The Loss of “Matterness” in Synagogue Life: An Interview with Allison Fine

Inside Leadership

The Loss of “Matterness” in Synagogue Life: An Interview with Allison Fine

Allison Fine, past president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y., is the co-author ofThe Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (with Beth Kanter); author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Ageand, most recently, author of Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World.

You have said that synagogues need to do things differently than in the past in order to retain and attract members.

Congregational leaders need to rethink the decades-old model of synagogues as top-down hierarchies churning out life-cycle events and programs for their membership. Synagogues are overflowing with wonderful people, but the structure – and, therefore by definition the processes and systems – demand caution and control. In this risk aversive environment, congregations suffocate creativity and lose opportunities to experiment with new ways to engage their communities.

Synagogues also tend to be very busy places, with people rushing around to get out the newsletter, organize the next event, and send donation thank-you letters. But in all this busyness, congregants become little more than dues-paying, High Holiday-going, b’nai mitzvah-getting consumers. In this model, leaders lose sight of the passions, fears, struggles, and gifts of each individual congregant.

I call this the loss of “matterness.” When people feel like they are just one more of anything in a system, it is personally devastating. That is not a sustainable model for a synagogue.

How did “loss of matterness” manifest itself when you were a temple president?

Beneath every complaint I received – “No one called when I was sick,” “My bill is wrong,” “The event I organized wasn’t listed in the announcements” – was the individual’s sense that he or she didn’t matter to the synagogue, that if they disappeared from the temple today, no one would care.

How can synagogues make people feel they matter?

They need to move to a networked model to create a more authentic and fulfilling engagement between leaders and congregants – as well as between congregants. Networks are flat and open. Information flows freely, and people do what they do best, which is to talk, share, and connect with like-minded people. In this environment, individuals self-organize, shape their situations, and give generously of both their time and money. When they believe they matter, they also will be openhearted in contributing their artistry.

In short, networks are the opposite of top-down hierarchical institutions.

You have said that all social networks are powered by conversation. How so?

If you think about it, all social media tools are vehicles for conversations. That’s how humans have always connected, shared, and built relationships. Videos that go viral are stories that strike us as particularly funny or sad or moving. Facebook and Twitter messages are parts of larger, ongoing conversations about what matters to us. Sometimes they are poignant, such as a friend’s announcement on Facebook that she just completed her last chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes they are inane – but, then, sometimes life is inane too.

This conversational way of working should be a natural for synagogues – we like talking a lot! To succeed, however, organizational leaders need to give up control of the message and get over the assumption that they are supposed to have answers.

Congregants are our best problem solvers. They know far better than staff, clergy, or lay leadership what they want and why. The job of leadership is to be “in conversation” with as many congregants as possible, engaging them in discussions about “where we want and need to go as a community.” Once leaders are listening to what really matters to people, then they can create new programs together as experiments, and provide a running commentary on how things are going.

The goal isn’t to create a complete consensus on an issue (We are Jews after all!); it is to make sure people feel that the process was thoughtful and transparent.

What are the greatest threats to the synagogue survival today?

Today’s threats are not from the outside, but from within – from existing members who feel anonymous and overlooked, as well as from potential members who have so many other ways to express and practice their Jewish faith and identity. That is why it is so terribly important that synagogues become easier to enter from the outside and easier for congregants to understand and help shape on the inside.

I can tell you from personal experience as a temple president that synagogue transformation can take years – all the more reason not to delay even a day.

Want to hear Allison Fine speak about matterness and congregational life? She’ll be a featured speaker at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place Nov. 4-8 in Orlando, FL. Register now at urj.org/biennial.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

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