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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Cultivating the Future: Long-range Planning for Small Congregations

Written especially for Small Congregations by Judith Erger.
Learn the five Ps of productive planning.

There are some processes that take on a new and profound meaning in these challenging times. Giving thought to a long-range plan is not news within our congregations, but as the sands slowly shift towards a new economic era, many small congregations are finding themselves at a defining moment. To thrive and grow—spiritually as well as numerically—even the healthiest of congregations realizes that they can no longer conduct business as usual without clearly articulating their vision, mission and goals for the future.

For many small and remote congregations, the day-to-day challenges of economic survival and limited human resources make long-term planning a challenging proposition, but it is essential for congregations to be able to communicate and to act on long-term goals. A vision should always be the starting point of any congregational long-range planning. It describes a future for the congregation that is better, more successful and more desirable than the present, while defining the core Jewish values that are essential to the synagogue's identity and purpose. The essence of a long-range plan is to engage the entire congregation in a guided conversation about "Who are we?" and "Who do we want to be?" It is the role of leadership to identify the gaps between the two, and to determine strategies of change that will bridge the present with the hoped-for future.

Assuming that a congregation is truly in a state of preparedness, the first priority is for the leadership to have a shared understanding of why the planning is occurring; who will be involved; what the desired outcomes are; and mutually agreed-upon support for the process and each other that is grounded in core Jewish values.

Ultimately, planning is best accomplished when a core group (committee, task force or team) has been assembled to structure and guide the conversation. The "Team" should consist of a chair or co-chairs who are available for the duration of the process and a modest number of people who represent a cross-section of the congregational community. While human resources are often in short supply, remember that a team of committed volunteers can rejuvenate a synagogue's energy and bring a fresh sense of mission to the task at hand.

Their task is to gain sufficient insight into the congregation's past and present and strengths and weaknesses, and to identify what additional information they need to know in order to articulate vision, mission and goals. Their role is to engage the congregation in structured and meaningful discussions about personal visions and thoughts about the congregation's future.

Every member of the congregation should be provided with an opportunity to be heard. Even in a very small congregation, focus groups, small group meetings and one-on-one conversations can be a valuable tool for obtaining information and engendering a sense of community. To ensure the information gathered is consistent and useful, consider engaging each focus group with the same well-worded questions. These questions should be specific, and they should elicit responses that will provide valuable insight into the synagogue's core Jewish values and purpose. For example, responses to "What is the most important part of our synagogue?" or "What is one thing that you would change about the synagogue?" are far more enlightening than "What time should Shabbat worship begin?"

Maintain energy and momentum- even while the recommendations of the Long-Range Planning team are being prepared-by continually engaging the congregation. Provide ample opportunities for every member of the congregation to participate in some way. There just may be new leaders waiting to be asked for their viewpoints!

(excerpted from Cultivating the Future: Long-Range Planning for Congregations)

Purpose: There needs to be a clearly articulated reason that is widely understood and accepted in order for a synagogue to commit to a planning effort.

People: Effective planning requires the active involvement and commitment of synagogue leaders and the participation of the clergy and key congregants.

This is a perfect chance to reengage fatigued leaders.

Process: There needs to be a clearly delineated set of activities facilitating the plan's development, and it should involve key congregants in making decisions about the current and future state of the synagogue.

It is important to remain transparent to prevent rumors and keep members educated. Especially at a small congregation, members need to feel connected to and reassured about the process.

Product: The planning process normally results in a document that facilitates organizational change and provides guidance and direction to the congregation. This document should communicate positive outcomes to the congregation briefly and clearly.

Progress: The plan should result in real changes that improve what the synagogue does and/or how it functions. These changes should accelerate the congregation's progress or increase its capacity to execute its mission and achieve its goals, and should be articulated to members.

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