Leadership Teams in Times of Crisis


At USCJ Sulam Leadership, we work to create a great foundation for lay and staff teamwork. We have learned from our research that many collaborative and team-building practices are underdeveloped.

Lessons from our Thriving Congregations Assessment (TCA)

  • Little staff and lay leadership time committed to self-reflection
  • Few clear job descriptions for chairs of committees
  • Role confusion – lack of clear expectations
  • Few written goals – weak accountability

USCH/ NAASE Team Assessment

  • Lack of shared vision and norms
  • Few written and shared goals
  • Little discussion of needed support for leaders
  • Lack of strategic monthly meetings

If we build strong teamwork and partnership practices, we will have a strong foundation for whatever comes our way. Our Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of this work:

For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. (Psalms).

It is always better to have built trust and good practices in advance of a crisis so our relationships have deep roots. When in life the storm rages, our community, like a tree, will not be uprooted. We believe the partnership of the rabbi, executive director and president creates a strong foundation that can face great fear with hopeful courage.

The Situation


Covid-19 is terrifying. Members are rightly fearful about their health and the health of loved ones. All Americans are impacted by the pain and suffering of their neighbors. The crisis will impact people’s wages, job security, and investments. People are also afraid about their economic futures.Many nonprofits and congregations were teetering before the crisis. Some will not recover. Many will have to partner, reorganize, or merge to find some forward looking mission.


We are bearing witness to the extraordinary heroism of first line health responders.

As Churchill said of RAF fighters during the battle of Britain “- Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. These words are apt for healthcare workers and first responders. Some are members of your congregations. They should be an inspiration for all.

Synagogue leadership needs acknowledge the fear while also modelling a courageous faith in their own agency and faith going forward.

The Mission

Synagogue leaders are aided by enduring core synagogue values. These are the kinds of values that live on websites or are mounted in foyers:

  • Welcoming
  • Connecting
  • Consoling
  • Learning
  • Praying
  • Pursuing Justice

In order to mobilize these values to address the current situation, leadership teams would be wise to attend to their foundational team work:

Leadership Team: Meet as a Team of Three

It is not uncommon for the president to meet with the rabbi and the exec separately. In times of crisis it is better to get all parts of this team (sometimes called the “three legged stool”) in the same meeting to make sure the expectations are clear and accountability is established. In normal times these might be monthly. Today there may be times when this is daily.

Leaders Share Need and Ask for Support

Leaders need to check in on each other. Caring leaders ask: How are their friends and families doing? How are they coping? Connected leaders take time to share. From this caring stance, explore how you can leverage congregational assets to ensure that your members have a listening ear and a helpful voice.

Leverage Members’ Talents and Passions

The crisis can make people feel powerless. Now is a good time to offer members the chance to make a contribution; to write an article, teach a class, or help pick up groceries. Just as we pay attention to the leadership capacity of each Leadership Team members, so we should do for congregational willing and able volunteers.

Steady in Purposes but Flexible in Strategy

The core values of the congregation are on our website, on our walls and in our brochures but we need to breathe new energy into them. The challenge for leadership is to honor these enduring values but translate them to the new moment. Examples of Connecting and Caring

  • Promote online prayer and learning. Welcome people to join.
  • Have board members and volunteer call all members to ask how they are doing. Use time to share resources available for connection
  • Organize people to do grocery shopping for most vulnerable members. People see the need and will step up.

These new strategies need to be supported by the whole team. It is difficult to try new initiatives if the three leadership pillars are not aligned. The Rabbi may want to do the phone calling but they need the support of the board. The exec needs to create some system to break out the membership list and set up an orderly calling campaign. Nice ideas without unified leadership commitment can fail to launch.

Provide Clear Expectations- RACI

When the world changes, we need to keep communicating about what we are trying to achieve and what we need from each other. We can work more effectively if we will continue to communicate the following;

  • Who is Responsible? Who own different assignments?
  • Who is Accountable? This is the lead person for the project
  • Who needs to be Consulted? From whom do we need input?
  • Who needs to be Informed? With whom do we need to share this information?

It is always important to provide clear expectations for volunteers and staff. In a crisis, major policy issues (what I call “A” issues) need to get board approval even if meeting is online. There may be a host so smaller decisions that leaders may decide to manage with just staff or Executive Committee. Leadership Teams need to be empowered to move on these issues quickly. Some groups will move from Consult to Inform.

Communicating Our Vision and Mission

The media is telling heartwarming stories about people who have found a new sense of purpose in helping others: A group of nurses from Syracuse drove down to NYC to help. A businessman flew in masks to a needy city.


  • What are we learning about members’ need for support?
  • What are they learning about the importance of constructing community?
  • What are we learning about the need to sustain community in the face of great challenges?

These are important stories to share in your bulletins, letters and in time High Holiday messages.

Conclusion: Model the Change You Seek

If you want your Leadership teams to lead, let them lead by example.

  • Care for one another other
  • Use shared values and mission to speak in a unified voice
  • Leverage each other’s strengths and welcome others to contribute
  • Set clear expectations for the Leadership Team and then work with lay and staff leader to do the same

Read a related post, Virtual Sulam for Officers to Address Pandemic-Related Issues.

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