Monday, January 14, 2008

Two Steps Back Part II: The Organization or Lack Thereof

A Digression on Cause

"In the room fog gathers under the ceiling and thickens
in every brain. Let us form committees spawning
subcommittees all laying little moldy eggs of reports.
Under the gray fluorescent sun they will crack
to hatch scuttling lizards of more committees."
--Marge Piercy, Report of the Fourtheenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group

The quote from the poem above summarizes some of my feelings about what might be going on with the problems in Machon, and in religious education in general, which has encompassed Sunday School (K-6) and Hebrew School. This at least, is how have experienced it over the past four years.

I think the ultimate problem is that the problem has been talked to death. Many bright and shining generalizations have been developed, mission statements have been written, and overarching dreams for a utopian future for education at the synagogue have been expressed. All of this at the expense of actually hiring an educator who knows what he or she is doing and then letting that person actually get something done. To put it more bluntly, the problem lies in talk as a substitute for action, and micromanagement as a substitute for competent leadership. Rather like the federal government.

Gentle Reader, I will leave who is doing the talking and who is doing the micromanagement to your imagination. If you have ever been a member of an organization that has slid into chaos, especially religious chaos, you know who I am talking about. If you haven't, then count yourself as a fortunate soul, and may you always be so blessed.

Now I don't have a clue as to how to solve such a problem. And I am rather thankful that my synagogue would never call on me to solve it. Or even to help solve it. I am not among the rabbi's favorites, and in fact, I expect he winces every time I approach him with a question, like I did on Friday night.

We haven't been going to services much lately.

We have lots of reasons, most of which are probably unimportant to anyone else. However, this past Friday night, we had been invited, and then uninvited, and then, through some politic maneuvering on the part of someone far more skilled at diplomacy than I, invited again, to light the candles at the evening service in honor of our covert anniversary. If you can follow that, you can probably understand why we have felt the need to step way back in our participation in the synagogue.

That this small personal insult unfolded at the same time as the latest crisis in Machon, and a turf-war surrounding a Torah study group, and a sudden, unexplained reoganization in the early childhood center--and if you can grok the fact that these are all probably unrelated--except to certain egos-- you might begin to get the picture of why I call it chaos. And you can probably also see how difficult all of this for me, hampered as I am by the absence of political and social savvy that is associated with the broader autistic phenotype, to even begin to unravel. For example, I am not certain which egos are at work here, or who might be behind what, but I can certainly smell something rotten in Denmark.

And I wonder why it took G-d forty years to get the Israelites to the promised land?

Where was I? Even telling the story tends to induce an episode of full-blown situational confusion in which all I want to do is throw my hands up in disgust and plead for mercy. Well.
Oh, yes. Friday night.

So we lit candles, although our blessing was omitted, for reasons that are unclear and which will remain so until the coming of the Messiah. We also stroked the possibly responsible egos by thanking them profusely and pretending we did not know that we had nearly been handed our hats.
(Score: political correctness 2, us 1).

The sermon--why, oh, why did the early reformers have to copy that particular Protestant invention?--was about the latest vision statement out of the Lifelong Learning Committee. They actually have a plan. Well, maybe not an actual plan--more like an ideal. Or..well, I don't know what to call it, but they said that they wanted to hire a Director of Life-Long Learning that will do just about everything except actually run the religious school. For that they want a Religious Education Coordinator. Oh, and they will need an Early Childhood Coordinator. And, naturally, so that adult education will not feel left out, they need one for that, too.

At this point, Bruce leaned over and began calculating on his watch. He was muttering:
"Open parentheses. Recruitment expenses. Salary. Expense account. Benefits. Close Parentheses. Open parentheses...."
I poked him in the ribs and muttered, "Don't geek out on me on Shabbat!"
He poked me back and hissed: "Well, they're the ones that mentioned money."
I whispered: "Well, they actually didn't, but..."
He muttered: "I can't pray when they start upping our dues in the middle of a service. How many relatives do they have anyway?"

But the part that really got my attention was when were told that if they could not find exactly the right person, they'd wait until the next year and start again.
I poked Bruce. "Great," I whispered, "So we can have chaos in the religious school for another year."
Bruce whispered: "I thought our G-d liked cosmos."
"No, honey," I whispered. "That's the 'Geek' gods. Ba-bum!"
Then we both turned and smiled angelically at the rabbi who was gazing in our direction.

