Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Founders and Foundering

A conversation last night with my friend Rabbi Marc Baker, who is also involved in an Indy Minyan, helped me to get some clarity on the questions I addressed in my first post.

All start-up programs face serious challenges when it comes time for their founders to move on and pass the torch. Anyone involved in such a transition can tell you they spend a lot of time thinking about how to transition successfully, yet it is inevitably more difficult than anticipated. Part of the problem is that such projects inevitably come to reflect the passions and personalities of their founders, and rely on those individuals' strengths and talents. Even as it grows and flourishes, rarely does anyone stop to reflect on whether there are others in the community who could successfully fill those founders' various roles. The other challenge is empowerment: Founders think of a project as their own, and feel some latitude to shape and revise its practices and culture in line with their vision. Successors generally feel more constrained – they were appointed to preserve something that people like and value, not to formulate a new vision, and are thus less free to innovate or try new things. The result is a project that is less agile, less innovative, and less able to stay cutting-edge, likely the keys to the start-up's initial success.

Some start-ups make this transition more or less successfully, others lose their edge or direction and start to founder. Many of those that stick around shift into "keep going" mode instead of "keep growing" mode. And we are left wondering, what are the keys to a really successful transition?

One key which is often overlooked is knowing what it is you're replacing. This was the argument underlying my post about rabbis. When a minyan goes through a leadership transition, we talk about who is going to take up the organizing and planning roles. There are practical things that need to get done in order for the minyan to function, which involve many hours of work, and the need for this kind of leadership is obvious. There is also a need for a decision-making mechanism and a range of options for how to arrange that. But those founders also provided another, more intangible type of leadership which we ignore at our peril. They are probably the ones who conveyed a sense of mission and purpose which informed the community's growth. They were always asking how the minyan could do things differently, better, to reach more people and try new things. They were the people who could not only give a dvar torah but give mussar as well, who carried enough weight in the community to be able to openly confront the ways in which it inevitably failed to live up to its own ideals.

We don't necessarily have a name for this role; it's not a "leadership position" and it is not obvious that it needs to be filled. Moreover, the ideology of being democratic and lay-led argue against this. I argued in my earlier post that we don't realize how much we lose when we give up on this kind of leadership. What Marc pointed out is that this need not involve hiring someone, or even bringing in someone new. There may be 5 different people already involved in a community who could play this kind of role, who could be voices of inspiration and of tikkun (self-repair). But no one will just step forward and start doing it. You can't start using that voice until your community has conferred on you the authority to do so. You don't just volunteer for this kind of leadership – you are entrusted with it.

It may have simply been understood that the founders carried that authority by virtue of the fact that the community was shaped by their vision. Or the enthusiasm of new beginnings may have carried the minyan through its first stage of growth. But if we want our Independent Minyanim to survive and to flourish, we need to find those voices that can help clarify and refine our sense of purpose and inspire us to reach higher, and find them platforms to speak and to lead. This, I would suggest, is crucial to keeping up the sense of dynamic growth and excitement often associated with the founding generation.


  1. well-written, and, I believe, wisdom useful for establishment shuls too - staying fresh, open to retaining both newness and the best parts of the culture we work(ed) so hard to nurture... amen!

  2. I definitely see a conflict between organizations that thrive on founders' vision and work, yet still claim to be lay-led and democratic. You need leaders, but, as you note, there's no perfect balance.

    Regarding transitions, sometimes the pedestrian things really help. You indirectly touch on this, but writing down detailed job descriptions, even for volunteer jobs can be vital. Merely knowing what a person does and where other people need to step up can be vital.

    On the issues of the successors to founders feeling constrained, sometimes things as basic as community surveys can make a world of difference. What do the members want to get from the group? What is the community's vision? Is there a time-consuming quirk of community practice that is being continued, but no one actually loves? Is there something that people think is contentious, but actually isn't. What are the issues that are contentious and need visionary leadership to work to find a good balance? Involving the whole community in visioning a transition also creates communal ownership rather than a few people selecting a few replacements.

  3. Good post! In addition to the founders vs. successors distinction (which is certainly real), I wonder if there we're also seeing the beginnings of a generation gap between people who are now in their late 20s and older vs. people in their early 20s, because the former group remembers a time when there wasn't an independent minyan on every street corner. (And we walked uphill to shul both ways...)

    I graduated from college in 2001, just in time to be part of the tipping point. When I was in college, these new minyanim didn't exist yet, and I was prepared to be disappointed at the options for adult Jewish community. Instead, things worked out very well, but I hadn't been counting on that, and I think the same is true for people up to a few years younger than me. And people older than me spent time out in the real world before this crop of minyanim came along. In contrast, the younger generation knew that lots of independent minyanim would be available to them when they graduated, and some of them even participated in independent minyanim when they were still in college (especially if they went to school in and around New York or DC).

    This difference of a few years might mean that people relate to the minyanim in different ways. People my age and older arrived at independent minyanim (both the minyanim we ourselves founded and the minyanim others founded and we joined) because we weren't thrilled with the existing options and these minyanim represented a new refreshing alternative, though we understood that the minyanim (especially, but not exclusively, the ones we founded) were still works in progress and still learning how best to carry out their goals. Younger people got involved in minyanim because they liked the minyanim. (I mean, who wouldn't.) And because they like the minyan, and the minyan has always been that way as long as they've been there (which could be all of 1 or 2 years - leadership can turn over rapidly), it simply wouldn't occur to them to make major changes, because why fix what (as far as they know) isn't broken?

    This is just speculation; I don't know how much this contributes to the phenomena you're describing. Also, GET OFF MY LAWN

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