Sound familiar? Worrying about cultural change

Sometimes we get the feeling as Presbyterians and Protestants that we will stand all alone as we face spiritual and cultural crises in the years to come. For many church leaders, it is clear that American attitudes toward worship and Christian service are changing so rapidly that we have no clear idea how to conduct ministry in the future.

But it is not just Presbyterians who face this dilemma. Recently when I was in New York City, I stopped by Hebrew Union College to visit their excellent museum and art gallery and picked up some literature that outlines similar Jewish concerns. The fall 2011 issue of The Chronicle, a publication of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, for example, displays ways in which the faculty, students and alumni are grappling with questions of vision and leadership in a changing world. Points in the lead article by college officers are insightful and may sound familiar to us.

1. Leaders must “be imbued with the spirit of Torah while proving capable of teaching the Torah and guiding our people in view of the conditions and contexts of our day … .” We must continue to speak the language of Judaism to a community caught in the throes of transformation.

2. We must also continue to nurture a concern for equality and inclusiveness, a hallmark of Judaism.

3. Our students must be equipped to address Jewish concerns across outmoded denominational lines.

4. Our graduates must be found wherever opportunities for renewal appear.

5. We must believe that we can nurture new leaders “willing to take on the dazzling new opportunities of a new day.”

The titles of other articles indicate how much we have in common: “The Certainty of Vision in Leading the Jewish Community in the Future”; “A Rabbinical Change Agent”; “A Tripod of Leadership Education” (advocacy of social responsibility; outreach to the diversity within our ranks; training in practical skills to transform vision to realization).

One essay by Dr. Rob Weinberg is particularly intriguing: “Synagogue Leadership for the 21st Century.” Writing about the need for congregations to transform themselves, Weinberg says that the future is increasingly here and congregations must treat change and innovation as constant companions. The following issues are central to the work of transformation.

» Creating Jewish learning that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of learners of all ages.

» Moving from the idea of the solitary “hero leader” and hierarchical direction to more collaborative leadership that recognizes that one person can no longer bring the talents and knowledge necessary to meet the challenges of congregational life in the 21st century.

» Recognizing that a synagogue is not a business with key characteristics of efficiency and accountability but exists to build real and meaningful relationships not only with God, the Torah and the Jewish people, but with one another.

» Being sure not to mistake cooperation for collaboration. “Real collaboration involves active interchange, and engaging by balancing influencing and being influenced: listening to others — signaling an openness to learn from others’ ideas — and sharing your unique perspective and expertise — enabling ideas, language, values, and ownership to emerge in the space between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ thereby truly generating ‘ours.’ ”

Responding positively to rapid change, listening, transforming and collaborating are all concepts Presbyterians also need to understand and practice. We can learn a great deal from our neighbors who face the same crises of faith.