Thursday, June 9, 2011

The organizataional change books speak to Rabbi Andrew

The organizational Change Books speak to Rabbi Andrew

Rabbi Andrew recently returned from a rabbinical retreat in Colorado focused on bringing the sacred to synagogue life. The vision of a synagogue where congregants regularly seek and experience the sacred resonates with Rabbi Andrew. During his five year tenure in this four hundred family congregation, he realizes his own relationship to the sacred has greatly diminished. He asks himself: “When was the last time a congregant shared a story about “experiencing the sacred? When was the last time I felt “connected” to something more than the ordinary?” He delivers his Rosh Hashanah sermon "Hopelessness in the face of Abundance."


Rabbi Andrew is ready to act. On a yellow legal tablet he writes a list of next steps: "Teach an adult class on the sacred; give mystical d’vrei torah; tell the principal to add a component to the religious school curriculum; and tell the cantor to change some of the Shabbat melodies and include niggunim."

A sinking feeling quickly cuts his list short. “No matter what I do people are not interested in the sacred. They want bar mitzvahs, and high holiday sermons.” Trying to quiet cynicism, he emboldens himself with thoughts of “I can do this, I’m creative.” Amidst his own internal dialogue, in the quiet of his office, another voice speaks.

"Hey. Andy, can you tell your story about why this new vision is compelling to you? “ How will you create a shared vision?” He had bought the organizational change books, had leafed through them over the years, and now they called from his book shelf. “Why change and change to what?"

“What would a sacred community look like in five years if you were successful? When have you already been a sacred community?”

Rabbi Andrew imagines Shabbat morning when congregants of all ages gather around coffee to chat and laugh about their week. Stories are told about how congregants host one another in their homes for Shabbas dinner. Others tell stories of trouble they had at work, but were able to navigate them because of a Torah teaching or mentoring from someone in the community. He hears ma tovu and sees children and adults stroll to study or prayer led by congregants. In this future he hears adults and children talk about being cared about and strengthened in order to care about and strengthen others. "This is not just about what happens in the shul," he thinks. "The home, the street are places to hear and speak to the lives of congregants." His ideas are growing. He sees a force emanating from the best of his congregants. This is a compelling future.

“Partners-real partners,” his book shelf warns, "you are not the lone ranger."

The cantor’s office, across the hall and the educator’s office in the basement are places Rabbi Andrew rarely visits. The professional staff boast they collaborate. But, he knows, in truth, they most often meet just to talk about the next event. They barely have time for monthly reporting. Each professional has his/her own portfolio. Their jobs have always been structured that way.

"Does the cantor and ed director feel as isolated as I do?" he wonders. Cooperation is not collaboration.

So Rabbi Andrew takes a first step toward his vision. He invites Cantor Sherry and Ed Director Miriam to lunch. Over lunch Rabbi Andrew invites his colleagues to discuss what work has been like for them. At first Miriam and Sherry are reluctant to share, but Rabbi Andrew’s genuine interest encourages them.

Rabbi Andrew reveals his own sense that he just moves from task to task. “I’ve have lost being in touch with the sacred,” he says. Remembering the tool of appreciative inquiry (attending to the life giving forces in the congregation), Rabbi asks each of them for three wishes. He asks them to describe a time when they have experienced the sacred.

Genuine sharing about their deepest successes begins. The book shelf calls, there is a structure that is getting in the way of your collaboration. Time needs to be restructured so that the staff can grow their shared ideas. Educational Director Miriam, still cautious, points out that the part time nature of her job keeps her from regular meeting with the staff. Rabbi Andrew helps Miriam arrange for a teacher to cover carpool and dismissal to free time for the collaboration.

Cantor Sherry has an intern and offers to send the intern to cover the 30 minute maariv service for the next few months. By doing so, Educational Director Miriam will have time to meet and continue their discussions. For the first time in a long time, Miriam feels energized and honored. She feels part of something important. Bolman and Deal call from the book shelf, "pay attention the human resource frame...does staff find meaning in their work?"


