Succession Management: Passing the Congregational Baton



According to transition expert William Bridges, change is situational; transition is psychological. This distinct difference is important to keep in mind as your congregation prepares for transition. Whether it’s transition from one rabbi to another (which we’ll use as an example here), from one board to another or some other change, Bridges’s teachings are easily applied to any transition and are worth keeping close at hand.

Transition can be difficult. People have ties to what is being transitioned out and they have expectations of what is being transitioned in. To have a functional transition, Bridges and URJ’s leadership experts recommend involving as many people as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every member of your congregation sits on the transition committee; rather, it means that the transition committee holds focus groups, for example. In these small gatherings, your fellow congregants can discuss how they feel about the transition, and committee members can convey pertinent information about next steps or how the congregation will operate during the transition.

Lisa Adler, former governance and leadership development specialist for the URJ, says that during times of transition, people most often just want to be heard. They may comprehend why, for instance, their beloved rabbi is leaving the congregation, but they might not be emotionally prepared to welcome the new rabbi. This is where the focus groups – or even meetings with individuals – can come into play. The focus groups present an opportunity for congregants to express how they feel. Simply “getting it off their chest” can help prepare them to transition into the next stage in your congregation’s life.

When planning for transition, it’s best to do just that: plan for it. Obviously, sometimes circumstances change suddenly and, without warning, you find yourself in a transitive state. But hopefully more often than not, you’ll have advance notice and can plan for the transition. A great way to plan for the transition ahead of you is to look back at how transition was handled in the past. Look for documented instances of transition, if available, and talk to the veteran members of your congregational community – members, staff and volunteers – who may have institutional knowledge or anecdotal evidence that could help to make for a smoother transition.

Considering the transition process, expert Bridges recommends beginning at the end. Rather than begin the transition process by readying for what’s new, it is often advised to begin by honoring the past. Everyone involved will likely find comfort in acknowledging the ending, paying reverence to the departing rabbi or outgoing president. Consider holding a special farewell dinner or tribute night, during which your community can gather to celebrate the past.

After the ending is the middle – the neutral zone. This is often a challenging state, Bridges notes, as some folks are still in the ending phase while others are waiting for you in the next phase, the new beginning. During this phase, transparency is key. Give people information – and repeat it! (Some believe you need to say something seven times before it is truly heard.) Remember that you are a congregational leader and may be privy to certain information that your congregants are not. Unless it is sensitive, confidential information, try to share as much of this information with your community as possible – it helps move people through the neutral zone.

Finally, end with the beginning: welcoming who or what’s new. Consider going back to those focus groups to introduce them, on a small, intimate level, to the new rabbi. This will give both parties the chance to get to know one another as they, together, begin a new chapter in your congregation’s life.

The URJ is pleased to offer a wealth of information on this topic. In particular, we recommend:

  • badge-leadership“Rabbinic Transition and Succession Management in Congregational Life”: This webinar, led by Rabbi David Wolfman and Lisa Adler, addressed how to create clear communication and expectations; the role of the transition committee; change vs. transition; and creating an environment for mutual and ongoing review. Look for this webinar is our archives in the “Leadership” section.
  • Shallat Rabbinic Transition Program and Retreat: This program offers congregations in rabbinic transition a time to retreat, reflect and consider the transition period, identifying what worked and what can be improved.

For more insight into the transition process, read William Bridges’s Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.

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Robin Riegelhaupt

About Robin Riegelhaupt

Robin Riegelhaupt is the Assistant Manager of the URJ Knowledge Network. Throughout her tenure at the URJ, she has served as a writer for the Congregational Consulting Group and the information resource specialist for the Department of Synagogue Management. Prior to joining the URJ, Robin was a web editor at the Washington Action Office of the Jewish Federations of North America and a grassroots organizer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Theatre from the University of Central Florida. A native New Yorker, Robin lives in Astoria, NY, and writes about the arts.

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