Posts tagged ‘Synagogue Studies’

The Jewish People, Inc. Part 2: There’s a goy in the house!

I recently wrote about my experience recommending a church consultant to work with a synagogue. Fortunately, for me and for the synagogue, the experience with this consultant was excellent. He was exactly what they needed.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk with the consultant about his experience. Although he had never worked with a synagogue before, he is one of the most respected change agents in the church world. I asked, “Any quick impressions – church vs. synagogue?” His response was as follows:

There’s a lot of overlap – and a congregation is a congregation… tossing theology aside you’re looking at probably 70% is the same, 30% is very different. I think what’s different, at least in my experience, was how few people actually attend worship or for that matter any other type of event. There’s just not a high level of participation. I’m also surprised to learn about the dues structure, how the financials are managed. In the church world it’s tithing and let’s give to a vision rather than pay the dues and be part of the club. Those were probably the biggest differences – everything else was pretty similar.

I followed with, “Do you think that those contribute to some kind of dysfunction? Particularly the lack of participation?”

Yeah, I think if you’re not participating you don’t have that sense of ownership – what you get is a sense of entitlement. For me I likened it to – I’m a partner in a company and I have a high level of investment and if there’s a problem I’m part of the problem and I also need to be part of the solution. I’m also a member of a country club and I don’t play golf very often and I don’t play tennis very often; I may go there for dinner from time to time and when they send me a bill for the assessment I get pissed off. It’s more along those lines – there’s just not a high level of participation but people are paying dues so it creates a culture of entitlement.

If there’s not a real clear sense of vision or a mission – that we’re actually trying to accomplish something – you’re left with the default mode which is low levels of participation and a dues structure.

Ouch! But sometimes the truth hurts. Admittedly, my first reaction was to explain to him the historic nature of the dues structure, how it harkens back to communal support when Jewish communities were (somewhat) autonomous. I decided not to. Those standards don’t work anymore and what this consultant has pointed out is perceptive and poignant.

Much has been written about synagogues as fee-for-service agencies. Ron Wolfson calls this ‘drive-through’ Judaism – you drive your child to Hebrew or Sunday school and drop them off – and keep driving. Many synagogues even have drop off lanes for this very purpose. You won’t find a parallel to these at churches. When the children are getting religious education, so are the parents. Granted, our education system is much more intense and involved, but Jews are also more secular focused than ever before. Secularity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to religious participation, many Jews don’t see the synagogue any differently than the JCC, or for that matter, the soccer field or piano lessons.

This isn’t a newly identified problem. Synagogues have wrestled with this for decades. For most, the answer is programming – let’s create new programming that will attract more people. The jury’s in – it doesn’t work. More programs are just that – more programs. Most synagogues have no way to evaluate programs nor do they know how to measure success (or lack thereof). They continue to throw money at programs hoping something will ‘stick.’

So, what is the answer? Truthfully, I don’t know, but taking a hint from this church consultant the key is engaging members rather than attracting them. Churches have been working on ways to engage people into their communities. Some do very careful ‘spiritual inventories’ of each congregant. These interviews seek to discover the interests and gifts of each person. The congregation then tracks these gifts in a database and can then proactively engage members with tasks as needed.

Of course, this requires a level of commitment on the front side. Many churches now require covenantal agreements with each member. These covenants, b’rit kehilloth I’ll call them, outline not only financial commitments but activity commitments as well. Some even have worship attendance commitments.  I had the opportunity to witness one church’s ‘re-up’ ceremony. Each year, congregation’s members recommit to the church in a lovely ceremony. Families come to the front of the sanctuary and actually sign a document outlining their year’s commitments. It reminds me of the title of one of my favorite books, “Rocking the Church Membership Boat: Counting Members or Having Member Who Count” (by Jan G. Linn). The subtitle says it for me – having communities where members are engaged rather than congregations with large roles.

In his book “The Multigenerational Challenge,” Gil Rendle calls the current generation “consumerist” in their focus. He calls them the Burger King, “have it your way” generation. The predominant question for this group, by and large those born since the 1960’s, is “what’s in it for me?” Joining a congregation is much like joining a health club or a country club. “I will shop around and see what each is like and pick the one that gives me the best bang for my buck.” What often happens is they determine that there is no perceived value to joining a congregation. They determine that their money is better spent elsewhere.

