I have been a rabbi for more than a quarter century. In that time I have learned a few things about what makes a good rabbi; things that I believe could be of value to clergy people of all stripes. Unfortunately for you, I am keeping those for my memoir. Here are 13 ideas that won’t make it into my book. Feel free to pass them on to your clergy friends and neighbors.
1. You are not an educator. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to teach well. Maybe you took a course or two. Hire good teachers and let them teach.
2. You are not a therapist. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to listen, diagnose and guide people. Maybe you took a course or two. Find a few good psychologists and refer people to them.
3. You are not a CEO. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to run an organization. Maybe you read 7 Habits for Highly Successful People. Hire a good executive director.
4. You are not a camp counselor. There are people in high school who do this for lots less money than you make. No matter how loudly you clap your hands during a song, you just can’t compete with the 17 year old from last summer. Don’t try.
5. You are not a social events coordinator. If the congregation wants to hold a bake sale, barn dance or Jewish film festival, it is not your job to approve it, plan it or run it. It is your job to bury a person who may die during it, but other than that, stay out of the way.
6. You are not a fund raiser or Israel Bonds salesperson. People spend years perfecting those skills. Hire a good fund raiser to raise money; you focus on how best to spend it.
7. You are a master of ceremonies. Unfortunately when it comes to most ceremonies, the caterer trumps you every time. That is why if the bride is running later and later, don’t bother telling the bride’s mother that you have somewhere else to be. Tell her that the caterer is worried that the chicken is going to over cook. She’ll have her daughter under the chuppah in 10 minutes.
8. Religious services are theater; mostly bad theater. Take theater classes; especially improv. Learn how to think on your feet. Learn how to create meaning. Learn how to be a shaman.
9. Don’t relinquish the bema to the cantor. Don’t take on the role of High Priced Announcer of Pages. Only Vanna White gets paid big bucks for turning tiles, and it has nothing to do with her skill at tile turning. Find something meaningful to do during the service–like teach.
10. Don’t kibbitz while the cantor sings. Don’t read while the cantor sings. Don’t clean your fingernails while the cantor sings. Don’t do anything other than look like you are moved by the cantor singing. Everyone suspects prayer is silly, but if you prove it to them by ignoring the cantor you might consider applying for a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart–soon!
11. Make yourself indispensable on the bema by adding something people can’t get anywhere else: spiritual wisdom and life-meaning. Watch lots of evangelical television, especially Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Say things that help people find meaning in the words they are reading and the life they are experiencing.
12. Most people don’t know why Jewish tradition matters. They just want to satisfy Bubbe and Zayde who were born in the old country. Today, of course, most bubbes and zaydes are called Nana and Papop and were born in New York or L.A., and they too have no idea why Jewish tradition matters. You might think that this would be a great time for you to teach them about the importance of tradition, but it isn’t. They’re all too worried about the caterer.
13. When it comes to weddings, more thought goes into picking the band than choosing the rabbi. Don’t compete. Accept your second-class status and do the best you can. Since most people expect the rabbi to be boring, it won’t take much to impress them. Carry business cards in case there are any rabbi-seekers in the audience. Give one to the caterer as well.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared previously in his blog. He also appears in the Baptist Center for Ethics DVD “Good News for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews.”