by Rachel Siegal, ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellow

A key principle in leadership settings, and particularly in intersectional spaces, is the concept of “relationship before task.” Essentially what this posits is that a foundational relationship based on trust and mutual respect are the ingredients underlying any meaningful work to create shared goals or to make change.

Let’s say you put several different interest groups together to work on a project, but none of these groups have ever worked together before. Assuming that those groups can come together and accomplish a shared task without first establishing some basic human connections would be a huge risk. Look at how good businesses invest in their teams: The smartest companies create culture around their best asset—their employees. Look at the team sports in the Olympics—the trust you can see when one athlete makes eye contact with their teammate. We know it when we see it (and we can also usually tell when it’s absent, too).

To me, the most fascinating proof of the importance of “relationship before task” came in a somewhat unexpected way as a member of the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF).

As Fellows, we have invested a good deal of time in getting to know one another across religions. Since January, we’ve gotten to learn about each other’s backgrounds and cultures and how we approach the world. Yet in March, each religious group of Fellows was sent off with its own members and given the task of creating a presentation about their own religion to then be shared with other members of the fellowship.

And, like falling right into a trap of my own making, we jumped right into the task. Oops. There were so many nuances, misfires, and miscommunications as we tried to accomplish this task. People (including me) defaulted to “insider language” without checking in to be sure we were all on the same page. Some lay people immediately gave deference to the clergy in the Zoom room, while others assumed we were in a community of peers and equals. I think the fellowship was so focused on getting us to meet folks from the other religions that we neglected to develop the important relationships within our own house, so to speak. Have you ever heard the expression, “two Jews, three opinions?” How about the story of the Jewish man stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues: one he attends, and one he refuses to ever step foot in!?!? We neglected the “relationship before task” principle at our own peril.

I am so thankful to the person who sent an email after our first meeting admitting how lost she felt in the conversation. It really gave me pause to think about how I may have contributed to feelings of exclusion or insider/outsider dynamics, all in the name of the almighty task accomplishment! I admit, I love a good task with a beginning, middle and end. I love productivity and efficiency. I often need to be reminded to build in time during programs for that all-important downtime so people can connect in a real way outside of the task at hand. And here I was, learning that lesson all over again.

In the end, we did come up with a pretty dynamic presentation. But it also involved more meetings to get to know each other and where we were each coming from, to be able to get to the point where we could work on the task. I hope as I continue to learn and grow, I can remember to always place the relationship building in the center of the work. The rest, as they say, is commentary.


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.

Rachel Siegal is a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…