RJ Magazine Top Menu

Creating a Healthy Congregation

The lessons learned from 20 years on the frontlines of synagogue transformation.

The lessons learned from 20 years on the frontlines of synagogue transformation.

Ron Wolfson, Ph.D. is co-founder (with HUC-JIR Professor Larry Hoffman) of Synagogue 3000/Next Dor, an institute designed to catalyze excellence in synagogue life. He is also Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University; a member of the URJ faculty; and author of numerous books, including The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community and Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (both Jewish Lights Publishing).

Since you began your work in the field of synagogue transformation about 20 years ago, what’s been the biggest change you’ve seen to date?

The biggest change is that synagogue transformation itself has entered the Jewish communal conversation. For many decades, synagogues operated almost on autopilot, on the expectation that all Jews would join a synagogue at some point or another in their lives. Indeed, earlier demographic studies showed that nearly 80% of American Jews did belong to a synagogue at some period in their lifetime.

But the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey raised the alarm about Jewish continuity, and Jewish leaders began to ask challenging questions about what a sacred community ought to be, especially in the areas of welcoming and worship.

In the past 20 years, many Reform congregations have made worship much more engaging through music.  They are also more sensitive to how they welcome the stranger and how they serve members.

And yet, we still hear the same complaints: worship is boring and people aren’t welcoming.

Though we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

The bottom line in all this is congregational leadership. I’ve seen significant progress in synagogues where the clergy, staff, and lay leaders are honest with each other, build trust by performing candid assessments of what’s succeeding and what’s not, consider worship renewal and service quality seriously, and work together as partners.

Other synagogues didn’t get the message of transformation. They’re still living in a 20th-century model, which doesn’t compete well in today’s marketplace, when families can, for example, easily rent a rabbi for a lifecycle event.

If you’re asked to check on a congregation’s health, what vital signs do you measure?

When I’m taking the pulse of a community, I play the role of mystery shopper. I start by checking how that community is welcoming “me” on its website. Often I see uninteresting sites featuring empty sanctuaries and multiple logos—not very enticing. A synagogue community is not a logo or a set of stained glass windows; it is a sacred community of people doing God’s work.

Conversely, when I visit that website, walk into that building, and feel from its warm, engaging, vibrant, energized ambience that things are happening there that I want to be part of—then I’m attracted. I’ll look for people who are in my life stage, hoping to make new friends. I also want to see an intergenerational community learning together, building relationships, raising their voices in enthusiastic worship, doing God’s work to repair the world.

A second big vital sign is how happy people appear to be in the congregation. Are they excited when they come in for services? Do they welcome each other enthusiastically? Is the clergy happy? Is the staff happy? Is the leadership happy?

This isn’t so different from a doctor checking a patient’s vital signs. One of the first signs physicians look for is the general feeling they get while meeting their patients. They can usually tell within minutes if a patient is healthy or not. When I visit a congregation as a scholar-in-residence and someone picks me up at the airport, I usually know within five minutes whether it’s a happy place or not, because I either hear all about the exciting happenings there or all the problems weighing down the congregation.

A third sign is literally a sign. What does it say on the synagogue marquee? Is there a sign of welcome? In some communities you’ll see “DO NOT ENTER” or “DROP OFF ONLY.”

A fourth vital sign is how long the clergy and staff have been serving the community. When rabbis, cantors, educators, and/or executive directors have worked in a synagogue for 10 or more years, it’s indicative of a stable community where the professionals have had the time to get to know people and build the kind of relationships that are at the core of healthy congregations.

Another vital sign—I’ll ask the board: “How many people do you have?” If the answer is the number of households or membership units rather than the number of human beings, it’s a signal that leaders don’t realize people and relationships come first.

Here’s a surprising vital sign: Is the coffee really good at the oneg? If the congregation puts its best food forward—pun intended—it demonstrates that hospitality is a priority.

Finally, is there a clear vision of what the congregation is in business to do? In my book Relational Judaism, I posit nine questions that every congregant should ideally be able to answer in the affirmative. Does the congregation:

  1. Change my life
  2. Strengthen my family
  3. Give me a community of friends to celebrate the ups and downs of my life
  4. Teach me how to use Jewish study and practice to enhance my life
  5. Connect me to both a sacred and civic Jewish community in a significant way
  6. Give me a sense of belonging to the Jewish people
  7. Deepen my relationship with the State of Israel
  8. Lead me to do the work of repairing the world
  9. Help me to build a relationship with God, however I define God?

What are the most common ailments weakening synagogues?

One serious ailment is dependency on the “programmatic model of engagement,” based on a false assumption that people will join or maintain temple membership for programs. One congregation called me in a state of emergency: “We’re 100 years old and we’re dying.” The incoming president explained that 10 years earlier, the synagogue had started to lose people because of demographic forces, so the leadership had decided to turn that around by a huge infusion of exciting programming. Starting from a balanced budget, they borrowed $1 million, hired a program director, and created a calendar full of concerts, lectures, and big-time events. For the subsequent 10 years, big crowds showed up for the events, but nothing was done to change congregation’s ambience, which was widely perceived as cold and unwelcoming; and nothing was done to build relationships among the people who showed up for the programs or to engage families whose kids attended the synagogue’s preschool or religious school. By the time the temple leaders called me, the congregation was more than a million dollars in debt and membership had shrunk from 1,200 to 350. The lesson here is clear: While programs are important, people come first.

