Is the relationship between members of the synagogue board of trustees and the rabbi a partnership? Many people involved in synagogue life, both volunteers and professionals, often refer to it in this way. In many not-for-profit organizations as well. When we think of partners, it is as partners in a law firm or accounting firm, or even a business venture. I am not sure this concept of partnership translates to a synagogue setting.
Rabbi Yamin Levy’s recent article in ejewishphilanthropy.com, The Rabbi and His Board, raised for me this issue again, along with others. The job description for congregational rabbis is lengthy. Teacher, counselor, orator, advocate, role model- so many different jobs combined into this one important position for those involved in building a sacred community.
Rabbi Levy tells a story we have all heard before. A rabbi who has been with a synagogue for 10 years –or even longer – is told that the synagogue has decided to go in a different direction and the board wants to hire someone else. We read or hear about stories like this often in newspapers (print and online). This happens everyday in the business world.
With boards of synagogues, as well as not-for-profit organizations, having the authority to hire and fire, partnership no longer seems like an appropriate description.
Years ago, I participated in a professional development seminar on the relationship between professionals and volunteers. We were discussing for quite a while whether this relationship was a partnership. The seminar’s facilitator used what I thought was a more appropriate description, describing it as a mutually supportive relationship.
Beyond the operational stuff – budgeting, bill paying – rabbis need to collaborate with their boards in so many ways. Fundraising, planning adult education, being community ambassadors are just three things that immediately come to mind. “Partnership” might happen when working on a particular task. But when one side of the relationship has the power to hire and fire, partnership as a defining term no longer seems appropriate.
Rabbi Levy’s description of the three spheres of operation for organizations, particularly synagogues, also raises the importance and necessity of a mutually supportive relationship between the synagogue board and rabbi. Most boards will look to the rabbi to articulate a vision. Board members also have to have buy-in as well.
You don’t want the vision to be just that of the rabbi – it needs to be the vision of and for the community. The board and rabbi working in collaboration set the tone for the membership. The rabbi and board can’t operate in “parallel universes”. Everyone needs to be on the same page – at least in the same galaxy, anyway.
I have sat in on and participated in many, many board meetings. As a consultant and as a member of the board at my own synagogue and for a local not-for-profit organization. I have earned my stripes, I think. Board meetings need to be interesting. Together, the rabbi and president should be planning board meeting agendas that engage board members in interesting discussions and challenge everyone to think creatively. The fiduciary responsibilities – the money issues – are important, but can’t dominate the agenda.
The rabbi and board members need to be mutually supportive of each other in their work. Otherwise, frustration will be a dominant feeling.