Why do things change?
It seemed like only yesterday – 10 years ago actually – the congregation had grown very quickly to 550 families. Its future was never brighter. The congregation expanded its building with classrooms and renovated the social hall and sanctuary. And while its capital campaign fell short by nearly $1 million, the leadership felt that with low interests rates, taking out a mortgage of $1 million to finish the project did not involve much financial risk and was the worthwhile, considering the synagogue’s future.
“If you build it they will come” was their mantra – the Field of Dreams mentality. Additional congregants in the years to come would help the synagogue cover the increased costs.
Now the synagogue is hovering around 300 families. Things changed in 2008 and 2009 at the time of the recession. A good number of congregants lost their jobs. Some moved away for other opportunities. The synagogue no longer has any “heavy hitters”, those who can contribute a 6-figure gift. Some people – more often empty nesters – no longer feel the synagogue is important in their lives. They still live in the community. They just no longer belong to the synagogue.
The plus/minus of congregants leaving the synagogue compared to new congregants has favored those leaving since the recession. There is not as much new housing being built as before, but the local public schools seem to be holding their own in terms of census. While Chabad is having more of a presence, young Jewish families just aren’t joining this synagogue as they once did.
To deal with the financial challenges, the leadership has tried many things. Enhanced dues, High Holiday and End of Year appeals, various fundraising events. They have tried to rent the building out to school and church groups, but nothing has worked out. They have renegotiated the mortgage rate with the bank. The principal is now $600,000. With a rate of 4%, the mortgage still adds more than $33,000 to the annual budget. And for the last 3 years, a deficit of $25,000-$30,000 has loomed as the final quarter of the fiscal year began.
Maybe this story is familiar to you.
The financial challenges are really the symptoms. This is the time to do a deeper dive and examine questions like “who you are as a synagogue”, “what is your synagogue’s special sauce”, “what kind of synagogue do you want to become”, and “what do we need to do to get there. “
Call it strategic planning, or call it just taking stock of a current situation. There are several hundred people who still feel a sense of belonging to the fictional sacred community described above. Engage them in conversation about what they like and what they don’t like. What do they want to see happening in the future that they believe will make the synagogue a stronger sacred community?
Maybe you feel you don’t have the time for this. You just want to find the $25,000 to make the budget. Its like having to change the tires on a moving bus!
Once you spend the time engaging people in answering these questions, then there will be more questions. What should we be doing with our building? Do we have the right staffing pattern? Do we have a plan for engagement of current congregants? What about our communications plan? Our Website? How do we reach the unaffiliated in our community?
This isn’t easy work. But facilitating change with an action plan, rather than being reactionary to it will help strengthen the community.