Last week I was casually perusing the produce at my local grocery store when I ran into a friend who is an Elementary School principal. We exchanged excited greetings in our unexpected encounter and then before my brain could stop it, I heard myself say “I bet you’re looking forward to the summer off!” As the words were coming out of my mouth I willed the universe to wrap them up and tuck them right back in. I am very much aware that Principals do not take the summer off. Their days may be different in scope but they are not different in workload or worry. I immediately followed my absurdity with apologies and quickly tried to change the subject.
On my drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about why I’d said it. I - of all people - a career ShulStaffer… a CHAMPION of ShulStaffers - who has been told countless times by congregants how “wonderfully quiet the summers must be!” Meanwhile, synagogue staffers face long hours of High Holiday preparation, membership renewal, school registration, staff hiring, office moving, new clergy onboard and more. Simply put, I know better.
I said what I said to my dear friend (and respected professional) not because I don’t appreciate or honor his work, but because in an unexpected encounter between peaches and tomatoes seeing him reminded me of my own children soon to finish their school years, and of my own childhood anticipation of the long slow days of summer. I made an instinctive comment about his work inspired by my own experience and perspective. It wasn’t intended to be hurtful or disrespectful, in fact, I was trying to make a connection (“You lead an Elementary school - My kids go to an Elementary School - and so did I! We have that in common!”)
And so it is with our congregants. Their lighthearted wishes to us for a “quiet summer” are not meant to demean the reality that summer in synagogue offices is often very stressful and it takes a lot out of Shul Staffers to make it through with a smile and some patience left. From the perspective of our congregants, summer time in shuls IS quiet. School is out and programming slows. Services are often informal and there’s a break in the B’nai Mitzvah cycle. The fact that they don’t realize it’s a whirling dervish of deadlines and changes is proof that we are doing our jobs exceptionally well! The hustle and bustle backstage is imperceptible from the audience.
Every time a member stops to chat and inquire about how we are or how work is, they are making an effort at connection - the very thing we pride ourselves on fostering. Congregants do not understand the intricacies of our days anymore than I know what it’s like to be an Elementary School principal. But I appreciate principals, I’m grateful for all they do, and in an attempt to make a connection with my friend I reached for a thread of common experience in the spirit of camaraderie, not insult.
Interactions with member of our community are an opportunity to create meaningful connection with them and strengthen their relationship to the congregation. Sometimes these moments come unexpectedly (often draped in something that feels harsh or short sighted) so being prepared can make all the difference. Here are some helpful tools to keep in your back pocket to help navigate the dreaded “Quiet Summer” conversation:
Try responding to their comment by sharing something that you authentically DO enjoy about the summer season. Maybe you and your colleagues take lunch outside or maybe the day campers bring dandelions to you on the other side of your office window each afternoon. Hearing yourself share these things is a treat to yourself and a reminder that the lead up to the holidays has upsides too.
Return the favor of connection and inquire something about them. Try saying “Yes! Summer is wonderful! How are you? Are your grandchildren coming to visit soon?” If the intention of our members is to connect with us, lean into that and invest in the moment by showing your interest in them. If you really want to go the extra mile, make a mental note of any details they share and enter them in a ShulCloud CRM so your whole team can know they are thinking about downsizing to a condo or have taken up oil painting.
Turn the conversation into an engagement opportunity by mentioning a program, service, or experience happening at the temple during the summer that the member might enjoy. This is advanced Shul Staffing for sure - taking lemons and turning them into a lemonade stand! Since you know the “Quiet Summer” comments are coming, keep a few programs at front of mind to slip into the conversation!
Support each other and don’t let it fester. After the fact, share your conversation with a co-worker and allow yourself a moment’s wallow. Hopefully your colleague will remind you that you’re doing solid work and the member meant well and simply thinks it all happens by magic (which is what we intend!). It’s not personal (it’s NEVER personal) and good for you for doubling down on a moment of congregant care! We owe it to each other to be sure that a minute of venting doesn’t become a trope of complaint. Complaining is a habit but so is compassion and perspective and in order for your organizational culture to be one where complaint doesn’t reign, everyone has to buy in.
These months we’re headed into are always a challenge. There are too many to-do’s and the list will never be complete. The membership renewal packets, ticket printing, Yizkor books, school emergency contact lists, usher trainings (and more) will all happen because we are excellent at our jobs and we care deeply about the lives of our congregants and the experiences they have in our congregations. That truth is not changed because someone suggests our summers are slow.
While we cannot control whether or not someone says it (they will), we do get to decide how we respond and whether or not we carry it around like an albatross of resentment or champion the moment by investing in the connection of our congregants to our congregations.