4 Ways to Ease a Leadership Transition in Your Congregation

June 28, 2018Rabbi Paula Feldstein

July 1st is a magical day in North American Reform congregations. If your congregation is undergoing a senior staff transition, it is likely the day you will welcome a new rabbi or cantor. New educators and executive directors often begin their term on July 1st as well. On June 30th one leader leaves, and on July 1st someone new begins.  

It sounds so simple – like flipping a switch. But is it really?  

According to William Bridges, in his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, what happens on July 1st is change. Change is the situational event in which “something old stops and something new begins.” Although change simply happens on July 1st, what is not so simple is the transition. Bridges explains that transition is the psychological process people go through from the moment they learn change will happen until they become comfortable with the new reality. Existing leaders and members – as well as your new leader – will likely go through the transition process at different speeds, experiencing many emotions. 

I remember one particular July 1st in my life very vividly. After serving as the assistant rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois for four years, I transitioned to the position of family educator. Although I was staying in the same congregation, my role and my office were changing.

As I loaded books and files from my old office onto a cart, I felt sad, even though I had wanted the change in position. I felt a sense of loss over the work I would no longer be doing. As I pushed my full cart to my new office in the education wing, I felt anxious. What would my new job really be like? Would I enjoy it as much as the old one? Had I made the right decision to change positions?

When I arrived in my new office and unloaded my belongings, my excitement grew. I was energized by thoughts about the new programs I could now create for the congregation. That was how I spent my day – up and down the hall with my belongings, and up and down with my feelings and emotions. I was experiencing all the feelings and stages of a transition at the same time: the loss of the past, the anxiety of the unknown, and the excitement of future possibilities. 

If your congregation is undergoing a major senior staff transition, the coming weeks are bound to be filled with a range of emotions for your community as well. Here are four ways to make things easier for the members of your sacred community: 

1. Meet people where they are and acknowledge the loss. 

Remember that everyone is in a different place in the transition process. The congregation’s leaders, including the search and transition team members, are probably farther ahead in embracing the change than the rest of the congregation. It’s important not to get so swept up in the excitement of welcoming the new professional that you forget or ignore those who still are struggling with the loss and anxiety associated with the transition. Be patient with people’s emotions as they process the transition and remember they don’t always take a linear course: Individuals may move back and forth through the stages of loss, anxiety of the unknown, and excitement for the future.  

2. Check in regularly with other congregational leaders. 

It’s important to keep listening to other lay and professional leaders, especially in the case of a senior rabbi transition. A new spiritual leader is a huge change for members of a congregation, but it is an even bigger change for those who work with that rabbi every day. Whether through informal conversations or scheduled meetings with staff members, it is important to keep sending the message that the transition is ongoing and it's normal for everyone to experience the stages of transition at different times.

3. Remind your community that relationship-building takes time. 

Many people feel anxious when meeting someone for the first time. This is true both for your new professional and your existing staff, lay leaders, and members. The members of the congregation may have known the departing professional for many years and it will take time to build relationships with his or her successor. Ask your community to be kind and understanding: Although they are meeting one new person, that person is trying to get to know many new people. Remind everyone to be patient and provide your community and your new professional with formal and informal relationship-building opportunities. 

4. Ensure that your search and transition teams feel celebrated and supported.

Don’t forget to acknowledge the hard work of the search and transition teams. A search process is intense and time-consuming. Members of the search team feel enormous pressure to find the “right” professional for the congregation. Make sure their hard work and dedication are celebrated. Remind your leaders not to take any complaints they hear personally. This is a critical time for the community to respect and support one another.

All transitions, and rabbinic transitions in particular, can be challenging. If your congregation is undergoing a rabbinic transition, sign up for the URJ Shallat Rabbinic Transition Program and Retreat. For additional support, please reach out to me

The URJ Shallat Rabbinic Transition Program and Retreat provide congregational presidents and their new senior or solo rabbis the opportunity to reflect on their transition process and strengthen their sacred partnership. The coming seminar will take place on March 3-5, 2019 in Houston, TX. Congregations currently welcoming a new senior or solo rabbi, or those that missed last year's seminar, are eligible.

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