Thursday, February 6, 2014

On the Rabbis Without Borders Retreat and Success

This week, I attended the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat.  Apart from being a rejuvenating and prayerful few days filled with Torah and an opportunity to be constantly Amazed (in the Heschelian sense of the word) by the groundbreaking and humbling work of my colleagues, I find myself ruminating on one session in particular.  Looking at our schedule, one might assume it was the interfaith community conversation or the politics and the pulpit discussion or the amazing learning sessions where I discovered, among other things, Chassidic masters preaching finding Truth and Torah everywhere.  While these sessions have given me much to chew on, the session that I keep coming back to has to be when we spoke about success.

Forty-plus rabbis of different denominations brainstorming what it means to be successful.  Nothing was off the table, as with any good Rabbis Without Borders discussion, and the responses ranged from the most quantitative to the most qualitative.  The hope is that we can begin to shift our congregations from focusing on the quantitative (how many members and how many people show up to events and programs) to the qualitative (how did those events and programs affect people and change them).  In order to do that we need to understand what we mean by success and what job the metrics we set for ourselves will do.

As I have been thinking about this more and more over the past couple of days, I was struck by how truly revolutionary this discussion was.  It was revolutionary because for all the training my 5 years of rabbinical school gave me, there wasn't a discussion of how we would measure success that sticks in my mind.  We definitely discussed powerful prayer moments and administrative achievements and personal pastoral moments.  But an overall discussion of what a successful rabbinate would look like either didn't happen, did happen and I don't remember it (which might mean it wasn't a great conversation), or perhaps I was at a place where I could not even conceive of that topic.

Here are three reasons why I think this prolonged brainstorming session will be revolutionary (and in good RWB fashion, I will add the caveat) for me:

First, it is clear to me that both I and my congregation need to define success.  What I am trying to do and what we are trying to do.  What are my goals and what are the goals of the congregation?  I haven't been asked to articulate this.  And, I haven't asked my congregation to do it either.  I plan to do so by asking the following questions:
1. Are we thinking about the same issues?
2. Are we measuring the journey of the congregation in the same way?  And if we are not, why?
3. What do we hope our congregation will look like, feel like and act like?
4. What do we mean by success?

Second, articulating what success means serves the rabbi, by giving a sense of direction, but also serves the congregation.  If we agree on a definition of success, we can then agree on a direction, including what projects and initiatives we will tackle.  If we agree on a definition of success, everyone is working together to achieve those goals.  If we agree on a definition of success, we also define our identity as a congregation.

Third, I believe this conversation comes from a discipline which is truly lacking in the modern rabbinic education: business administration and management.  I was speaking last night with a good friend who works for an energy company overseas and he was helping me to understand how defining metrics for success are good business strategies that are discussed in business school.  If you know what you want to do, you can then measure if you've done it.  What was so beautiful about the brainstorming is that we managed to have a conversation while sidestepping the potential pitfall of viewing our congregations in an overly-corporate mode, a reason why I believe some seminaries may be hesitant to include business administration in their curricula.

While I know that measuring a qualitative metric like "spiritual fulfillment" is much more difficult than counting the number of people at Shabbat, the theory of metrics, defining success and assessing that success seems so critically important that I can't believe that I don't yet have either a defined metric for success or a list of what I hope my congregation and I can achieve by working together with an agreed upon definition of success.  I am more excited for this conversation than for any other in my short rabbinate, because I feel like I will come out of it with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.  More importantly my congregation and I will be on that road together.

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