Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who Decides?

"Who Decides?"
"Decides? It is written!"
-Guildenstern and Lead Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

There seem to be a lot of questions on the notion of Authority this week. The President's authority viz-a-viz congress and the Supreme Court, for example (a discussion for another time, perhaps). This week's portion, which explores Moses' authority and the delegation thereof at Jethro's behest. And in our own congregation, as we begin to settle into our relationship with each other.

It's been a little over a year since I was elected rabbi of my House of Truth. Since I've come I've made mistakes and missteps (for which I've hopefully made teshuvah), brought some innovation and new ideas, and asked for a lot of advice and suggestions. I've also experimented with different service leading styles and approaches, including different books, times, venues, and aesthetics.

Recently the question has come up as to whether these are the rabbi's decision to make, or whether these are congregational decisions. If I'm soliciting feedback, then clearly that means I'm going to implement said feedback, right? And if I'm going to change something, why don't I just change it already--why do I keep bouncing between different ways of doing things?

These are all questions of authority and role; who's job is it to determine how the service is led and in what venue? Who decides whether the board room is a viable worship space, or whether all services should be held in the main sanctuary? Likewise, who decides what the dues policy of a congregation will be, what the policies regarding safety and security will be, what are the rights and responsibilities individual congregants, and what is the overarching vision of the congregation?

As we see in our Torah portion this week, Moses is suffering from role confusion. As the leader of the people Israel, he feels it's his job to spend every day, all day, settling every issue that any individual Israelite might have. "But Moses' father-in-law said to him, 'the thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well For the task is too heavy .'" (Ex. 18:17-18) While he may have been placed as God to Pharaoh, Moses has gotten lost as to what his ultimate responsibility is; to be rabbeinu, the spiritual and visionary leader for the community. Others, Jethro reminds him, are better able to deal with the 'minor' disputes and to inform the community of the practices, laws and teachings.

Likewise in congregational life; some roles are clearly defined, and some individuals have clearly deliniated authority. The board decides the fiscal policy of the congregation. The rabbi is the head of the staff, the spiritual leader of the kehillahand her representative in the greater community. Various staff members, committee chairs and members, volunteers, and individual congregants have their roles and responsibilities as well. Just as we wouldn't want the rabbi to (necessarily) make the decision of how much the dues should be, likewise the board doesn't get to decide how the service will be lead, how I'll wear my tallit, or where I enter the sanctuary from. But as with all things, there is conversation, soliciting of feedback and the giving of feedback (positive and negative), there is dialogue.

A healthy congregation is one where everyone knows the role and who has the authority in a given moment. I can't change the dues structure; congregants don't get to decide what room the service is in. However, I can (and should!) be part of the discussion over dues and provide (hopefully useful) feedback, and laypeople can provide me feedback as well. The trick with feedback is to provide it clearly and directly; otherwise, as my teachers Terry Bookman and Bill Kahn point out in their book This House We Build, all one is generating is 'noise': gossip, triangulation, useless complaints (the color of the cantor's tie, the sound of the rabbi's voice, etc.). Feedback is best given clearly and directly (not necessarily loudly or insistently!), and with a sense of ownership for both the problem and the solution. Likewise, Feedback is best heard when the rabbi (or board member, or layperson) takes a position of curiosity, rather than defensiveness.

When I experiment--with leading in a particular space, having services at a different time, entering in a different way--it is often because I'm responding to feedback, listening to what people are saying to me. It's just as often that I listen very carefully to the feedback but don't necessarily agree with it, but respond and 'chew on it', allowing it to be part of my own internal conversation. And there are some decisions that I make that are personal and are simply mine to make, entrusted to me as the rabbi. Of course, if the leadership feels the rabbi isn't responding to their spiritual needs, of course they can provide that feedback or, if the relationship is clearly not working, part ways, God-willing in a graceful way. But when there is confusion over role and authority, we should be able to come to some clarification, so that we, like Moses' Israelites, "will be able to go home unwearied" (Ex. 18:23).