8 Tips for Managing Your Congregation’s Rabbinic Transition

January 4, 2016Rabbi Janet Offel

At some point, every congregation faces a time of rabbinic transition – and the process is inevitably an emotional one.

As author William Bridges notes in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, those undergoing such a change will have to say goodbye to what used to be and then experience a neutral phase before they can embark on a new beginning.

In a synagogue, congregants are likely to progress differently through the phases of transition.

For some, the transition will bring about hopeful feelings of welcoming a new rabbi; others will face the sadness of saying goodbye to the previous rabbi; and still others will find themselves uncertain about the whole thing, lingering in a neutral phase between the two.

How can congregational leaders effectively manage these various emotions?

The following tips include insight from David Goldman, executive director of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA, and a former lay leader who served as co-chair of the congregation’s rabbi search, and Connell Saltzman, past president of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO, and a past co-chair of its senior rabbi search committee. Together, we presented a session at the 2015 URJ Biennial about important lessons we’ve all learned about the rabbinic transition process.

  1. Try to plan as early as possible. This is, of course, easier to do when the outgoing clergy member gives ample notice (more than one year is ideal), allowing congregational leaders to start planning for the transition far in advance. When talking to your rabbi about retirement, be gentle but try to set a date well in advance. Taking this emotional conversation off of the table will assist in a smooth transition in the final years.
  2. Embrace opportunities during transition. A rabbinic transition can provide the opportunity for new beginnings, so allow the congregation to reflect about what has been going well in addition to exploring areas for growth. Consider utilizing facilitated focus groups and well-designed surveys, and include the conclusions in your search committee’s deliberations. You might find that some of the issues can be addressed immediately, while others are included in strategic planning for the future. 
  3. Involve senior staff and other clergy in the transition. It’s important to involve key congregational players in the transition, and communicating frequently about how the process is progressing will both foster buy-in and help the congregation deal with emotions related to the transition. This includes offering senior staff, other clergy, and key congregational stakeholders (such as past presidents and/or major donors and the synagogue’s board) the opportunity to meet finalist candidates when they come for their onsite visits. You’ll also want to provide plenty of opportunities to say goodbye to the outgoing rabbi and to meet the incoming one.
  4. …but don’t involve senior staff and other clergy as members of the search committee. Involving key stakeholders in the process does not mean that they should be a part of the search committee! Staff shouldn’t be in a position to hire their own boss – but their insights can be helpful as the final decision is being made. Create opportunities for the finalists to meet individually with key staff members during their visits. After all, they’re the ones who will be working with the new rabbi day in and day out.
  5. Find the balance between old and new: When Temple Emanuel’s beloved rabbi retired, congregational leaders wanted to maintain his institutional knowledge but also avoid making their new rabbi feel like he was in the shadows of his predecessor. Their strategy during the first year was to prioritize their new rabbi’s introduction to and engagement in the congregation; during the second year, the new rabbi became more engaged with the large metropolitan community. The retiring rabbi remained available to answer questions but did so in a low-key, non-public way; he also started stepping out of most lifecycle events, aside from funerals, and including the new rabbi whenever possible so that families could establish a relationship for the future.
  6. Don’t leave relationship-building to chance. Relationship-building takes time and effort, so you can’t expect congregants, staff, or leaders to feel an instant connection to the new rabbi; you’ll need to invest energy into making these connections happen. Make a point to facilitate team-building exercises within the leadership and to create engagement opportunities for the entire congregation.
  7. Meet people where they are. Not everyone will be on the same page about the change, and transition isn’t about changing people’s minds. The transition leaders’ job is to let staff, clergy, lay leaders, and congregants know that their voices are being heard and to help them to become comfortable with the change over time.
  8. Turn to a professional. Is your congregation undergoing a clergy transition? The Central Conference of American Rabbis and American Conference of Cantors provide free placement services to URJ member congregations, and the URJ’s transition management directors are available to assist congregations through the journey of clergy transition.

Daphne Macy, URJ communications associate for strengthening congregations, contributed to this post.

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