Synagogues: IBM with Soul

There were a couple of articles I recently read on that for me, presented a bit of a quandary. On Friday, it was “Why Leaders Shouldn’t Aspire to Run Congregations Like Businesses”. Then today, there was “A Reminder of the $54,000 Strategy: What Jewish Organizations Can Learn From Walmart”.

It is true that synagogues are different from profit-making businesses. Synagogues are raising Jews, building community, touching people in very personal, sacred, and spiritual ways.   At the micro level, the product is personal growth. At the macro, it is community. There is not a product that is sold that makes a profit for profit’s sake. No owners, no shareholders. Funds collected through donations, dues, and gift shop sales once the budgeted obligations are met, go right back into the community endeavor.

I have often used the description that synagogues are “Like IBM with soul”. There are some very smart people sitting around the table at board meetings who are “lawyers, doctors, and Indian chiefs”. You want them to utilize the same skills in the areas of strategic planning, marketing, technology, communications, and finance that they apply every day to their jobs. Besides caring about the synagogue, that is why they are there.

Don’t get me wrong, the sacred stuff – the pastoral visits by clergy, lifelong learning, lifecycle events, worship attendance/engagement – this is the “raison d’etre” for synagogue life and building community. But at the same time, synagogue leaders need to provide vision, serve as good financial stewards of the community’s funds, and be sure that enough funds are available to pay the bills – for clergy and other synagogue staff, heating and air conditioning, technology – you know the list.

Company CEOs are often offered financial incentives for growth, most often around sales of their products. Maybe we might think about financial viability and membership as comparable metrics.

A handful of synagogue leaders have asked about writing in their rabbi’s contracts financial incentives for membership growth, or for a capital/endowment campaign, or both.

What do you think about that?

Of course there are many congregations in cities and towns throughout North America where membership growth can’t and shouldn’t be a factor. Not a whole lot of Jews moving to these communities. The synagogue may be the only synagogue in town. When thinking down the road 25 years, survival might be one consideration.

At the same time, there are plenty of synagogues that are in communities with a good number of Jews. What about the synagogues that every year gains 20 families and loose 20 families? What about synagogues where there are a good number of unaffiliated. Maybe some of them come on the High Holy Days.

Should clergy have contractual incentives for membership growth and for fundraising? Should clergy and synagogue staff be evaluated based on these metrics?

Leadership responsibilities for the synagogue, its operations and its future are not just vested in the clergy, but to a partnership between the clergy and the synagogue board. The board can’t place all of the responsibility for membership growth with the rabbi and wring their hands. Planning for membership growth and engaging potential, new and current congregants is really a team sport.

This is also true for fundraising. The rabbi should be an integral part of any comprehensive fundraising campaign. But a partnership between clergy and synagogue leaders is really the key to any successful capital and/or endowment campaign.

So let’s apply some of the business practices from industry to synagogue life in terms of strategic planning, staff development and training, technology, finance, and leadership development.

Remember, our “product” is personal growth and building strong Jewish communities.

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