The Leading Congregations exchange, part 2: On Judaism, marketing and integrity


Rabbi Hayim Herring is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist. Rabbi Herring has worked with over 300 rabbis and congregations of all sizes and denominations throughout North America on issues including assessment, volunteer leadership development, strategic planning, organizational foresight and innovation. He has served as a senior rabbi of a congregation, assistant director of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and has published dozens of scholarly articles on the American Jewish community. Rabbi Herring holds degrees from Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained, and a doctorate in Organization and Management from Capella University’s School of Business.

This exchange focuses on Rabbi Herring’s new book, Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes (co-written with Dr. Teri Elton). Part 1 can be found right here.

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Dear Rabbi Herring,

In your first answer you stated that “authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve.” Generally, your answer, and your book, stress the importance of “innovation” and “engagement” – both very positive-sounding terms – for religious institutions.

But it seems there is a less positive way of describing what is being demanded of religious institutions today – one could say that in the age of Buzzfeed there is more and more pressure on community leaders to aggressively market their ‘product’ and to water-down religion in the attempt to compete with the never-ending stream of internet content. While authenticity and innovation might be compatible, what about holiness and Twitter, or marketing and religious depth?

My question: how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

You brought to light one of the core struggles of rabbis, clergy members of other faith traditions and nonprofit CEO’s. Almost all of the rabbis and nonprofit C.E.O.’s I know begin their service with a deep sense of calling and purpose. Some feel called by God, others by service to the Jewish people and still others to something transcendent that they may not be able to label. But they strive to live lives with religious integrity because they know that they are walking advertisements of the values of their traditions and organizations. Of course, we know that they’re also human and that they can fail big and fall hard like anyone else. Those who do, in my experience, are the exceptions and not the norms of legions of colleagues who take issues of honesty and authenticity seriously.

But that doesn’t diminish the serious implications of your question. Some colleagues burn out because they feel like they have to sell out their integrity in order to keep their congregants happy. And in trying to respond to “marketing” demands of members and donors, they may actually alienate them, because their members suddenly realize that they have higher expectations of their clergy leaders and nonprofit professionals. When rabbis or nonprofit C.E.O.’s experience that, it is an awful feeling, and this dynamic of maintaining integrity and authenticity, while trying to be responsive and relevant, is the basis for an urgent dialogue that needs to happen among rabbinic, seminary, denominational and volunteer leaders. That would take real national leadership and courage.

But I also think that you, like many in the congregational and nonprofit world, have a popular but mistaken understanding of marketing. Marketing is not selling, and it’s not advertising. Rather, marketing is building relationships based on an exchange of something of value. For example, a relationship that develops between a congregation and an individual through marketing would be when a congregation provides a volunteer opportunity to connect with elderly people, and a volunteer who seeks that opportunity now is able to develop a relationship with someone older under the auspices of the congregation or nonprofit. As you can see, marketing in this example is an exchange between a congregation that makes it easy for someone to do something good, and a person who wants to do something good. So marketing, when understood correctly as an exchange of value, has no effect on “watering down religion.”

One other clarification – you write that “innovation” and “engagement” are very positive-sounding terms, and they are greatly needed in congregations and nonprofits. However, we also emphasize the importance of mission in our book. Why? Because you want to have a marketing strategy that is built around mission, one in which belief in a shared mission becomes the social glue that makes people stick together in a community dedicated to the same kind of social, spiritual, or educational mission that can improve the world. Having a marketing strategy without a clear mission may get you some initial bump in program attendance. But honestly, people’s lives are so cluttered with excellent opportunities for programs, entertainment and socially valuable causes that unless a congregation or nonprofit has a mission that is so clear and so compelling that can cut through the clutter, marketing efforts are questionable.

Even with my clarifications, I want to acknowledge the tensions that you raise because they arise from real world pressures that colleagues face. Unfortunately, some of them are going to intensify, and some colleagues, with the best of intentions, will wind up selling themselves out and selling their congregations and nonprofits short.

Now a question for you – what do you mean when you ask, “…how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?” How are you defining “purity of religion?” Are you referring to Jewish Haredi sects whose male members held an anti-Internet rally at Citi Field in New York City in 2012, which was live streamed and where men took pictures on their cell phones and texted about it?

I’m curious to know what underlying mental picture you have of “uncompromising purity of the tradition ” and how rebranding risks tainting that assumed purity. After all, religious traditions like ours have always rebranded and, I would add, thank God we have had the wisdom to do so! We had to rebrand from a land-based, Temple-bound religion to a diaspora, prayer-focused community. We rebranded from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism. And we rebranded from a rationalistic, pilpulistic tradition to a mystical religion centered on developing personal virtue. And that’s before we begin exploring how the creation of the modern State of Israel has caused major rebrandings of Judaism both within and outside of Israel. I don’t think that trying to maintain a nostalgic memory of a static “purity of tradition” is accurate or helpful. In fact, rebranding can be holy work and hard work. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve included several essays about finding God in social networks and in their sacred relational power.