Rabbi Contracts: Covenantal Partnership and Legal Agreement

A few years ago, the rabbi of a 500+ family congregation in the New York metropolitan area called me. He had been at the synagogue for several years and was negotiating another contract. The board wanted to attach fundraising expectations to the contract, and he was in need of some guidance.

This rabbi wasn’t hired for his fundraising skills. Maybe the rabbi had a course on fundraising in rabbinical school. One of my mantras has been that the rabbi’s involvement in fundraising is important. However, like most elements of synagogue life, a partnership between the rabbi and lay leadership in any campaign effort will bring the most success.

I have also been asked similar questions about membership benchmarks in contracts. Partnership is again the most essential element.

I served as a consultant on a long-term project at a synagogue with 1000 families. The senior rabbi had told me he was in conversations to negotiate a new contract. There was an impasse, and he shared with me he was about to go into placement. We were working with a group of synagogue leaders on strategic planning. Some of them were members of the negotiating committee. The rabbi’s frustration with his contract status was evident in his tone and in his words throughout our work that evening.

I am not a lawyer. One of the things I have learned is that it is important for both the rabbi and the board to let legal counsel represent them in contract negotiations. The congregation – including synagogue board members – needs the rabbi to fulfill his/her myriad of responsibilities for everyone.

In recent years, membership at most synagogues – and churches – throughout North America – has been declining. Clergy salaries are often one of the biggest expense lines of a synagogue budget. Sometimes synagogue leaders are too quick to assign blame to the rabbi for a synagogue’s lack of enough fundraising income or because the membership has been flat for several years.

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has a contract guide on its website that was prepared in 1991. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has a contract guide – known as the Gold Book –was written and subsequently adopted by the boards of the CCAR and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – now the Union for Reform Judaism – in 1984.

For contracts that are being renewed, there are several questions that I think about:

Is there an ongoing performance review?

Is there a job description?

Is there any on-going supervision, or even planning meetings between the president of the congregation and the rabbi?

If all of this is happening, conversations about contracts shouldn’t be adversarial or tension filled.

For those of you interested in consulting with attorneys who have represented synagogue boards in contract negotiations with rabbis, I am happy to provide you with contact information. These are lawyers who have been active in synagogue life and who understand the uniqueness of this contract conversation. And there is no charge for the initial conversation.

If you are a rabbi, I am also happy to make a similar recommendation for you as well.

4 Comments on “Rabbi Contracts: Covenantal Partnership and Legal Agreement

  1. Wonderful article and resources. I would add to these an article I wrote about my own analysis and actual experience creating covenantal commitments as a rabbi with congregations I have served: http://shma.com/2013/05/the-stories-we-tell-clergy-community-covenants/
    as well as the landmark publication by the Reconstructionist Movement on the “Rabi-Congregational Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century”, http://stores.jewishreconbooks.org/-strse-68/The-Rabbi-dsh-Congregational-Relationship/Detail.bok

    which states: For rabbis and congregations who want healthier, more productive relationships, or for communities undergoing a rabbinic search, this report is an invaluable guide. This report is recommended for synagogue boards, rabbi liaison and/or evaluation committees, rabbinic search committees, and all who seek to understand or rethink the rabbi-congregation relationship. An inspiring vision of what our congregations can achieve in this important realm.

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