A new study by UJA-Federation of New York finds that the executive director/administrator role is increasingly critical to helping synagogues manage mounting challenges to fiscal and operational stability. Fewer than half of the nearly 2,000 synagogues nationwide, however, currently have such a top-tier employee in place.

The Synagogue Executive Director: A Changing Role for Changing Times is considered the first report of its kind to examine this crucial role across the four mainstream movements—Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox—and unaffiliated congregations.

As of October 2017, just 950 individuals serve in paid executive-level positions, which tend to be poorly defined and hampered by competing demands and a lack of clarity around function, governance, management and leadership authority. Executive directors are also pressed to manage many key functions in the synagogue, including technology, facilities management, general operations and administrative tasks, often with no prior experience in these fields.

Many come to the role with “a deep commitment to the Jewish community,” says Adina Frydman, executive director of UJA-Federation of New York. “Most love what they do, but are often overwhelmed by the amount of work, competing demands and complicated relationships with senior leadership as a result of confusion over their functional roles and authority.”

As a result, synagogues experience disruptive and often rapid job turnover that impacts daily operations.

Moreover, when facing tough economic times, many synagogues try to save money by downgrading the senior administrator position, hiring candidates with inadequate skills and experience at significantly lower salaries and limited benefits.

To that end, the report recommends several proactive, cost-efficient steps that congregations can take to come to a more unified understanding of the evolving leadership role.