In 2017, Hayim Herring & Shmuel Rosner engaged in a three part exchange
The Leading Congregations exchange, part 1: The challenges facing 21st century Jewish communities
The following exchange will focus on Rabbi Herring’s new book, Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes (co-written with Dr. Teri Elton).
Dear Rabbi Herring,
Your new book is entitled Leading Congregations in a Connected World. Our introductory question: What type of congregation and organization leaders did you have in mind when writing this book, and what would you like them to learn from it?
My co-author, Dr. Terri Elton, and I wrote Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes, for two broad audiences: professional and volunteer leaders of congregations and nonprofits, and teachers of current and future leaders. We defined two categories of congregations and nonprofit organizations. We studied both “established and adapting” organizations, namely, those with at least 25 years of history, were structured primarily as top-down hierarchies, but were trying to adapt to a more decentralized, socially networked world where people co-create their own personal meaning and community. We labeled the second category, “emerging and maturing,” that is, those congregations and nonprofits that were at least five years old, were reaching the age of early organizational maturity, and recognizing that the socially networked DNA that gave birth to them was not going to be sufficient to keep them growing and sustainable.
We realized that existing studies on congregations and nonprofits took an “either/or” approach. They looked at “the new kids on the block,” those newer congregations and nonprofits that garnered a lot of attention for their creativity and freshness. Those stories were usually about growth and flourishing. The other side of the narrative was one of decline and decay, and focused on legacy congregations and nonprofits that were losing members and lacking in vibrancy.
We thought that both sides of the equation needed to be studied. While it’s true that many legacy congregations and nonprofits are struggling, we also knew of some that had pivoted to a 21st Century social engagement way of working. (That doesn’t mean just having cool social media tools, but knowing how to use them strategically to deepen community.) Second, even though many established organizations are having difficulty making that pivot, they still command a lot of attention and resources. Was there a way to accelerate their likelihood of becoming more responsive?
Conversely, while many of the startups rightfully gained a lot of attention, we were hearing stories of some that were now between five and ten years old that were struggling. How could they maintain their unique, organic and socially networked attributes now that they had to worry about a larger budget, more staff, and perhaps even a building? They certainly didn’t want to become like the more rigid congregations or nonprofits against which they had rebelled, but they also needed to support a broader base of people who held a shared vision. We wanted to test the commonly held assumption that hierarchies are dead, and that social networks are the only future way forward of organizing spiritual and nonprofit communities. Indeed, we found that both elements of hierarchies and social networks existed within old and new organizations and both are needed.
What was especially appealing to me was to conduct research and write together with a Protestant colleague. Jews are part of a dynamic religious landscape in America that’s undergoing a revolution. So why not contextualize our changes into the broader context of which we are a part? Terri and I are both committed to blending academic theory and empirical research with practical tools and resources for immediate use.
Here are five key takeaways, although I still hope that you and your readers will read the book and call me with your responses!
1. Authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve. Congregations and nonprofits that thrive in the 21st-Century will go back to their core mission, but then pick one of four different pathways that we identify to practice innovation, and make innovation a part of their new organizational DNA.
2. The values of a socially networked world, that include enabling people to co-create their own experiences and have maximum self-choice, are here to stay. These values need to show up digitally, in the synagogue or nonprofit’s bricks and mortar space, and wherever people gather under their auspices. That means leaders must learn to relinquish some control, but in return, gain the joy of watching participants grow as they own their Jewish experiences and purpose. By letting go and enabling others to share and enact their Jewish dream, leaders also expand the influence and impact of their congregational or organizational mission.
3. Disruption doesn’t discriminate by age. Today’s disruptors will be tomorrow’s disrupted, and today’s disrupted can easily become tomorrow’s disruptors. So it’s a good idea to redefine leadership not as having the ability to respond quickly to trends, but to anticipate and favorably shape them.
4. Engagement isn’t a goal or a checklist. It’s an orientation for congregations and nonprofits. That means engaging individuals with a significant mission, and then putting them into community with those who share the same passion for mission, a mission that must connect to the broader world.
5. Community is fragile and trying to hold people with diverse views together is becoming increasingly challenging. Nonprofit CEO’s and clergy have the tremendous task of keeping people focused on mission and bringing people together in face-to-face contact where they can see that others who are not exactly like them are still partners for holy work.
6. Without dismissing the incredibly urgent work of social justice, congregations have another great, and I would say unique, opportunity. There are four generations and soon to be five generations of people alive in large numbers today. Where are the opportunities for people from so many different generations to develop sustained, meaningful, multi-generational relationships? Where are the opportunities where mutual mentoring can happen, if not at congregations? To the best of my knowledge, no other institution has potential access to so many generations over a lifetime. For congregations to claim that role, they’ll have to rethink congregational life, priorities, values, budgets, staffing – and I can’t think of anything more important today given the isolating challenges that each generation faces.