For years, synagogues have relied on the b’nai mitzvah cycle. Young parents joined synagogues, whether they perceived value or not, when their children became old enough that bar- or bat- mitzvah loomed on the horizon. That trend no longer sustains synagogues. Alternative religious education venues are forming and not all families have ceremonies in a synagogue. If synagogues were truly market driven, they would adapt to and drive these burgeoning trends.

They are not, nor have they been responsive to the needs of their congregants. What really troubles me is the loss of communal identity, of edah. Our tradition is that support of the Jewish community is not optional – it is a responsibility. Joining or not joining a synagogue is not really a matter of choice – it is a requirement. We have lost that sense of responsibility to each other, our local communities, and the greater Jewish community. We have lost edah, the notion that I am responsible to all Jews everywhere, whether they live in Israel, Buenos Aires or in my own town.  This is a value that synagogues have failed to transmit in the last few generations. The synagogue has value because Judaism has value. By losing the value of synagogues we fail to pass on the value of Judaism.

My maternal grandfather lovingly, and somewhat sacrificially, helped to build a synagogue in the town where my parents grew up. On a 2002 ‘pilgrimage’ to that town, I discovered the schul was now a church. I knew this had happened but it was startling for me non-the-less. My grandfather was an open and respectful man, and I realized that the fate of the building would not have bothered him. I think what would have disturbed him was that the Jews were gone. This neighborhood, once predominately Jewish, was now totally devoid of a Jewish presence. The suburbanization of Judaism is a reality, but this is for me a glaring metaphor for the American Jewish community. We have so acculturated into general society that we no longer have “Jewish” communities. We have been a “mobile” community for ages. But accompanying this with this move to the suburbs has been a distinct shift in attitude. And synagogues are caught in the crossfire – do they lead the community or react to it? I say neither – they need to respond to communal change AND be the pillars of edah.

I often find myself watching with envy the churches with whom I work. Many are obviously focused on their congregational communities. That’s not to say that they can’t or don’t do work for others outside their community. But when a member is sick and needs help with the grocery shopping or housework, there is no question that someone will step in to take care.  When a loved one dies, there is no question that the congregation as a community will support the bereaved – and they know each other well enough to grieve alongside each other. This was the way my grandfather’s schul worked. It’s almost as if we’ve abdicated our communal focus. And churches, who for years have sought to emulate the communal focus of Judaism, now do it better than we do. Martin Buber wrote that the Jewish community has lost its ability to “think Jewishly.” I contend this is a skill we can reclaim by transforming synagogues into the locus of edah. Churches have found ways to make community paramount and, maybe more importantly, relevant. Instead of competing with health clubs, soccer practice and baseball games, they have learned to be OK with what they are – centers of spiritual guidance and tranquility distinct from the mundane world. Kehillath kedoshim – holy communities.

June 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm 4 comments

The Jewish People, Inc.

STAR’s Rabbi Hayim Herring recent blog entry, The Jewish People Inc: A Study On How Synagogues Develop is clever… and brings up an interesting question. Herring likens the development of the Jewish people, to the development of a company or corporation.

We began as a family owned business (Abraham through Jacob). Jacob moves the company because of economic developments. It prospers and spins off into 12 different divisions. We experience a hostile takeover, Egyptian enslavement, which takes us off mission. A few dissenters, Moses and Aaron, try to steer the company back towards its founding mission and a return to the corporate headquarters.

Because of years with lack of corporate focus, Moses ‘hires’ an outside organizational consultant – Jethro. Herring continues the story with great expertise, but I want to stop here. I recently worked with a large synagogue on long term strategic planning and organizational development. I recommended they use a non-Jewish consultant, one who is well-known in the church world but who had never worked with a synagogue. Knowing this consultant and his work well, I knew he would be a perfect match for the synagogue. Fortunately, I was right and the consultation was (and is) working very well. This congregation, which some deemed dysfunctional beyond repair, is well on its way back to health, vitality, and mission focus.

