What Job Is The Synagogue Hired To Do?


Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, was given the following consulting assignment by a fast-food chain: help us sell more milkshakes.[1]   This fast food chain tried every kind of focus group to increase milkshake sales, asking consumers to evaluate whether or not the milkshakes should be sweeter, chunkier, thicker, and so on, yet none of the changes resulted in an increase in sales.

Taking a different approach, Christensen and his team parked themselves next to one franchise location, and each time they saw a person leave the restaurant with a milkshake, a member of Christensen’s team approached that person and asked him or her what job he or she wanted done when they “hired” that milkshake.   Most people were confused by the question, and so the researchers clarified further, asking, “Think about a recent time when you were in the same situation, needing to get the same job done, but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”[2]   As people began to give responses, the researchers learned that 40% of the milkshakes were purchased early in the morning, and that people “hired” a milkshake over a bagel or a doughnut because they wanted something that would not get their hands sticky, could be eaten with one hand, and would last for a long work commute.

According to Christensen, understanding why someone hires a milkshake allowed the company “to gain share against the real competition-not just competing chains’ milkshakes, but donuts, bagels, bananas, and boredom.”[3]   If a person hires a milkshake to relieve boredom in a long work commute, then the milkshake should be made thicker so that it will last longer.   Furthermore, if a banana or doughnut was hired in a different situation because each of them takes less than a minute to purchase, then the fast food chain needs to provide ways for people to grab a pre-packaged milkshake early in the morning without being stuck in line. By focusing on the function the milkshake needed to accomplish, rather than only improving the milkshake in comparison to other milkshakes, Christensen and his team helped the company increase sales by the broadening the scope of how that company thought about their marketplace and their customers.

What Job Is the Synagogue Hired To Do?

Every day, people hire, or choose not to hire, synagogues. Typically, our conversations about trends in synagogues focus on either joining a synagogue as a zero sum-game (i.e. you join a synagogue or you don’t), or joining a traditional synagogue as opposed to attending a Chabad House or an independent minyan, both of which provide a similar set of synagogue functions, but do so with a different approach.   As a result, much of the conversation about how to cultivate more thriving synagogues focuses exclusively on how synagogues compete with each other, as if the marketplace in which synagogues operate is limited exclusively to other synagogues, and that the unaffiliated are a simply a catch-all category of people who choose not to join synagogues.

However, we all know that this is not the case. Yes, sometimes a person chooses one synagogue over another because the other synagogue offers more meaningful prayer experiences, a better preschool, a visionary rabbi, or takes certain halakhic stances that are more appealing to the individual shul-shopper.   Yet at a time when the Pew Forum’s Portrait of American Jews finds that only 31% of American Jews belong to any synagogue, conversations about how to revitalize synagogues are functionally worthless if we ignore the fact that synagogues compete in a larger marketplace.

Christensen identifies this distinction as the difference between “category-defined markets” versus “job-defined markets.”[4]   In a category-defined market, synagogues are compared exclusively to other synagogues.  Yet job-defined markets are much larger than category-defined markets, and in this kind of market synagogues compete with Jewish Community Centers, Chabad Houses, gyms, yoga meditation and studios, knitting circles, soup kitchens, children’s playrooms, self-help groups, and countless other institutions.   In each case, the person who chooses not to engage in synagogue life does so because he or she feels that another institution does some job better than a synagogue ever could.

Who is Your Saddleback Sam?

Of course, what I just outlined above is not new information for any skilled synagogue professional or lay leader, yet understanding how to ask the right questions about this phenomenon is the key to actually overcoming it.  In Sulam for Current Leaders, the board development curriculum of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), congregational boards developing a Leadership Plan must ask questions such as, “Who are our owners?,” “Who are our customers?,” and “What do our Members Value?”   Asking these questions challenges the core leadership of a synagogue to think about their institution as a product in a particular marketplace, with loyalists, shoppers, persuadables, skeptics and so on.  It also forces the leadership not to think about the synagogue’s health solely in relation to other synagogues, making critical decisions because of what the synagogue down the street decided to do, but rather based on how the synagogue can effectively meet the needs of customers they have yet to reach.

Famously, Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California took these questions to the next level, creating a composite profile of an unchurched person in Orange County, what he calls “Saddleback Sam” or “Saddleback Samantha.”[5]   In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren outlines how all church leaders at Saddleback must learn about Saddleback Sam and Samantha, along with their children, Steve and Sally, including where they shop, where they work out, what kind of financial challenges they face, and how they define what it means to create meaning.   By understanding this profile, Saddleback’s leaders gain an edge by shaping their church in a way that meets the broadest set of spiritual and communal needs, and the results, as we know, have been tremendous.

When a synagogue asks “What job is the synagogue hired to do?,” the professional and lay leadership allow themselves to think about their present and future from a purely user-driven perspective, outside of the insider conversation that takes up too much space about the future of synagogues.   Clayton Christensen argues in an interview that the jobs-to-be-done approach challenges us “to crawl into the skin of your customer…always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?”   If a person hired a coffee shop over the synagogue, then the synagogue may need to reconfigure physical space to allow for more low-pressure social interactions.  If a person hired a yoga studio over the synagogue, then the synagogues may need to increase programming that engages a person’s body as well as her or his head.   And if a person chose not to hire a synagogue because it felt too similar to a coffee shop or a yoga studio, with programming that is pediatric and lacking in substance, then the leadership will need to double down on increasing the quality of their core functions of prayer, study, and social justice.

At a critical time in the history of synagogues, we need to teach professional and lay leaders how to ask the right questions, embracing a principle that dates back to the Talmud that we should “Go and see what the people are doing” (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 44a, 45a).   Doing so may prove be the first step for us look at synagogue mission, vision and strategy from the perspective of Jews who have an endless array of options to choose from and help our leaders become smarter at figuring out how to make sure that future generations hire the synagogue.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

[1] To read the entire case study, see Clayton M. Christensen, “Module Note: Integrating Around the Job To Be Done,” Harvard Business School, 11 August 2011.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), 169.

Is this post useful and interesting? Please consider sharing it with your social networks, and leave a comment below telling us your thoughts!