7 Financial Challenges for Synagogues

  1. The synagogue has a lot of debt.

Synagogues undertaking a capital campaign to renovate, expand, or buy a piece of property and build a new synagogue is a good thing. Assuming debt and taking on a mortgage, not so much.

It is not uncommon for a synagogue to fall short of its campaign goal and still build what it had originally intended. A mortgage is arranged to complete the project hoping that more people with contribute and/or join the synagogue. The debt becomes a part of the annual budget.

$1 million, or more, of debt is not unheard of, sometimes adding $300-$500 in debt service to each congregant’s annual commitment.

  1. The synagogue is not transparent with finances.

Most synagogues share budget information at the time of the annual meeting, as required by the By-Laws. And that is it in terms of financial information sharing.

A better practice is to share a budget update with the congregation on a quarterly basis. Congregants should be aware of expenses, but more importantly, how the synagogue is doing in terms of dues collection and fundraising. When the board realizes as it enters the fourth quarter that there will be a deficit unless they do some emergency fundraising, you don’t want this to be a shock to congregants.

  1. Talking and Teaching about Tzedakah is taboo.

Religious Schools often teach students about Tzedakah.  But do we ever make a conscious effort to engage our adult congregants on this topic?

The High Holy Day Appeal might incorporate biblical text about giving, or share a teaching of Maimonides. But how often does the Rabbi teach this topic in adult education classes, or even speak about Tzedakah and its importance for the synagogue as part of a sermon or through adult education?

  1. The synagogue has a passive approach to charitable giving – dues/annual commitments, High Holy Day Appeal, annual campaign, special campaigns and planned giving.

Many congregations are now using online payment platforms which really speaks to Millennials for whom the concept of paying by check is foreign. But too often, our dues/annual commitment efforts are just by mail or email. Personal one-on-one conversations are not taking place where the focus is both emotional -the “why” people belong to synagogues – as well as about a financial commitment. And planned giving efforts to, at a minimum, ask congregants to name the synagogue in their will, remain a low priority for many synagogues.

  1. The synagogue does not take an evaluative look at synagogue programming and the budget.

Does your leadership do a program evaluation? Do you have goals in the beginning of the year and examine whether you have achieved them or not? Goals could be a simple as having a monthly adult education program for 20 participants; increasing Shabbat worship attendance by 10%; Achieving financial goals for the various streams of income including dues/annual commitment, fundraising, and programming. And you should examine the activities you performed to achieve such goals.

  1. The synagogue has not taken wise steps for financial health.

How does your congregation budget? Do you look at the budget, take into account cost increases for utilities and other fixed costs? Contractual staff raises? Raises for other full and part time staff? And then arrive at a number?

Or do you look with a critical eye how the budgeting has gone in the past year in terms of both income and expenses?  Do you ever think about the programming you want to do as a part of the budget and how that relates to the synagogue mission? How committed are you, as financial stewards – fiduciaries to be more legal – to raise the necessary funds for the synagogue community you need to carry out the programs and fulfill the synagogue’s mission?

  1. The synagogue relies on a few big givers.

Most every synagogue has a handful of people who always step up in a big way to support the synagogue. Whether it be for the annual campaign, the capital campaign, or when there is a crisis-like when the HVAC system breaks down a week before the High Holy Days. What happens to the financial stability of the synagogue when these people pass away, move to Florida, or to another community to be nearer to their children?

(Adapted from “Eight Signs of a Financially Dying Church” at ThomRainer.com)

2 Comments on “7 Financial Challenges for Synagogues

  1. If talking about tzedakah is taboo then talking about maaser would be downright forbidden! People forget that tzedakah is what you give IN ADDITION to your 10% of tithe. Even if only a small % of the congregation tithed (and you can subtract dues from it i believe) it would probably go a long way to dragging these shuls out of debt (ours never had any debt Thank G-d !!)

    warmest regards

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