This essay was originally published on the Reform Judaism blog on July 27, 2016.
What is the most important part of your house of worship? Is it the spiritual well-being of the community or good attendance at adult classes and innovative programming events?
That question is at the core – at the essence – of every progressive synagogue (and every church, mosque, and other house of faith). It’s not reflected in congregations’ mission statements, value statements, or statements of purpose, and frankly, I doubt that many synagogue leaders know the answer as it applies to their own institutions. And, among those who think they do, at least half of them get it wrong.
After many years as a consultant in the synagogue world, I’ve come to believe that most clergy, as well as professional and lay leaders are incredibly visionary, amazingly hard-working, and shockingly myopic. They believe their congregation is warm and welcoming, even as many newcomers and longtime congregants are frozen out of the “important” cliques. Leaders are convinced that worship services are innovative and uplifting, while the Jews in the pews murmur that services are old and tired. And, although leaders may believe that the biggest reason members leave congregations is because of an outdated dues model, in reality it’s because in their rush to implement innovative programs, clergy have forgotten to minister to their flock.
Let’s look at two examples.
- One mid-sized synagogue I consult with is fixated on programs. Programs for teens! Programs for seniors! Lots of classes! Experiential Shabbat! Social justice programs! Scholars-in-residence! Multi-faith initiatives! Everything from yoga to drumming to Mussar. Seemingly every temple communication aims to drive sign-ups for “fun-filled” programs for all ages and every interest.
The staff and clergy in this community are eternally focused on finding out about new programs, and then bringing them to the synagogue. As a result, they’re involved in lots of conversations in The Tent, discussions at the Scheidt Seminar, and workshops at Biennial. What’s missing, though, is introspection – a look at what works and what doesn’t, including an examination of which members are engaged, and which aren’t, and whether the focus should be on programs at all, instead of on congregants.
In fact, neither the clergy nor the caring community members are focused on outreach to congregants. Rather, the implicit focus is on the synagogue. Of course, if members are in crisis and call the temple or request pastoral care, they receive sincere love and lots of attention. However, beyond an inner circle of regular participants, the clergy and leaders don’t know most members of the congregation, and making the first move is up to congregants.
- Another mid-sized congregation in a different part of the country also hosts programs – classes, scholar-in-residence events, a well-attended summer camp – and experiments with different worship models. Most inspiring, however, is its leaders’ intensive focus on frequent and direct engagement with each and every congregant, which means regular phone calls, invitations for coffee or meals, and deep conversations whenever a lifecycle event occurs. This congregation focuses on individual congregants and wants to be an integral part of their lives. As a result, every congregant has opportunities to spend quality time with the clergy each year, either one-on-one or in small group settings.
One reason such engagement is possible is because the clergy and staff are active on social media and it’s part of the synagogue’s culture for clergy to reach out immediately to congregants who are in distress or celebrating a simcha (joyous occasion). Making these connections is powerful, as I learned from a long-retired rabbi, who told me that one of the most important and enjoyable parts of his job was calling every congregant on his or her birthday.
In a choice between people and programs, I’ll always vote for people. Of course, it’s important that a synagogue be a beit midrash (house of study), a beit t’filah (house of worship) and a beit k’neset (house of assembly). However, its responsibility as a beit g’milut chasadim (house of loving kindness) should be first and foremost, and the true Torah of our Reform congregations.
Indeed, nothing is more central to the cause of Judaism than synagogues that look beyond programs and consider as their core mission the need to engage and take care of every congregant – in good times, bad times, and every time in-between.