Handling Abatements in Your Congregation Description, resources and Q&A
This webinar will discuss how to handle financial abatements in your congregation. The discussion will deal with how to best approach this sensitive matter as well as discuss questions to consider regarding financial commitments in the synagogue. It is designed for congregational leaders who are involved with handling these adjustments in their synagogues.
Q: If the relationship between the board and
the congregation is strained how do we help shift board members views
to benefit the [abatement] process?
A: Consider working with the board to create greater
transparency and communication. Inform the congregation about what the
board is doing and publish a brief board report in each issue of the
congregations bulletin. Just as we talk about membership being a
lifetime commitment and we want to offer things for members at
different points in their lives (as individuals, as families with young
children, as empty-nesters, as retirees), we should try to see
financial support on a continuum as well. There are times when members
will be able to give more and times when members may need to give less.
Consider that while we need funding to support our synagogues we need
the members and their commitment to the synagogue and want to support
them regardless of their financial support. We need our members to
create our communities. An additional suggestion to help connect the
board to the membership is post the minutes of board meetings on the
synagogue website. Be sure to remove any personal information from the
Q: Would you comment in greater detail on an appropriate
method to utilize a members skills to improve the quality of the
synagogue with respect to dues relief?
A: A congregant who needs financial relief may be able to
volunteer their time by performing some duty at the synagogue which
would normally be performed by a paid employee. For example, the member
may be able to assist in the office or help in the religious school. It
gives them a way to give of themselves to help the synagogue and shows
their commitment to doing what they can. There are many members who are
able to volunteer their time and can pay their annual commitment to the
synagogue. However for those who are in need financially, volunteering
their time shows that they are committed to being active congregants.
One thing we dont want to do is make them feel any less of a member
because they arent paying their full financial commitment.
Q: If we have a very high percentage of families needing
relief, does that reflect that were asking too much as annual
A: We are in a difficult period of time right now with regards
to economic conditions so some of the issues regarding abatements may
be related to the current economic times rather than a reflection of
your annual commitment. You might consider what congregants are saying
when they ask for abatements. Is there a majority saying that they
cant afford the commitment only because it is too high or is it
because they are having financial issues due to the difficult economy?
Knowing that information can help in knowing what might be at the root
of the requests for abatement.
Q: We have congregants that are always on relief. Does it become the norm or are there ways to suggest giving more?
A: Consider ways to suggest giving more. Communicating in your
bulletin may be helpful. Perhaps an open letter from the synagogue
president and/or rabbi about financial commitment would be helpful.
Also, explaining what the money is used for can be a good way to
communicate the importance of their annual commitment. If you have
members who have been on abatement for more than one fiscal year,
consider checking in with them at the start of the new fiscal year.
Perhaps their financial situation has changed and they may be able to
increase what they have paid. There are situations in which people
consider other things to be more of a priority than the synagogue. The
congregation might consider creating a minimum contribution for those
who may want an adjustment but are truly not in financial need. The
question that arises however is how to do this fairly without passing
your own judgment on whether they need assistance or not.
Q: Is it realistic, especially in small congregations, for
a congregant seeking relief to be asked to volunteer instead of paying
the full annual commitment?
A: Ideally people on abatements who feel a commitment to the
synagogue will offer to volunteer their time without being asked. In
smaller congregations you are likely to have more people volunteering
since your monetary resources are likely to be smaller than in a large
congregation. As part of the abatement process you may want to mention
in your communication with the person asking for an abatement that if
they are unable to financially afford the annual commitment there are
some other things the synagogue needs help with that ask not of their
members money but of their time.
Q: How can we REALLY know about need if the persons lifestyle seems to suggest otherwise?
A: Unless the member tells you, there is no way to really know
whether or not their lifestyle is indicative of their means. Some
synagogues ask for a financial statement to better understand the
situation the person is in. If the synagogue does choose to require a
financial statement be sure it is explained that the information is
confidential and will only be reviewed by the person responsible for
financial adjustments. Another approach when someone comes to the
synagogue needing financial help is to offer the help based on their
word. It is possible that there are some people who might take
advantage of this but this is likely to be the exception rather than
the rule. Whether you require a financial statement or allow the
adjustment based upon the persons word consider that Judaism teaches
us in Pirke Avot 2:4 not to judge people until you have been in that
Q: How can we train the people who answer the phone [in our
synagogue office] to know how to respond to questions about financial
commitments, whether the questions come from prospective members or
current members ultimately seeking abatement?
A: Answering the phone is easy; appropriately handling questions
about financial commitments takes practice. A suggestion may be to have
sessions where the people answering the phone can role play. Have them
take turns being the caller and the answerer. Create guidelines or a
best practices sheet for answering calls related to financial matters
so the person has something to learn from. You might also consider
limiting financial calls only to certain individuals who have been
assigned to handle these calls. If someone calls the office asking
about their financial commitment and the individual(s) assigned to
handle these discussions is not available have a process for the office
staff to take a message.
Q: Would/should bartering for dues be a formal written policy?
A: The synagogue should consider having written procedures for
how this process should work. While volunteering services may be
effective because it helps both the synagogue and the congregant you
want to consider any challenges that may occur from developing this
process. You may want to consider talking to legal counsel about
creating a document so that you can avoid any potential issues.
Q: From time to time a congregant who has been paying dues
suddenly stops paying anything. Several calls ensue and there doesnt
seem to be any way to induce the member to modify their position. When
do you throw up your hands and initiate cancelling membership?
