It’s always amazing to me how a shul runs before and after hiring a rabbi. Regardless of affiliation, the nascent shul starts off with a small group who are either unhappy with the options available or just starting a new venture. Either way, the shul is lay-run, with certain questions being asked to their previous rabbis or respected rabbinical authorities. Besides the questions though, the people lead services, read the Torah, make the calls for minyan, run the kitchen, etc, albeit through committee or some other device. The school, should there be one, is also lay-led, with the teachers being congregants who may or may not have had formal training. Then the exciting day arrives and enough money is being brought in allowing a Rabbi to be hired. The list of requirements and desired is made, people are interviewed and the choice is made. Finally the rabbi is hired and arrives ready to work.
Throughout my career, I have always maintained that if a shul wants to grow, it must be a joint-venture. As a result, I have always attempted to involve the laity in the growth. The problem that I have faced is that while many agree with the model, most don’t want to be the one doing the work. As the saying goes 20% does 80% of the work…thus leading to burnout.
I remember upon arriving at one of my positions, I found that the minyan was held together by calling people on the phone. This was in the days before social networking and iphones. Answering machines were your enemy as they could be ignored. To maintain the minyan was truly a thankless & frustrating job, which required hands-on work. The job required one to be able to withstand refusals and great excuses. I learned from one congregant that , “Any excuse is better than none.” Originally, the congregation had 2 people who were making the calls. One for the morning and one for the evening. But within a week or two of my arrival, I was presented with the list of congregants and the responsibility to maintain the minyan, amongst the rest of my duties. In reality, as a result of having this duty, I came to realize that every minyan that happened, and we had a 99% success rate, was really one of the hidden miracles of Hashem, and that while I had to make my efforts, it was all from Hashem. Why do I say that? Because, while we had a core group of Sabbath-observant, we did not have enough to make a minyan. It took getting others, who were not as committed to come twice a day. I was told many times by the non-observant that we had to increase the pool of attendees, to which I replied, “From where should I get them? Can you help me?” I was usually met with either blank stares or the response of “I don’t have the time” or “ I don’t know anyone.” I would retort that “In order to grow, I need your help.” To that , the response was usually, “Rabbi, minyan isn’t really one of my priorities. I want you to grow so that you don’t have to call me.” And that was the problem. People were willing to be number 10, but not number 11. Once they saw that we had a quorum, they would no longer feel needed and would leave.
The minyan is the most graphic example of stunted growth. But, if one looks at all of the committees and Boards, one will find the same people doing the bulk of the work, while others participate when they want. While it may appear that everything is working and healthy, it may not be the real picture. I believe that one of the best ways to grow is to get 90-100% participation and through the excitement of being part of the team and actively engaged, growth will only be limited by one’s imagination. Do you agree?