In some respects I was lucky. But I had an ulterior motive in recommending this consultant. I have nothing against synagogue consultants. Many are excellent change facilitators. But the change they facilitate is sometimes shrouded in a ‘business as usual’ paradigm. Many times, synagogue consultants are focused on getting the congregation back to stasis, a state of no change, what Larry Hoffman calls the ‘default’ mode. I think this is, in part, because rabbis and synagogue leaders don’t know what they don’t know. This synagogue was willing to venture outside their comfort zone, the default Jewish world, to see what they didn’t know that might be possible. The consultant recently commented to me, “I had no presuppositions about how synagogues work. I think if I’d been an insider my presuppositions would have clouded the work.”

Might the synagogue world take a lesson from this congregation’s experience? Moses went to his most trusted advisor, his father-in-law, for leadership advice. He didn’t care that Jethro was not part of the tribe. He was the best resource to address the issue. Synagogues might consider this model.

Stay tuned for part 2 – what the consultant discovered about synagogues!

May 15, 2008 at 4:59 pm 2 comments

10 Easy Ways to Keep Me from Visiting Your Church Because I Visited Your Website

Just replace ‘church’ with ‘synagogue’ – these rules apply! Kudos to Tony Morgan of New Spring Church in Anderson, SC wrote this post on his blog. It’s so nice when someone else confirms what I say. Thanks Tony! 

  1. Avoid telling me what’s going to happen at your church this weekend. I found churches that had weather reports but nothing about their upcoming weekend service. I found two churches that had prominent information about upcoming golf scrambles (which I appreciated as a golfer), but nothing about this weekend’s service. Why would I come if I don’t know what I’m going to experience?
  2. Put a picture of your building on the main page. After all, ministry is all about the buildings.
  3. Use lots of purple and pink and add pictures of flowers. Really. Are you expecting any men to show up? And, for my benefit, please don’t put any doves on your website. Doves scare me.
  4. Make me click a “skip intro” or “enter site” link. I don’t have time for that and it’s very annoying. If I have to wait for something to load or have to click around intro pages to get to the real information, I’m probably going to skip your church service.
  5. Add as many pictures and graphics as you can to the main page. My life is already complicated. I don’t have time to figure out what’s important at your church. If you dump everything on the main page, I’m assuming you don’t know what’s important either.
  6. Use amateur photography. And, for the record, it would be helpful to have at least one normal looking person on your site. Do us all a favor and hire a graphic designer, a professional photographer or purchase some stock photography.
  7. List every single ministry you have at your church. Frankly, I don’t care what ministries you have. I just want to know whether or not I should visit your church this weekend. My first step isn’t the men’s Bible study or joining your church’s prayer partners ministry.
  8. Make it as difficult as possible for me to get directions, services times, or find information about what will happen with my kids. It’s important that my kids have a great experience. If you can’t convince me that that will happen, I’m probably not going to risk visiting your service.
  9. Put a picture of your pastor with his wife on the main page. That tells me it’s all about a personality, and I see enough of those people on television. I actually found one church that had not one but two pictures of the senior pastor on the main page. He was looking mighty dapper, though, in his fancy suit.
  10. Try to sell your church rather than telling me how I will benefit from the experience. I don’t care how great your church is. I just want to know if visiting your church will help me and my unchurched friends take our next steps toward Christ.

March 21, 2008 at 8:18 pm 1 comment

Counting Members OR Having Members Who Count

 My friend Rabbi Hayim Herring recently wrote a piece on the Co-STAR blog entitled “Real Leaders Are Not Loved By All.” Hayim reminds us that the final sentence of the book of Esther says,

For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.

It’s pretty clear that the Torah is inferring that while Mordecai was popular with some in the community, he wasn’t so with everyone. Hayim’s commentary reminded me of one of my favorite books. It’s a small book written for churches, entitled Rocking The Church Membership Boat: Counting Members OR Having Members Who Count.” Author Jan G. Linn posits that strong congregations are those who have a clear sense of who they are and attract congregants of a like mind.