A: This is a process that is unique to each person needing a
financial abatement. You might consider creating general guidelines of
reaching out to see how the member is doing, perhaps by phone at first
and then via a more formal written letter, documenting the contact. At
some point your congregation will need to decide whether or not it is
appropriate for those individuals to remain members; procedures for
ending membership with the synagogue should be clear to all parties and
as transparent as possible. Ultimately, this is really a case by case
basis. Consider that some families may truly not be able to pay
anything due to their financial situation. In those cases the synagogue
needs to be there to help them and support them and in those situations
you would want to keep them as members.
Q: We have congregants who dont call and ask for an
adjustment in dues, but simply mail in a modified amount. We then need
to initiate a contact. Any suggestions?
A: Explaining, on a regular basis, that an abatement process is
available and what to do if you are unable to fulfill your commitment
may be helpful, particularly in staving off self-adjusted commitments.
A suggestion might be to include that information with the membership
package and with the statements you send out. There may still be people
who will not respond and you will need to follow up with them. There is
likely embarrassment and anxiety involved with having to reach out to
the synagogue and tell someone they cant afford the annual commitment.
We want to try to make it easy for them to contact the synagogue and
try to lessen that embarrassment in whatever way we can.
Q: Can you explain why it is suggested that we not use the
word dues and talk about the difficulty in changing the language (i.e.,
many people are so in the habit of saying dues it might be difficult
to start saying financial commitment)
A: The word dues makes synagogue membership seem like a fee
for services agreement, like a health club or a Jewish Community Center
membership. While synagogues do offer different programs and services,
congregations are much more than a community center. The synagogue is a
place for community but it is also a place that is centered on
religious belief and a connection to God. The synagogue is a place
where we can pray and learn together. It is a place to come together,
whether for comfort during sad times in our lives or for extra smiles
and celebrations during simchahs. People are giving money because they
are committed to the belief that the synagogue is all these things and
not just a building.
Q: What is the best way you could suggest to recruit new members to assist our Financial Secretary with the dues review process?
A: The synagogue leadership needs to think about the process and
identify what the best approach is regarding the annual commitment
process. You may consider limiting this process to the financial
secretary and perhaps one or two individuals if you feel that it might
be too much work for one person. Perhaps someone who needs an abatement
may be a good person to help with this process since they understand,
from experience, what it is like to go through this process. Talk to
the synagogue board and recruit from that group rather than the
congregation at large. However you choose people to work on this
process the person or people involved needs to be caring, compassionate
and discreet, as well as non-judgmental in this process. The process
should be as pleasant as it can be for the person needing help. In the
Mishneh Torah 9:5 there is a discussion about collecting Tzedekah which
speaks to having more than one person involved with collecting charity
and you may find it applies to the question here:
WHO COLLECTS TZEDAKAH?
(From the Mishneh Torah 9:5)
Contributions to the alms fund must be collected jointly by
two persons, because a demand for money may not be presented to the
community by less than two [collectors]. Although the money collected
may be entrusted [for safekeeping] to one person, it must be
distributed by three persons because it is similar to money involved in
a civil action, since they must give to each (poor person) enough for
the (poor persons) weekly needs. [Donations to] the charity tray must
be collected by three persons since the contribution to it is not fixed
and must (also) be distributed by three (persons).
Q: Volunteerism is a nice way to engage members, but how does that help pay bills that are past due?
A: The board and/or Finance Committee needs to take a look at
the bigger picture when considering annual commitments. Is the issue
that people not paying their annual commitment is causing synagogue
bills to be past due or are there other financial issues? Review the
budget and the current financial resources perhaps there are things
that can be done to enhance revenue or ways to cut back on expenses.
Volunteers may be able to do things in the synagogue that would
normally require additional expenses. You may be able to save money by
using volunteers to do those jobs. If the synagogue is having issues
with revenue flow consider an enhanced dues program for those who have
the ability to contribute more.
Q: Is there a limit to how much relief a congregation can
give? What do you do when the synagogue is having financial problems
and more members are asking for relief?
A: Synagogues tend to rely on their annual commitments as their
main source of revenue. When the synagogue is facing financial
difficulty, communicating with the congregation is very important. The
synagogue needs to be transparent about financial issues they may be
having. There may be congregants inclined to increase their commitment
if they know about the financial issues facing the congregation. It
might also mean reaching out to those individuals who the board (or
whoever is in charge of development) identifies as able to commit more
funds to the synagogue. Again, letting them know where their dollars go
helps in securing their increased commitment. Also consider other ways
to increase income to the synagogue rather than through annual
Q: Can you give an example of an opening statement you
would have with a congregant, encouraging them to prioritize giving to
the synagogue while at the same time honoring their financial needs?
A: There is no one size fits all opening statement. The opening
statement depends upon the culture of the synagogue community. A
suggestion may be to have a committee or sub-committee work together to
create a statement that embodies the mission and vision of their
particular congregation. When communicating with congregants, explain
to them in the newsletter, on the website or in open letters where the
money they give to the synagogue is spent. People want to see that
their money is being used for beneficial causes and showing how their
commitment benefits others is helpful. An example of this from a
congregation can be found on the Union for Reform Judaism Communicate! page. Go to www.urj.org/comm click on advanced search and type in 2602 in the summary number field.