The Leading Congregations exchange, part 3: ‘Today, a congregation with a bland mission is at risk of going out of business’


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). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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Dear Rabbi Herring,

Near the end of your last answer, you wanted some clarifications about what I meant when I asked you if thinking in marketing terms doesn’t hurt the purity of the tradition.

Now, of course I didn’t mean that all modern synagogues should strive to promote a “Haredi sect” vision of Judaism (if I believed that, I would never have hosted you and dozens of other progressive rabbis in my Torah talks)… What I was referring to is the idea that, for many people, the notion of treating faith and religion as a product, as something that needs to be “marketed” or “rebranded,” can be quite off-putting. I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.

For my third-round question I’d like to ask you to elaborate some more on the idea of mission. In your previous answer you stated that: “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.”

Now, your book tries to address issues facing both congregations and nonprofits. But while in the case of nonprofits the need to state a mission and set goals is understandable, what does having “a clear and compelling” mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?

Thank you again for participating in this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for pushing the discussion about congregations and nonprofits with increasingly difficult questions. Following up on our debate about “marketing,” you clarify: “I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.”

True-and that’s a great segue into today’s question: “What does having a clear and compelling’ mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?”

Spoiler alert: a congregation with a bland mission in today’s hyper-connected world of unlimited choice is at risk of going out of business. But congregations with differentiated, focused and compelling missions, that allow people to express and explore themselves Jewishly within those missions, have a better chance of thriving.

“Marketing” and “mission” are dual engines of congregational and nonprofit vibrancy. Marketing is about building relationships with people for whom you care based on causes which you share. That means that leaders of congregations and nonprofits have to define what their primary purposes are. As you suggest, the broad mission of every congregation is to engage its community in “Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim” (Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness expressed by and for members of the community). Not too long ago, most congregational mission statements were indistinguishable from one another. A typical mission statement might have read: Synagogue XXXX is a welcoming congregation devoted to creating a sacred community expressed through study of Torah, worship and acts of kindness.

That typical 20th Century mission above reflects hierarchical organizations. The missional proposition was, “join our community and here is what we, the more involved/elite group of insiders, pledge to provide to those of you who are not nearly as informed.” But when individuals sought deeper involvement, they often found a disconnect between what these standard missions professed and how they were actually expressed. There was Torah study – but it wasn’t not particularly challenging or inspiring. There was prayer – but the words of the book/siddur didn’t speak to their hearts. And these places that claimed to be “welcoming” didn’t always seem to behave that way. Congregations still work for some, but if you look at their increasing financial and membership pressures, they aren’t working for many.

Adapting the thinking of, Peter Drucker, a founder of modern nonprofit management, we suggest that the mission of a congregation or nonprofit is measured in:

– Changed Jewish lives.

– Changed Jewish communities.

– A changed world.

That’s why mission is critical and some congregations are really beginning to differentiate themselves with a focus on mission. These congregations and nonprofits are making hard choices. They have accepted the reality that trying to be all things to all people and do everything well guarantees mediocrity. Using their missions as filters, they decide where they want to focus their talent, time and funds to have the greatest likely impact on changing lives and communities, pursue those several goals with relentless excellence, and collaborate with other organizations in areas where they decide to place fewer resources so that members and potential joiners can have their other Jewish needs met through congregational partnerships.

A few examples of parts of contemporary mission statements (and I’m using both Jewish and Protestant examples from my book, as Protestants are also recognizing the need to focus less on programs, and more on purpose or mission):

Lab/Shul: Welcome to Lab/Shul, an artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.

Jacob’s Well Church (Minneapolis): If church is boring, something’s broken. Instead of being a once a week obligation, we want our time together to awaken who you are – you know, your real selves. Honest, thinking, relevant and casual gatherings impact the lives we live.

Romemu (New York City): Romemu seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice. Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. This is a Judaism that will ignite your Spirit…

GPS Faith Community (Machesney Park, IL): (Our mission is) Finding direction by loving God and serving others. We do this by joining together for worship and fellowship and then going out into our lives and into the community to love and serve others.

These mission statements:

– Invite an individual’s involvement on personal and not institutional terms, and also make their institutional parameters and expectations clear.

– Point individuals toward becoming part of a community of greater impact.

– Assume that most of a person’s time is spent outside of the walls or websites of the congregations, and that one must live out the mission even when not in services.

A Talmudic legal principle, “if you grasp too much, you wind up holding nothing,” applies to congregational and nonprofit missions. For many reasons, it’s not possible for congregations to excel at everything, although members have that expectation. My advice based on what we have learned: better to go deep in a few areas of Jewish life and build partnerships with others who can provide excellence in others.

When that happens, I think that you’ll find more people participating in congregational and Jewish nonprofit life because their individual and communal experiences will provide them with personal, enduring and powerful purpose as they live out their communities’ missions. I know that you have much to write about, but hope that others will be stimulated to purchase Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. Platforms, People and Purpose and delve further into your provocative questions!

Thank you,

Hayim

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