After weeks of conversations, Miriam, Sherry and Andrew build trust with one another and are ready to extend the conversation to others.

The “what are your wishes for the future” conversations expand to include key lay leaders. "When have you felt most connected?" becomes a common question they pose, trying to uncover times of meaning for congregants.

Each professional tries a small experiment with creating a sacred community. Miriam changes an administrivia meeting with teachers to a conversation about “As a teacher what have been your most memorable experiences around nurturing connections (with students, with community, with God?)”

Rabbi Andrew has a similar conversation with his secretary and with the President of the congregation. And Cantor Sherry tries out a similar conversation with the choir and her intern. The executive committee is open to exploring this conversation with the Board.

Board members spend a day hearing the collected stories of some of the congregants. They express their own wishes and their own stories. The experience of sharing stories and desires creates a notable bond among the board. Board members spend the next three months engaging congregants in face to face conversations. Each board member meets with five families. At first they planned that each visit would be an hour to an hour a half. They find people are eager to share and want to tell their stories. The "really no one ever asked" response is common.

Rabbi Andrew tells the board about the founding rabbi who spoke of a synagogue that gave people strength to face the challenges of daily life…that was in 1941. Now in 2011 a new phrase enters the professional staff’s vocabulary. “A network of strength for daily living.” This is not exactly the sacred community phrase that Rabbi Andrew began with, but it seems to bridge the voice of emerging wishes and needs while respecting the past.

The President is focused on budget issues, but can’t help but notice the excitement that he hears among lay people and the professional staff about the future. He, as well as others, begin to hear the stress that congregants are dealing with on a daily basis. The President is willing to meet with an organizational dynamics specialist in the congregation who talks about learning how to listen to the stories, wishes and most connected moments of congregants. Really knowing people's lives and needs is a way to begin a visioning process. "The days of top down visioning are over," says the specialist.

She is is willing to volunteer her services, in part, because she has not yet been engaged deeply in the congregation. She says “ I’m not comfortable with ritual,” but this as an opportunity to participate. “No one ever asked before,” she notes. Rabbi Andrew spots this change in the congregant and tells the executive committee how important it is to just ask people to bring their gifts and their needs to the congregation. “Just ask,” he says, and then “just listen.”

The rabbi realizes if Miriam is going to be a real partner she will need release time. The consultant from the congregation agrees and makes the case to the President that although there is not money on the budget to compensate Miriam for her visioning duties there should be approval for the Cantor’s intern to continue leading the maariv service to provide release time for Miriam. Cantor Sherry, feeling she is part of something important, a sense of the possible, is open to the idea too.

Miriam sits in her office at the end of a nitty gritty kind of day and prepares for a meeting with the rest of the staff. She still has to do the nuts and bolts but is excited to discuss the text she is bringing by Buber “Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines—one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity—so it is with the human being to whom I say Thou. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the sound of his speech or the style of his graciousness; I can do
this again and again; but immediately he is no longer my Thou.” “How can the school be part of the congregation? When have we done that successfully?” she asks the staff.


Cantor Sherry leads the choir in melodies for healing: el na refah la. She had been excited about prayer and healing but had no one to discuss it with or develop it before this process began. Now, she is clear about her role in creating a well that strengthens people in daily life. She, Rabbi Andrew and Miriam will be leading healing service on Sunday. A small committee has identified benchmarks for success and will follow up with interviews with participants. People who have not been to Temple are attending the healing service. The need was there. People are expressing a connection to something “important.”


Rabbi Andrew may not being using the word sacred like he originally envisioned, but he is experiencing it. The list of programs he made on the legal sheet are some where on his desk. He realizes just getting more people to more programs could never be the path to meaningful community.


The images of the future that first inspired Rabbi Andrew have changed. A clearer more dynamic picture of the future emerges as congregants are invited to share their stories, gifts and energy. They experience today, as the books on the shelf instructed, what they hope to create together in the future.