Failing: How and Why Your Congregation Should Embrace It

June 18, 2019Rabbi David Fine and Rabbi Esther Lederman

Many years ago, one of us (the grayer, male one) was part of a crew of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) rabbis who, on a trip to Israel organized by the UAHC, as the URJ was known at the time, met with Rabbi David Hartman, of blessed memory.

We were prepared to hear Rabbi Hartman, the leading intellectual of the Modern Orthodox movement of his time, lambaste us for a liberal attitude toward observance. Instead, he provoked us with a disarming smile and roared: “You are blessed to be part of the Reform Movement! You are not bound by halachah (Jewish law)! Experiment! Create! Bring life to the Jews!

Indeed, many of us have experimented in our congregations – reimagining financial support, building new models of engagement, forging novel paths to build Jewish families, innovating in worship. We live the principle that “reform” is more verb than noun and just as we pray, "You [God] create the world anew every day," so, too, are we free to try new things daily.

Experimentation as a lived practice can succeed only in contexts and cultures in which failure is embraced. In other words, if we want to renew and reform Judaism now and into the future, we must create congregational cultures in which failure is accepted.

How can we do that?

Although there is no secret recipe from Mt. Sinai, there are basic principles to help build such a culture:

1. Choose a mindset of abundance over scarcity.

According to innovation expert Christopher Hawker, “Abundance-based leaders… are visionary and focus on what they want to do, regardless of whether it’s currently possible…”

Instead of asking why participants aren’t attending programs, seek out and learn from areas of your organization that are working. Be appreciative. In a culture that values abundant thinking, the paralysis that often accompanies mistakes and failure is lessened. This mindset inoculates leaders from thinking “This is not possible” or “What if we fail?”

2. Recognize the risk of not acting.

Often, we hear from congregational leaders who are resistant to change that there is risk in acting. This statement is true, of course, whether renovating the sanctuary, instituting a new dues system, or revamping an educational model.

Equally true is that there is risk in not acting. What do we risk if we don’t change the way we imagine our revenue structures, if we don’t try new engagement models, if we sing the same melody for L’cha Dodi every week? As URJ Vice President for Strengthening Congregations Amy Asin writes:

To stay relevant and thrive…change will be necessary in all congregations, even those that are doing well. The pace of change in the outside world demands it…. Disruptive change allows us to compete in a world in which the current value proposition of congregations is not clear.

3. Accept that “fail” is not a four-letter word.

Think of “fail” as an acronym for “First Attempt In Learning.” Just as Yom Kippur, the most contemplative of Jewish days, is dedicated to learning from our past mistakes and failures, so, too, is it a day marked by hope as we commit anew to change in the year ahead. As we recognize, embrace, and learn from our failures, so do our congregations need to do likewise. When we – personally or within our congregations – try something new that doesn’t work, we always learn something valuable from it, pick ourselves up, and try again.

4. Build psychological safety in congregational teams.

In 2015, Google released results of a two-year study about team performance. As the Harvard Business Review reported, the study:

revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off – just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

To build psychological safety, the article suggests that teams replace blame with curiosity, ask for feedback, and approach conflict with others by being collaborative, not adversarial. Teams of synagogue professionals, clergy, and lay leaders that prioritize these behaviors have a greater likelihood for success – precisely because they are embracing failure.

So, the next time your congregation’s leaders fear failure when trying something new, remind them what we know from when the Israelites stood at the Sea of Reeds: That moment of paralysis and fear required a group of us to step forward into the water. To escape Egypt and become free people required us to overcome our fear– and take a risk. We, the Jewish community, have always been creative during challenging times. It’s how we’ve evolved, helping us to thrive for generations – and will do so, too, for generations to come.

Rabbi David Fine is a director of consulting and transition management at the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Esther Lederman is the director of congregational innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism.

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