Another major ailment is congregational conflict. In the middle of one synagogue’s major holiday service, I watched the cantor slam the prayer book shut and walk off the pulpit. Later I learned that the rabbi and cantor had been locked in what’s often called “the battle of the bimah” over the direction of the congregation’s worship experience. I could tell you of similar conflicts between lay leaders and rabbis over contract renewals that have factionalized congregations. When leaders are publicly at odds, factions ensue, adversarial relationships develop, people act unkindly to one another, and congregations can literally split apart. In contrast, happy synagogues with happy members move forward. If there is trouble, the Reform Judaism magazine article on conflict resolution, "A Temple Divided Can Still Stand Together," can help.

A third ailment is the leadership’s unwillingness to try something new, to take risks, to change. All institutions are resistant to change, but the ones that understand the inevitability of change do better than the ones who hold on for dear life to the way “we’ve always done it.”

How long does it take to change a congregation’s culture?

The kind of cultural paradigm shift I’m advocating—moving from a transactional/programmatic model to Relational Judaism—can take years. It begins when congregations assess current realities, open themselves up to having everyone communicate with one other, commit to a major shift, and undertake a planning and implementation process.

The rabbi of a major Reform temple told me that when he arrived a decade earlier, the congregation was failing. There were several factions, they’d gone through several rabbis, and members were leaving. He started over by scheduling hundreds of one-on-one meetings with individual congregants and listening carefully as they told stories of the ways in which the congregation had not served them well. His listening campaign, as it were, went on almost every day for two years. Then he created a blog and posted some of the concerns anonymously, to which people responded, sharing their experiences, worries, and hopes for something better.

“After two years of conversations,” the rabbi told me, “I felt ready to articulate my vision and get people on the same page with me and move forward. I had built enough trust with both board members and congregants to respond favorably to my call for change. I had identified the people who’d been resistant to certain changes and explained the reasons for my suggesting the changes. I’d built relationships by explaining.” The congregation proceeded to make some difficult staffing changes, replace their prayer book, and much more. “In 10 years,” the rabbi concluded, “we have created a vibrant, exciting congregation. We’ve doubled our membership, we have an exciting worship environment, lots of people are studying, our social justice is fantastic, we have become a caring community, our schools are flourishing. Everything’s changed. And it took 10 years.”

Won’t congregations be disheartened by the slow pace of change?

As congregations work on shifting paradigms, they can also make small changes or innovations that can have an immediate impact. A simple way to introduce change is to build an ever-increasing repertoire of melodies for worship, including teaching congregants a variety of tunes for the same prayers. Another way is to make sure that all congregants’ needs are met. At one West Coast temple, for example, I saw a long table in the lobby lined with about 20 Shabbat challot in plastic bags. The bags were labeled with different people’s names and MapQuest driving directions from the temple to that person’s home. It turned out that congregants baked challot at the temple’s Thursday night Mitzvah Kitchen, enabling elderly or ill people who couldn’t get to services to call the temple and request a homemade Shabbat challah that would be hand-delivered to them by worshipers who lived nearby.

What are the pitfalls to avoid?

Two big ones are 1) too much talking and not enough doing and 2) not hearing every voice in the congregation. Leaders: Beware of the temptation to believe your own rhetoric and become insular.

What lessons can synagogues learn from successful businesses?

Like many for-profit companies, synagogues are in the service business. Today’s most successful for-profits offer quality service built on relationships. Consider this: On my last birthday, I received 423 Facebook “Happy Birthday” messages and four handwritten cards—one from my wife, one from my son, one from my daughter, and one from my Chase bank teller, who wrote, “Dear Mr. Wolfson, Happy birthday! When you were in the branch, you mentioned you were going to visit your grandchildren for your birthday. How was it? Next time they’re in Los Angeles, please bring them by the branch so we can meet them. Have a most wonderful day. Sincerely, your bank teller, Valerie.” Even though I know this is bank company policy, it still gets through to me on a human level, just like the good feeling I have for Zingerman’s Deli whenever they alert me by email that my favorite pecan raisin bread is now on sale.

One significant difference, however, between most for-profit companies and synagogues is that quality service in a spiritual community is only a strategy to begin the relationship. In and of itself, having greeters at the synagogue’s front door doesn’t make for a great community; it’s just the beginning step in building sacred relationships. The real work of Relational Judaism is to deepen those relationships significantly, over one-on-one lunches, communal Shabbat dinners, house parties, and much more.

People don’t think of leaving a congregation when they admire the leaders, and when the leaders truly know them. And they don’t leave a congregation where they have caring friends who will be with them, in good times and bad, throughout their lives.