Rabbis and lay leaders are rightfully anxious about the future viability of congregations due to a myriad of changes happening in American Jewry and beyond. Our Jewish institutions – particularly congregations — exist in an era that necessitates 1) the naming of obsolete ways of thinking and doing, 2) a willingness to experiment with fresh new approaches, and 3) the realization that the answers are probably as idiosyncratic as the community in which each congregation exists.
As process consultants we get to work with committed, creative, and forward-thinking lay leaders, clergy, and professional staff. We see the best of strategic visioning. We also see planning efforts that merely re-package the status quo.
Before we encourage a congregation to invest the time, money, and effort in strategic visioning, we ask leaders to consider whether they are truly ready for significant change. But even when this commitment exists, there are many ways to fail. Here are ten common mistakes that congregations make. How many of these look familiar?
- Look to the Meyvins: Don’t look for solutions from an outside expert. Your answers rest in the insight and aspirations of your people.
Tip: Design a process that enables all participants to become well versed regarding the congregation’s realities, challenges, and opportunities.
- Focus on Programs: Program innovation is an insufficient answer to creating a vibrant Jewish community, yet it often gets 80% of the attention and investment.
Tip: Look at innovations in structures (e.g., volunteer, dues, etc.), systems (e.g., education), and culture (e.g., welcome) as opportunities for real and sustainable change.
- Convene the Usual Suspects: Involving only the people who are already active and visible in congregational life will guarantee that you reproduce past thinking.
Tip: Bring together participants who represent the diverse make-up and aspirations of the congregation – people who represent the past, present, and the future
- Treat Congregants as Consumers: During strategy development the worst mistake you can make is to ask people what they need and want, and then end the conversation.
Tip: Instead ask: “What are you interested in helping to bring into being here?” Frame every conversation to encourage a “citizen” rather than consumer mindset.
- Emphasize Solutions to Urgent Gaps: Trying to solve short-term problems or Band Aid the most obvious challenges rather than deciding the future you want to create.
Tip: Focus on articulating a future that inspires people to invest their energy and resources instead of goals that emphasize the prevention of bad things from happening.
- Act from Scarcity: Avoid the assumption that whatever we want to accomplish in the future must be accomplished with today’s resources, infrastructure, staff, and volunteers.
Tip: Avoid conflating the “what we aspire to become” conversation with the “how are we going to pay for it?” conversation. Both matter but they need to happen separately.
- Set the Bar Low: Working to eliminate risk ensures achieving goals without meaning. If we always get it right, we are probably not taking enough creative risks.
Tip: Broaden the definition of “success” and be willing to view implementation as a series of pilots that reveal valuable lessons whether or not they get the desired results.
- Defend the Legacy of the Past: Focusing on how much better things are now than they use to be is a distraction. It may be true but does not foster a forward-thinking conversation.
Tip: Ask, what no longer serves our mission and what can we build upon to create the future we really want?
- Avoid Going First: Choose not to be the first in the community, the movement, or the country to do something that challenges conventional wisdom, boundaries, or rules.
Tip: Make a conscious decision to lead in small and big ways. Be prepared to disrupt the status quo, break with convention, and displease people who prefer things as they are.
- Take a Competitor Stance: Proceeding as if other congregations and institutions have interests that are separate, independent, and competing creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures silos.
Tip: Look for ways to create a vibrant Jewish ecosystem in your community – one in you can play to your strengths while collaborating with others.
Although the act of going through a strategic planning exercise may feel reassuring and create the illusion that “we’re doing something,” it is insufficient to ensure a bright future for any organization. The planning process itself must be a practice ground through which leaders change the kinds of limiting default habits described above.
Larry Dressler is a master process facilitator and trusted advisor to rabbis throughout the US. Larry will be joining CCAR for an upcoming webinar, “Engagement 101 Are you a CEO – a Chief Engagement Officer?” and an upcoming in-person seminar titled, “Rabbi as (CEO) Chief Engagement Officer.“
Amy Rosenblum specializes in helping socially purposed organizations maximize their impact and ensure their sustainability. Both are based in Boulder, Colorado.