements that garnered the most positive responses on a 1 (not at all) – 5 (very much so) scale were:

  • I have noticed that our rabbi has been clearer about putting forth a vision for our community and how s/he might move our congregation forward in the future. 4.4
  • The rabbi has set out very clear ideas of initiatives or programs that might move the congregation forward in healthy directions and has been effective in implementing those initiatives. 4.3
  • The rabbi seems more self-assured, confident and effective in working with congregational leaders. 4.4

Long-Term Impact

The stated goal of the two year CLI program is to expose rabbis to some of the most innovative ideas in the realm of synagogues and spiritual communities and then to equip them with the skills to be catalysts for healthy organizational change within their respective congregational settings. The proficiency and competence acquired by the CLI rabbis in this regard was nothing short of remarkable. The evidence of this growth is documented by the dramatic changes to the leadership skills, attitudes and behaviors of rabbis who were part of the CLI program.

Clearly, organizational change is not a hard science. Nonetheless, much of a rabbi’s success in effecting change in her/his community depends on the confidence they have in their ability to do so and, by extension, the confidence that they can instill in their lay leaders that, as the spiritual leader, s/he knows where they want to take their congregation and s/he knows how to get there. The value of the CLI program is all the more significant given the evidence from our survey data that few of these skills were learned during their time in seminary and that few of the rabbis surveyed were able to acquire these skills through post-seminary professional development programs.

At a time when the old models of synagogues are at risk and giving evidence of significant decline, CLI is training the next generation of rabbis to re-imagine Jewish spiritual communities and equipping them with the skills to create such communities. We believe that the CLI training methodology has much to offer not only rabbis at different stages of their careers but can be of great value to national synagogue unions, rabbinical organizations and federations around the country who want to insure the future vibrancy of American Jewish life.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal and the director of CLI. He is also the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD where he continues to teach and lead services. He is the author of “Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue” and “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community.”