There’s more to say, and I look forward to the next parts of the exchange! Thank you for contributing to this conversation on the disruption and reconfiguration of our communities!
The Leading Congregations exchange, part 2: On Judaism, marketing and integrity
Dear Rabbi Herring,
In your first answer you stated that “authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve.” Generally, your answer, and your book, stress the importance of “innovation” and “engagement” – both very positive-sounding terms – for religious institutions.
But it seems there is a less positive way of describing what is being demanded of religious institutions today – one could say that in the age of Buzzfeed there is more and more pressure on community leaders to aggressively market their ‘product’ and to water-down religion in the attempt to compete with the never-ending stream of internet content. While authenticity and innovation might be compatible, what about holiness and Twitter, or marketing and religious depth?
My question: how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?
You brought to light one of the core struggles of rabbis, clergy members of other faith traditions and nonprofit CEO’s. Almost all of the rabbis and nonprofit C.E.O.’s I know begin their service with a deep sense of calling and purpose. Some feel called by God, others by service to the Jewish people and still others to something transcendent that they may not be able to label. But they strive to live lives with religious integrity because they know that they are walking advertisements of the values of their traditions and organizations. Of course, we know that they’re also human and that they can fail big and fall hard like anyone else. Those who do, in my experience, are the exceptions and not the norms of legions of colleagues who take issues of honesty and authenticity seriously.
But that doesn’t diminish the serious implications of your question. Some colleagues burn out because they feel like they have to sell out their integrity in order to keep their congregants happy. And in trying to respond to “marketing” demands of members and donors, they may actually alienate them, because their members suddenly realize that they have higher expectations of their clergy leaders and nonprofit professionals. When rabbis or nonprofit C.E.O.’s experience that, it is an awful feeling, and this dynamic of maintaining integrity and authenticity, while trying to be responsive and relevant, is the basis for an urgent dialogue that needs to happen among rabbinic, seminary, denominational and volunteer leaders. That would take real national leadership and courage.
But I also think that you, like many in the congregational and nonprofit world, have a popular but mistaken understanding of marketing. Marketing is not selling, and it’s not advertising. Rather, marketing is building relationships based on an exchange of something of value. For example, a relationship that develops between a congregation and an individual through marketing would be when a congregation provides a volunteer opportunity to connect with elderly people, and a volunteer who seeks that opportunity now is able to develop a relationship with someone older under the auspices of the congregation or nonprofit. As you can see, marketing in this example is an exchange between a congregation that makes it easy for someone to do something good, and a person who wants to do something good. So marketing, when understood correctly as an exchange of value, has no effect on “watering down religion.”
One other clarification – you write that “innovation” and “engagement” are very positive-sounding terms, and they are greatly needed in congregations and nonprofits. However, we also emphasize the importance of mission in our book. Why? Because you want to have a marketing strategy that is built around mission, one in which belief in a shared mission becomes the social glue that makes people stick together in a community dedicated to the same kind of social, spiritual, or educational mission that can improve the world. Having a marketing strategy without a clear mission may get you some initial bump in program attendance. But honestly, 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.
Even with my clarifications, I want to acknowledge the tensions that you raise because they arise from real world pressures that colleagues face. Unfortunately, some of them are going to intensify, and some colleagues, with the best of intentions, will wind up selling themselves out and selling their congregations and nonprofits short.
Now a question for you – what do you mean when you ask, “…how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?” How are you defining “purity of religion?” Are you referring to Jewish Haredi sects whose male members held an anti-Internet rally at Citi Field in New York City in 2012, which was live streamed and where men took pictures on their cell phones and texted about it?
I’m curious to know what underlying mental picture you have of “uncompromising purity of the tradition ” and how rebranding risks tainting that assumed purity. After all, religious traditions like ours have always rebranded and, I would add, thank God we have had the wisdom to do so! We had to rebrand from a land-based, Temple-bound religion to a diaspora, prayer-focused community. We rebranded from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism. And we rebranded from a rationalistic, pilpulistic tradition to a mystical religion centered on developing personal virtue. And that’s before we begin exploring how the creation of the modern State of Israel has caused major rebrandings of Judaism both within and outside of Israel. I don’t think that trying to maintain a nostalgic memory of a static “purity of tradition” is accurate or helpful. In fact, rebranding can be holy work and hard work. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve included several essays about finding God in social networks and in their sacred relational power.
The Leading Congregations exchange, part 3: ‘Today, a congregation with a bland mission is at risk of going out of business’
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.
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!