We are in the midst of an incredible paradigm shift, one that may have perilous consequences for all of us in a magnitude most of us have not witnessed in our lifetimes.
At this historical juncture, we must ask: What do we need from our congregational leaders?
They must be courageous exemplars.
In Jewish tradition, there is a legend of Nachshon, who was the first to enter the sea after the Israelites escape from Egypt. Seeing Pharaoh’s army closing in on him and the death and destruction they represented, Nachshon understood the only option for his people was to move forward into the future.
The established four Ps of leadership – purpose, passion, persistence and philanthropy – no longer suffice. We have to add a fifth – participation.
What makes this requirement so challenging is we need our leaders to be fully present at a time when safety measures dictate we need to be apart, to keep our distance.
Our congregations face great challenges today. I have heard numerous families have “opted out” of contributing to congregations. Revenues are down as a result. Apparently, some say they are leaving congregational life “for a year.” The shortfall is causing havoc with many congregational budgets.
No one can say with certainty what the long-term effect all this opting out will have on congregational communal life in post-pandemic times. I am confident our congregations will bounce back but keeping the damage to a minimum will require our leaders to be innovative, to think outside of the box.
Fundraising events, for example, will have to be reimagined. In our congregation, after having to cancel our annual Jewish Festival, we devised a drive-thru Jewish food festival, featuring a menu of chopped brisket, falafel, matzah ball soup, kugel, knishes, baked goods and Dr. Brown’s Soda.
We will have to depend more on state and regional intercongregational cooperation for shared resources and programs.
For example, on the Wednesday night between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, North Carolina rabbis organized an online memorial service for Ruth Bader Ginsburg that included 13 Union for Reform Judaism congregations and four other organizations served by Reform Jewish clergy. That Zoom gathering has been viewed well over 3,000 times on various platforms.
This fall, we are planning a joint educational morning adult school called “Sages for the Ages” involving five North Carolina congregations.
Many congregations have committees focusing on pandemic protocols and reopening strategies. This work is necessary, of course, but consumes an enormous amount of time.
Perhaps now is the time to invest a similar number of hours in trying to envision and prepare for a new congregational paradigm in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The leadership role of congregational presidents/board chairs will be crucial in this endeavor. To them I say, “I know that when you agreed to become president, you had wonderful visions of how you would serve and what you aimed to accomplish. Then came the pandemic and boom! – everything shifted. As president, you are now facing unprecedented challenges, perhaps the most severe and consequential in the entire history of the congregation.”
To our congregants I say, our lay leadership and our clergy need your encouragement, participation in online events and financial support as never before.
Our leadership will need to engage with congregants and be aware of those who have lost jobs or become ill, of their sorrows as well as their joyous occasions.
We will need everyone to double down instead of opting out, and messaging, even amplifying, that others in our community do so as well.
Recently in our congregations, we read the words, “Return O Israel, unto the Lord your God” (Hosea 14:1). Jewish tradition teaches that if we return to God halfway, God will meet us in the middle.
I believe this is how we are currently being summoned as congregational leaders. We are being challenged to go as far as we are able, even if it is not as far as we would like.
Whether we are officers or trustees, clergy or participating members of a congregation, this year especially, let us all be bound in a brit, a covenant of giving and sharing. It is a task that none of us can accomplish alone, but together we will not fail.
Let it be our hope and our prayer that even in this time of crisis, we shall turn to each other in a mutual effort to renew and revitalize our congregations, our faith and our people.