Sacred Partnerships: One Key to Successful Small Groups

Inside Leadership

Sacred Partnerships: One Key to Successful Small Groups

Pair of hands holding a row of paper dolls in shadow in front of bright sunshine

It’s a Wednesday morning at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX, and five people are crammed around a table in the rabbi’s office for a meeting of what has become a kind of weekly small group gathering of the Sh’ma Emanu-El’s senior leadership team. Sh’ma Emanu-El is our congregation’s small group initiative and the leadership team includes the chair and chair-elect of Sh’ma Emanu-El, the staff and clergy liaisons, and our board vice president.

We begin with a 10-minute check-in, chatting about aging parents, defiant teens and toddlers, “frazzle factors,” and more before moving on to the agenda. Usually we spend half the remaining time on logistics and upcoming meetings, and the other half exploring big questions and ideas. The sacred partnership among the lay leaders, professionals, and clergy who spearhead our congregation’s work around small groups has proven to be a fundamental element of the groups’ overall success.

Small groups have existed at Temple Emanu-El since we partnered with the URJ and with three other congregations several years ago to define a new strategy and vision for congregational life. Although a sense of teamwork and collaboration has always been embedded in Temple Emanu-El’s culture, with more than 2,500 member units, congregants sometimes can feel adrift. We created Sh’ma Emanu-El as a way for members to more easily connect and engage with other people within the synagogue community.

Generally, small groups include at least three people (and no more than 20) who commit to meeting regularly and are open to exploring different opinions and experiences, so it isn’t necessary to have a large congregation for a successful small groups initiative. As the pace of our lives has become increasingly intense and our world increasingly polarized, small groups serve as a sacred anchor and connector through which members can discover commonalities and embrace diversity.

From its start, Sh’ma Emanu-El has been successful because of the sacred partnerships that exist on the senior leadership team that guides the initiative. Here are several reasons for this success: 

  1. Our team includes clergy, staff, and lay leaders. We intentionally committed to such a leadership structure to develop a balanced approach to starting and nurturing small groups in our congregation. We realized that small groups are developed through a careful, consistent practice that involves listening, honesty, compassion, flexibility, and letting go.
  1. We view our different backgrounds and experiences as an advantage. As new phases and challenges emerge within our small groups, we on the leadership team continually are reminded that our varied backgrounds, talents, and skills enhance our efforts. For example, when we recently discussed a small group that was struggling, the rabbi approached the situation from a pastoral standpoint; one lay leader reflected as a therapist; and another drew from her corporate background. Although we debated and expressed our views passionately, no one voice dominated the conversation, and eventually, we found our way to consensus and agreement. The decision we reached about next steps reflected our recognition that any novel approach results from diverse ideas and perspectives.
  1. Each of us belongs to a small group. As members of the leadership team, we try to refine and expand best principles for healthy groups through our own interactions on the team. As members in other small groups, we try to model behavior that reflects these best principles and view our fellow members as sacred partners.

Healthy groups continually seek balance, and balance is precisely what the blend of staff, clergy, and lay leaders brings to our leadership team. Just as it takes all of us to build a bridge from one person’s isolation and pain to the embrace of an accepting community, so too must the work of building small groups be done collaboratively by a leadership team whose members bring diversity to the task. This sense of teamwork and collaboration is deeply embedded in our congregation’s culture. In fact, even this blog post was written by us together, sitting around the table munching salad and Hershey’s kisses.

Rabbi Kimberly Herzog Cohen is one of the spiritual leaders at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. She is clergy liaison to Sh’ma Emanu-El, Temple Emanu-El’s small group initiative. Barbara Hyman is the former chair of Sh’ma Emanu-El and a member of Temple Emanu-El’s executive committee.

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