Ten Common Missteps Congregations Make During Strategic Planning

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?


  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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Rabbi-Hacking III: Hack Your Productivity

Do you ever get asked the question: “What’s a typical day in the life of a rabbi?” I do, and it’s a tough one to answer. The truth is that there are no typical days. A funeral can lead us to drop everything and visit with a family. Sometimes we have multiple congregants in the hospital, or we have a community event to attend.

The fact that we do not have typical working hours makes figuring out an effective system for organizing our projects and responsibilities even more important. We could live simply from emergency to emergency, but then our rabbinate would be one of responding and managing rather than creating and building. The best systems for productivity are both simple and comprehensive. They allow us to incorporate all the different parts of our lives without becoming so intricate that we spend more time managing the system than managing ourselves.

The best system I have found for doing so is called Getting Things Done (GTD). Developed by David Allen, it is simple, effective and life-changing. Several of our colleagues have embraced it, and it is quite popular among pastors and non-profit executives. The entire system is laid out in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but I will include a short summary here, along with a couple of ways it impacts my rabbinate.

The key principle of GTD is that we need to get everything out of our head. Our brains are meant for thinking and reflecting, not for remembering or reminding. The first step of the GTD system is doing a “mind dump,” where we write out everything that’s on our mind, from buying cat food to starting a new building project. If it’s on our mind and not in our system, it is tugging at our psychic energy, even if we do not realize it. Once we have a list of what’s on our plate, we process it.

A popular part of GTD is the “2-minute rule.” Any action that can be dispensed of in two minutes, we do right away. If it’s a phone call, email or signing papers, we just do it. If it would take more than two minutes, we have three options. We can defer it, delegate it or trash it. To defer it means to put it on a list or on our calendar. (More on lists later). To delegate it is to assign it to someone else. Trashing is self-explanatory!

After processing we organize. The organizing phase is where we decide what lists to put the action or project on. David Allen is famous for making lists, and they are at the heart of his system. The most important list is the “Projects List.” It is an inventory with every project (he defines a project as something that requires more than one action) we have in our lives. It is usually several dozen.

For me it includes “Develop a new confirmation curriculum,” “Organize Israel B’nei Mitzvah trip,” and so on. A project has to start with a verb and, very importantly, be able to be crossed off the list eventually. A project is not an ongoing responsibility, like leading worship. Rather, it is something that can be finished, like creating a new siddur.

In addition to the “Projects List,” there are next actions list. A “next action” according to GTD is a “physical visible step” we need to take. GTD organizes next actions by context. So we have a next actions lists for “@phone,” “@computer,” “@errands” or even “@Executive Director.” These are things we need to do when we have a phone, or are sitting at our computer, or have time to run errands, or are meeting with our Executive Director.

Why do we need all these lists? Because we need to free up brainpower from remembering things to thinking about and creating things. Deciding what list to put an action on also forces us to begin to think about how we will accomplish the action, giving us greater impetus to actually do it.

The next two phases of the GTD workflow are “Review” and “Do.” Review means looking over our lists and figuring out what needs our attention at the moment. The doing is the most important part, where we work through our lists.

UnknownI know this may sound both overly complicated and commonsensical at the same time. My wife, Rabbi Ari Moffic, gently chides me for my obsession with lists. Yet, it works. For example, on my projects list now is “Get CCAR Journal Book Reviews to printer.” Then on my @computer lists are notes with each of the ongoing book reviews attached to them. When I sit down at my computer, I open up my @computer list and see the book reviews I need to get done for the project. Without having to constantly worry about what I’m missing, I can focus on getting the work done.

To learn more, pick up a copy of Getting Things Done. Or give me a call and we can talk more about it, and I can refer you to other colleagues who use GTD.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.