Maybe he was regretting making us move out of the back row.

So at the oneg I asked my question: "In the meantime, what are you going to do about the current problems in Machon?"
I could give you a blow-by-blow account of that conversation, but my fingers are getting tired. Let's just cut to the chase.

Probably not much.
Possibly some new emergency policy that has not been well thought out.
Maybe a "coordinator" who knows something about school policy and discipline. Which raises another question. Will they let the person actually do the job?

Score: 'Process' 100, our kids ZIP.

I realize that I did not write the promised What Should Be Done installment.
But I wanted to answer a comments question: Why do you think this has become a widespread problem?
Maybe you can ferret out an answer from this account. I think it is ego-politics and focus on process at the expense of results.
In part III, I will get to what I would do if I were the Queen of Machon.

Here's a hint:
"...but oh, oh in me
Lurks a tyrant with double-bladed axe who longs
to swing it wide and shining, who longs to stand
And shreik, You Shall Do As I Say, pig-bastards!
No more committees but only picnics and orgies
And dances. I have spoken. So be it forevermore."
--Marge Piercy, Report of the Fourteenth Subcomittee on Convening a Discussion Group




Melora said...

Bruce cracked me up with his comment about not being able to pray while they are upping your dues, and the number of friendsandrelations you are sustaining!
Maybe you are a member of an enormous synagogue, but it sounds to me like an awful lot of people are being hired to do one job. Which is bound to make things chaotic.
In the kindly spirit of misery loving company, I derive a warped comfort from hearing about the idiot things that other people's religious institutions do. But, as you know, our priest is making me crazy. I'm very sorry about them leaving out your blessing, though. That was rotten.

I'd never heard of Marge Piercy before, but that is a hoot! I look forward to your recommendations.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Lesle, I tried to find your profile and your blog but I couldn't. Stop by any time.

Melora: We are members of the largest synagogue in New Mexico--which is not saying alot. It is medium size, with about 700 member families, and the largest proportion of members are older people with grown children.
I have been a member for 25 years, and so it's comfortable and I know and love many people--especially the older people.
Yep, religious organizations are particularly, but not uniquely, prone to doing idiot things! I am not sure why. Is it that religion taps an irrational part of people's minds in some way?

Marge Piercy has also written some excellent novels. One I really liked was City of Darkness, City of Light--about the French Revolution.
May we both survive the temporary insanity of our respective religious institutions.
My grandmother used to say that she didn't particulary believe in "organized religion." I thought that meant she didn't believe in belonging to a synagogue. Silly me. Now I think she probably didn't believe that religion could be organized.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm floating more and more towards your grandmother's philosophy, Elisheva.

Reading your post had so many me, too moments. Our church is a small, missions based country church, but the bureaucracy of the larger related org will likely close it down. It's always been interesting to me that our biggest obstacle has been a former high school teacher whose current job is to pastor people. Our kids are extremely uncomfortable around her.

I also especially enjoy the older members and have learned so much from them. But we haven't been going to services much lately either.

signed, Presbyterian elder attending a Methodist church (sometimes)

Crimson Wife said...

I agree that there's something about religious congregations that especially seems to bring out the ego in those involved in running them. My mom is on the board at her church and they're having a big battle over replacing their community center. Their big fundraising drive netted less than projected, chiefly because one donor who had (verbally) promised big bucks developed Alzheimer's and her children only ended up donating 10% of that amount. That was a lousy break, but now the church has to figure out what to do. It's a big mess, and I don't envy my mom having to deal with it.

Kimberlee said...

Wow! Great post! The writings of Marge Piercy are completely new to me. Thanks for sharing those additional titles. I'll check them out!

I think you've really hit on something with the quotes about committee proliferation. Division seems to be such a problem in education these days. You know, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, etc. In this case, the hand with the money and power doesn't know what the hand that actually does the work is doing. I don't see how leaders/administrators who are virtually clueless to the ACTUAL needs of those they "serve" can make appropriate decisions. Maybe that's why consider and study and discuss without action?