Never Let Your Congregants See You In Shorts:
Tips for Rabbis that Our Teachers Never Told Us
I’ve been receiving questions from rabbis asking for advice. I’ve boiled my 20 plus years of congregational experience into this collection of 50 ideas. They are offered here in sets of ten, and in no particular order. I offer them simply to respond to my questioners. If you like what I say, please pass them on.
1. Numbers matter. Attendance at Shabbat services is how you know whether or not you’re offering something people want. If numbers are low, don’t survey the congregation to find out what they want: what they want is not to attend services. Instead, offer what you want. If no one comes, find another job.
2. Shrink your shul. If your sanctuary is so big that you usually play to a largely empty room (religion is play, theater, though all too often boring play and poorly produced theater), install folding walls to limit seating and give attendees and yourself the sense that the shul is full.
3. Talk about what matters. What matters is how to make sense out of the senseless, impose meaning on the meaningless, and navigate the madness, joy, and tragedy of life. The problem is you never learned how to do any of this in rabbinical school. The assumption there was that Judaism matters to Jews, or, if it doesn’t, you can make it matter. It doesn’t and you can’t. Talk about what matters, and if you can bring a little yiddishkeit into the conversation, so much the better.
4. Never ever call out a page number. You didn’t spend five years (or more) in rabbinical school to tell people what page to turn to in the siddur. If your siddur is so thick that you aren’t going to read every page, make it thinner. If you want to call out numbers, work at a Bingo parlor.
5. Forget answers; ask questions. People don’t come to you to learn what to do; they come to have you excuse what they are already doing. If you won’t do that, they’ll find a rabbi who will. Don’t be that rabbi. Be the rabbi who helps them question what they are doing, and explore how they might do it differently.
6. Never eat at Oneg. Most people won’t bother to make an appointment to talk with you in your office. Most people will grab you during Oneg Shabbat and expect you to answer the most pressing question in their universe. You have to answer, but doing so with a mouth full of bagel is nasty.
7. Always drink at Oneg. Water works as well as coffee: you aren’t carrying the cup because you’re thirsty; it’s a prop. When people ask you to answer the most pressing question in their universe, nod thoughtfully, and take a slow sip of whatever it is you are carrying. This will provide you with the seconds you need to come up with the right answer.
8. The right answer is always the same: “What makes you ask that, [insert congregant’s name here]?” While it appears that the questioner is looking for an answer, what she really wants is an opportunity to connect with you, and that means she wants to talk rather than listen. Of course if the congregant is a “he” rather than a “she” he does want an answer, just not yours. No matter what you say he isn’t really listening. If you sip your drink slowly enough, he will forget his question and move on.
9. Try not to act like a 12–year–old. Congregations hire rabbis who can “relate to the kids,” but they don’t really know what that means. After all, “the kids” are their kids and they can’t relate to them, so why expect that you can do better? What kids want is someone to help them find the wisdom they need to get through middle–school with the least amount of embarrassment and brutality. Sadly for them, you were probably bullied in middle–school, and have no idea what to tell them. Sadly for you, talking to them about this makes you relive the horror of middle–school. Try and maintain your adulthood. If it helps, pretend you’re Yoda talking to Luke Skywalker.
10. Refer, refer, and refer again. When congregants come for advice regarding their collapsing marriage (for example), they don’t want to hear about Sarah and Abraham sticking it out for a lifetime despite his pimping her out to Pharaoh, her attempted murder of Hagar and Ishmael, and his aborted homicide of Isaac. They don’t want to hear anything Jewish at all. They want marriage counseling; they just don’t want to pay a marriage counselor to get it. Listen attentively, nod compassionately, and then refer them to a professional. This goes for every counseling situation: if you aren’t licensed to give advice on a topic, keep your opinions to yourself. After all you wouldn’t want a therapist to rule on whether or not sheep’s intestines are kosher, would you?