These mission-focused congregations have requirements of members – and not just monetary ones. Members come into covenantal agreements with the congregation to be vital and viable members. This may include a certain number of service hours, teaching, committee and governance work. And if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, the congregation has the prerogative to ask them to leave. Can you imagine a synagogue asking a member to leave because they’d consistently failed to fulfill an agreement?! I can’t, and that’s an indication of part of our community’s problem. We’ve become ‘fee-for-service’ institutions that both cater to the whims of a select few and fail to be sensitive to the needs of the many. What would it mean if we stopped counting members and began creating kehillath kedoshim, sacred communities of members who count?

March 12, 2008 at 7:31 pm 1 comment

Synagogue websites

There is a website resource I often recommend to congregations looking to develop their own sites. It’s called Web Pages That Suck, As the name implies (not so subtly), it is a review of websites that don’t quite measure up to Vincent Flanders’ (and the world’s) idea of decent websites. Flanders includes some great tools to analyze ones own site.

In the spirit of avoiding lashon harah, and without getting too judgemental, you can guess why I recommend it to congregations. There are a lot of bad church websites. Proportionally, there are even more bad synagogue websites.

This post was spurred by a recent email to me from Monique Cuvelier of Talance. Talance is a web development company and Monique has taken on the daunting task of working to improve synagogue sites. Her email asked if I had any exemplory synagogue sites to recommend. My reply was that I didn’t even have any really good sites to recommend. Sure, there are some nice, slick looking synagogue sites out there, all of which are based on Web 1.0 – ‘here’s my information, come look at it.’ While much of the church world has embraced Web 2.0 philosophy (see my post on Cyberculture,, I’ve yet to see a synagogue use web technology as a way to elicit or solicit information from readers.

I’m encouraged to see that many rabbis are now blogging. That’s a start! Let’s all encourage Monique by reading her blog and taking her suggestions,!

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March 4, 2008 at 4:55 pm 5 comments


This is a word that I throw around casually. But if viewed critically, it’s almost an oxymoron. Cyber: of, relating to, or involving computers or computer networks (as the Internet), Culture: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group (both definitions from

 It’s not hard to see that all things cyber have become part of our culture. If I take a step back though, this wasn’t the case even 5 years ago. What happened to move technology past efficiency tools to becoming integrated into culture? This isn’t a rhetorical question – I really want to know the answer! Well, OK – I do have one theory. Web 2.0.

Wikipedia says (at least as of this writing) “Web 2.0 is a trend in World Wide Web technology, and web design, a second generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, which aim to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing among users.” They key is facilitating creativity, collaboration, and sharing. For me, when we stopped using computers as passive ‘users’ and started using them to create, cyber began influencing our culture.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but was led to write about it today because of a Facebook group I just discovered. It’s called “I love cutting edge Judaism” and rather than being a religion, culture, or society group it’s listed under “Type: Internet & Technology – Cyberculture.” As one who works with congregations and technology, I’m somewhat sheepish to admit I missed this transition. I’ve been focused (and writing about) technology as a tool for congregations with little to say about how technology is redefining congregational culture. It is obviously redefining religious culture.

The group has a YouTube video listed that I think may be the best explanation of Web 2.0 I’ve seen (heard, read, listened to, etc.). Kudos to Michael Wesch at Kansas State University!

February 16, 2008 at 9:16 pm 3 comments

New resources for synagogues

Kudos to Rabbi Hayim Herring and the folks at STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, for their new series of reports for and about synagogues.

Acting Strategically: A Manual for Synagogue Planning is an excellent manual for synagogues (and other congregations) to use for long range, strategic planning. This report contains more inforamtion about synagogue planning than many books on the topic! Consulting in American Synagogues: A Report on the State of the Field is just what the name implies – a review of what synagogue consultants do. The report also includes very important information about how to assess a synagogue’s readiness for using an outside consultant. STAR follows that up with a list of practitioners in Preliminary Annotated List of Synagogue Consultants.

Congregational consulting is a very new field. The church world has been doing it for less than 30 years and synagogues even less. While it’s a burgeoning, somewhat immature field!

Join the conversations on these reports at the Co-Star blog or Synablog

December 18, 2007 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

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