Counting Beans or Creating Change

Are synagogue leaders too focused on the synagogue as a business?

I think the answer to this question is yes. Board discussions too often spend a great deal of time on developing new streams of income for the synagogue. Dues generate 45% of the synagogue’s income, religious school generates 10%. I counsel synagogue leaders on ways to grow their fundraising percentage from 12% and increasing their endowment fund so it generates more than 7% of the budget.

I have been at numerous synagogue board meetings where the discussion regarding the early childhood program focuses more on the income generated for the synagogue rather than on how students’ families are being integrated into the synagogue community and becoming congregants.

A few years ago – and even today-conversations about ways to “monetize the building” were happening at many board meetings. Let’s do something with the classrooms and other meetings spaces that are vacant all day. Make the synagogue a place that congregants will want to hold B’nai Mitzvah and wedding celebrations for the primary reason that it will generate $1500 in rental income for each occasion. Make an exclusive arrangement with a caterer because it will generate income. Thrift Shops, Coffee shops –the list of business endeavors discussed by synagogue boards goes on.

Or let the synagogue become a Bingo parlor every Wednesday night.

Rabbis Lawrence and Noa Kushner in their recent article “The Tent Peg Business, Revisited” reiterate the purpose of synagogue life: to make a place for serious Jewish life. The business of the synagogue is to create Jews and to build a strong sacred community while doing that.

Like Rabbis Kushner, I believe synagogue boards are too focused on “bean counting”. The Kushners refer to synagogue management – maintaining the building, raising money, and the leadership development of the synagogue board – as secondary acts.

When synagogue boards are focused more monetizing the building and other ways to generate income rather than on “doing Jewish” and community building, the synagogue’s mission is lost.

Board meetings are really an opportunity to combine “doing Jewish” with the leadership, management, and fiduciary stuff. I wonder how many synagogue board meetings – or any synagogue committee or task force – begin with evening worship. How many board meetings have text study as the first agenda item each month? The D’var Torah is nice, but when it is just a board member making a presentation without discussion, it seems obligatory and unrelated to the rest of the meeting’s agenda items.

Who will ever want to become a member of a synagogue board if such work – the business of the synagogue – is characterized as “secondary acts”? There are some realities that cannot be ignored. A synagogue doing business in any state has to be incorporated. Incorporation requires a board and certain organizational responsibilities so that the monies are managed responsibly.

And there is the reality that clergy and other synagogue staff has to be paid, along with all of the other vendors that are necessary for any operating entity (utilities, purchasing of office supplies, equipment, furniture, and security to name just a few). Board members have to be bean counters some of the time because that is a part of their fiduciary responsibility.

A responsibility of being on a synagogue board should be to generate “disruptive ideas” about “doing Jewish” and building community. The status quo is certainly safer. And change is never easy.

Albert Einstein once said “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Synagogue leaders need to be charged with generating ideas and encouraged to create change.

Then maybe the whole synagogue board experience wouldn’t seem – as some say – so much like having root canal, but rather a more meaningful experience.

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