Hope in Times of Decline

A common complaint among today’s synagogue leaders concerns the significant decline in membership and attendance in recent years. It is no surprise that congregational leaders are searching for a “silver bullet” that will bring people in.

Many leaders long for the “good old days” of the 1950’s, when many of their synagogues were being built. At that time, Jews wanted to belong to houses of worship like those of their Protestant neighbors. Families attended these congregations together, and kids were raised to feel obligated to carry on that affiliation.

Today young families are less connected to religion. Many are distrustful of institutions and are not sure they should be burdened to maintain those they did not create – institutions with high clergy salaries, large buildings, and bureaucratic governance.

In our Sulam leadership curriculum, we study a Talmudic text about two rabbis who debate the issue of how they would keep Judaism alive in a time of crisis. The first rabbi says that he alone, as expert, will teach the people all they need to know. The second rabbi says the following:

I will go and sow flax, make nets [from the flax cords], and trap deer, whose flesh I will give to orphans, and prepare scrolls [from their skins], upon which I will write the five books [of Moses]. Then I will go to a town [which contains no teachers] and teach the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I shall say to them: “Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah;” and thus I will preserve the Torah from being forgotten in Israel. (Baba Metzi’a- 85b)

The first rabbi sets himself up as the expert who tells us what to do. The second rabbi takes the longer path of going out to empower others. In challenging times, we need to increase the number of people going out to build a community of teachersstudents and leaders.

The Numbers Trap

Go into any declining congregation and the first two questions they will ask are “How do we bring in new members?” and “How do we bring in more money?” Go to any board meeting and you will hear them obsess about the same. The problem is that these discussions seldom change any of the facts on the ground. It doesn’t even make for a good board meeting. It is simply an expression of anxiety.

In his book, Facing Decline, Finding Hope, Jeffrey Jones has written that we need to look for new models that inspire us to go out and empower people to serve, rather than to keep counting how many people are coming into the building. Jones cites the church leadership model of Tom Bandy, which he calls the “thriving church system” (Finding Hope in Times of Change, Jeffrey Jones, p 47-48). This model is contrasted with the “declining church system” which focused on signing people up and keeping them as members in order to maintain numbers.

In his thriving church system, the focus is on tapping people’s energy, passion, and gifts, and matching them to opportunities to further the mission and vision of the congregation. At every level, the hope is to light a fire to enable people who feel called by their Christian mission to serve.

I have compared Bandy’s model with our Sulam Leadership model.

Changed: Something motivates them to join Explore Congregation: They become aware, develop interest and join
Gifted: They reflect on their life and learn about their special gift Share their Story: Peers and leaders get to know them; they have the chance to reflect on their own life journey. Some kind of profile is started, maintained and shared
Called: With help of other leaders they find opportunities to use their gifts Get Recruited: Invited to consider volunteer roles in the congregation. We match their talents with a committee, task force, or team
Equipped: They are trained and mentored to do this work Trained: They are trained to serve in a specific area of the synagogue, and given the resources they need to succeed
Sent: Sent out into the community to make it happen Serve: They help build community through service.

A Community Building Story

Joel and Judy were in their 30’s when they thought their family might want to join a synagogue. They had attended some services with other couples in their 30’s. Joel’s family had been active in a synagogue when he was growing up, so he was open to making a connection. Judy’s family had been less involved.

They had heard some good things about the rabbi and the community at Beth El, and their approach to Judaism sounded interesting. The congregation’s tag line – “Community is Built Here” struck a chord. When they visited they were greeted in the foyer by people with names tags. Some of the tags were decorated with bright colors, and they were all printed with large letters that could be easily read from a distance. As Joel walked through the foyer, he saw posters of upcoming events with the faces of happy, energized congregants. The tag line, “Community is Built Here” was at the top of every event poster.

When the rabbi gave his sermon, he made an appeal for the Beth El service corps, which he called the “beating heart” of Beth El’s community. There was also a leaflet at the back of the prayer book on several volunteer opportunities. It read, “We grow stronger when we turn our attention to others and when we show we are strongly invested in the welfare of the general community.”

As they came out of the sanctuary, Joel and Judy saw a chart which showed the growth of the service corps. There were service corps heroes that were highlighted with a nice photo and a few words about why it was important for them to serve.

Joel remembered that his family’s synagogue had a dark paneled wall of yahrzeit plaques in the hallway memorializing loved ones. Next to that had been a group of photos of the congregation’s past presidents. In contrast, Beth El’s walls were brightly lit, and illuminated a promising future based on service.

During the kiddush lunch, several people gave Joel and Judy Beth El’s welcoming cards with their handwritten phone and emails which said, “Ask me about Temple Beth El.” Others encouraged Joel and Judy to sit with them.

On the way home they shared their experiences. They wondered what made this whole community so upbeat. They left wanting to know more.

Start with a Commitment to Service

Joel and Judy would not have been motivated by an appeal to join which said, “we need your financial support.” Many congregations are so anxious about their membership numbers that they keep trying to close the deal instead of working to build a community that people might want to join.

In their first year as members, Joel and Judy were invited to a new members’ Shabbat dinner. At the dinner, they were asked to share a story about an important Jewish experience that had shaped their lives. They were also asked about the kinds of things they would hope to experience at the synagogue.

The rabbi got to know them and recruited them to participate in a seven-session program called Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL). SEL seeks to welcome the participants’ stories, help them share their stories with fellow participants, and connect the group’s stories to the larger story of the congregation and the Jewish people.

SEL participants are exposed to a reflective process that engages them and helps them determine what they are called to do. They do this under the watchful eye of the rabbi and a skilled lay leader. SEL provides training in community building and in emotional intelligence and team skills. Most graduates of the program go on to volunteer for a committee or team where they can be trained in the specific skills needed for that area.

Through this leadership journey, Joel and Judy gained the motivation and skills to be a constructive force in serving the mission of the congregation and the Jewish people.

The Shift

Leaders need to help others make the shift from “how do we bring them in” to “how do we recruit, train and motivate them to go out and serve and build community?”

How do we bring them in?

  • To set service times
  • To our building
  • To our pet fundraiser
  • To our book group at noon

How do we send our leaders and members out to serve and build community?

  • To lead study groups
  • To make our board the kind of dynamic experience people want to participate in
  • To work on community-wide social justice
  • To partner with others on behalf of Israel

We know that leaders need to have a management dashboard to track and count members and dollars. But more importantly, we believe leaders need to learn to shift to inspire their current members to be the kinds of people that made Joel and Judy’s journey so rich and rewarding.

That type of leadership will motivate the “Joels and Judys” of the world to want to join your congregation and help you build a community that will succeed and thrive.


Bob Leventhal is a Transformation Team Leader for the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). Over the past 17 years, Bob has worked with hundreds of congregations, previously as a consultant for the Alban Institute and currently, as a staff member at USCJ, and has written extensively about synagogue leadership and long-range planning. This piece originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on Dec. 11, 2017.

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