President Loree Farrar's April 2017 Column -- The Best Job in the World: An Open Letter to My Successor
Congratulations. You have just landed the best job in the world. Being President of Congregation Beth Am is truly an honor and a privilege. You will be recipient of the passions of our passionate members who want to make our congregation better. You will get to lead an amazing, hard-working, Board of Directors. You will work closely with all of our talented clergy, seeing a side of them that few are privy to. Within the Union for Reform Judaism, you will be queried by those who want to do what Beth Am has done, seeking insight from you so that they can copy our success. You are a lucky man.
And the pay is outstanding. The trust of the congregation. The time spent with Rabbi Marder, envisioning what this congregation can become. An opportunity to strengthen an organization you love. You just can’t buy that stuff.
I, and all of your past presidents, stand ready to help you in any way you need, whether with moral support, a listening ear to explore ideas, or willing hands. But, just in case I’m not around, here are my top ten hints for being a successful President.
- Remember that what you are doing is holy work. It is different from any other type of leadership, in business or in the non-profit world. You are the caretaker of a holy community, your synagogue. Your Board, too, can be a holy community: an example for the congregation, and something that feeds the souls of Board members. Keep this in mind in all things you do, especially the most mundane, frustrating, or contentious.
- Partnership with the rabbi is an honor and a privilege. You are allowed into a place no other congregant is. You are the person who can support your rabbi when she is frustrated, or exhausted, or inspired or exploring, and that is a sacred trust.
- Keep the big picture in mind. Your work will include much that is granular, tasks necessary for this event or that budget year. You need to do those, but you are also charged with looking toward the future. Think about what that larger vision is, and how the small tasks support the larger vision.
- Pay attention; say thank you. What people want most is to be recognized: to be understood for who they are, unique, precious, and in the image of God. This applies equally to congregants, clergy, staff, and Board members. Say thank you as often as you can – especially to the people who toil endlessly on thankless tasks. Notice and remember people. Attend the things you wouldn’t normally go to – your presence tells people that they are valued. People think you are important because you are the president. And when you notice them, they know that they are important, too.
- Make sure that Board meetings are engaging, substantive and brief. Like this.
- Get to know your Board. Have coffee with each Board member at least once. Know their strengths and passions, and also the things that will discourage each one. You have a particularly talented and passionate Board to work with; this part of your duty will be a joy.
- Allow people to help. Ask them to bring their best self, in whatever way they are serving the congregation. Tap into the wisdom of long-time congregants and past presidents; they will be fans forever, and they will make you look wise. Don’t try to do everything yourself, even when it seems easier. Seek help from the URJ. If you have a problem here, someone else has probably solved it somewhere else.
- Monitor committees and taskforces. This is where the work of the congregation happens. Provide them more help if they are struggling; if they are thriving, set a higher bar and challenge them toward a greater vision. Question them in private, but support them in public.
- Maintain perspective, and a sense of humor. Remember that when a congregant complains, he is saying “I care about this community, and I think you can do something.” I know, sometimes it’s hard to keep that in mind the tenth time someone points out a burned-out light bulb. But you can do it.
- Enjoy the journey. Board service, and in particular service as president, is a rare opportunity to contribute to the community that you love. Soak it in. Be proud of our shul, and of your contribution to it. Take care of yourself. Take care of Barrett and the kids, too, who are sharing you with the whole congregation. Breathe deeply.
First Past President, Congregation Beth Am