Shul business

Market-wary US synagogues bring in business consultants.

ny synagogue 88 (photo credit: )
ny synagogue 88
(photo credit: )
The list of functionaries at US synagogues generally includes rabbi, president, cantor, etc., but increasingly a synagogue's survival is in the hands of a new member of the staff - a synagogue consultant. Struggling with membership and long-term financial security, congregations across the US are increasingly relying on a diverse group of consultants who have come to specialize in synagogues. Most people have probably never heard of them, and according to a study released this week by the national foundation Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal [STAR], which is dedicated to synagogue innovation and leadership development, that's not surprising. Based on interviews with more than 50 active synagogue consultants, the study, Consulting in American Synagogues, reveals that consultants now active in the field share no common training, background, approach or certification, and are still unrecognized as a field. Many are ordained rabbis, some are trained in business, while others have a background in organizational development. But the rules and requirements of what it takes to become a synagogue consultant have yet to be laid out. STAR hopes their study is a first step. The problems synagogue consultants are hired to target are familiar. Synagogues have been struggling to attract and retain congregants for a number of decades, and by most accounts the problem is only getting worse. Within the religious world, synagogues are faced with increased competition from Chabad, and the rising numbers of independent minyanim. Increasing intermarriage rates, decreasing Jewish affiliation, shifts in demographics, and rapid social and technological changes all make synagogue survival a challenging business. But increasingly, synagogues are recognizing the need to see themselves as just that, a business. "Hiring a consultant is a recognition that synagogues are good generalists but need greater expertise around longer term vision," said executive director of STAR, Rabbi Hayim Herring. "I would bet that within a 10-year period many synagogues will have called upon consultants." Consultants are hired to ease tensions between staff, improve communication, outreach, fundraising and program design. "I think (the study) says that being a generalist is not sufficient any more," said Herring. "As an organization, running things the way they've always been run won't help achieve future vibrancy, and like other non-profits and for-profits, synagogues will need to reach out for help." "Today, spiritual needs are not only met through synagogues," said Herring. "More broadly, we are all struggling with the dominant culture." People work more and the time they are willing to give to synagogues "better be high quality and meaningful," Herring said. Like other non-profit organizations, such as arts organization, hospitals and universities, synagogues have to behave like a business, says Herring. They need to be fiscally responsible, and establish a measure of how to define success. While informal consulting has a long history, usually at the hands of movement directors, there has been a substantial increase in formal consulting over the last decade, explained Rabbi David Teutsch, a synagogue consultant and director of the STAR project on synagogue consulting. The increase, he said, reflected higher expectations in the quality of synagogue programming and effective delivery of those services. The economic, social and technological changes in the last decade have created "considerable turbulence," for synagogues."All these changes mean synagogues are more expensive to run," said Teutsch. Some consulting is aimed at how fundraising is done, long range planning, marketing or coaching synagogue staff in conflict resolution. "The lower affiliation rate means you can't assume people will automatically attend your synagogue, the way you could assume it in 1950s," said Teutsch. "If you can't assume it, you have to figure out how to do marketing, and how to create a welcoming atmosphere; how to take people with relatively little experience with Jewish life and provide them with the skills to move towards the center of the synagogue." Teutsch points to focus groups as an example of something with which, a few years ago, no synagogue felt it needed to concern itself. "Today, synagogues need to know who they are attracting, and how to weave themselves into the life of the Jewish community," said Teutsch. But most synagogues have few internal resources to do that kind of market research. For those who don't have the financial means to hire outside consultants, STAR released a guidebook to walk synagogues through the basics. The manual presents a five-step approach to working effectively with the board and other synagogue leadership to meet the increasing need for synagogues to attract and retain members. Asked whether all these "business" considerations mean that synagogues are becoming increasingly soul-less, Teutsch said, "just the opposite." "Synagogues are not marketing income increases or a product, they are using tools of market research to do better program design, which is at the core of congregational life," said Teutsch. "I don't see it at all as being crass."