4 Engagement Strategies for the Unique Challenges of Small Congregations

Inside Leadership

4 Engagement Strategies for the Unique Challenges of Small Congregations

Closeup of a female rabbi with curly blond hair leading a congregation from the bimah with her arms open wide while wearing a prayer shawl

What makes engagement in small congregations different than in larger congregations?

The most obvious answers are lack of income, a smaller volunteer pool, and few – if any – paid staff. While every congregation, regardless of size, could use those same excuses to explain their challenges, the scarcity of these resources is amplified in small congregations and results in unique problems.

Here are four challenges that leaders from small congregations face – and how you can deal with these issues to increase engagement.

1. Energize burned-out leaders by redefining your congregation’s purpose.

Small congregations tend to have a limited pool of possible leaders from which to draw. As a result, these individuals are constantly called upon or repeatedly feel the pressure to volunteer. The result is a high rate of burn-out.

One of the best ways to rejuvenate burned-out leadership is to spend time discovering your congregation’s true mission, which meaningfully explains why your congregation exists. While small congregations are often the only Jewish community in the area, “existing for the sake of existing” is not enough to guarantee membership attraction or retention. When you begin to discuss your beliefs, goals, and what makes you special – instead of how you’re going to fix the roof, pay for the grape juice, and vacuum the sanctuary – you introduce a refreshing level of energy, and your congregation can begin to communicate its purpose to the larger community in a livelier way.

Involving all leaders in the process of articulating your congregational mission is important, and not only to get buy-in. In a congregation of any size, but especially in a small congregation, leaders play the role of ambassadors. Relying solely on your current congregational board to understand and communicate your mission and purpose isn’t practical, because your small pool of leaders will cycle through various positions of leadership and will ultimately all be responsible for instilling a deeper belief in what your congregation stands for.

2. Prioritize and focus on what your members can bring to the table.

With a limited core of active members, it’s easy to look at what your small congregation needs to function and feel like your resources aren’t sufficient. Focusing on what you do have by shifting from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance will alleviate some of this stress.

Start by inviting your leaders and active members to create a wishlist of ways to engage existing and prospective members. It might include ideas such as:

  • Enhancing your online presence
  • Hosting a neighborhood open house
  • Holding a “Meet the Rabbi” event at a local café
  • Offering a Shabbat dinner at temple, in homes, or in the local park
  • Hosting a cholent-off
  • Holding a special music service, children’s service, or teen service
  • Taking on a community-wide social action project

Inviting active members to form this list will help uncover their passions and creative engagement ideas. You can then start with the ideas your members are both excited about and can volunteer to lead. For example, a small congregation might not think it has the staff to maintain a social media presence – but a tech-savvy lay leader or teen could make your online presence a priority by taking charge of this important engagement tool.

3. Rethink how you welcome new members.

Due to their small number of tight-knit members, small congregations can sometimes appear cliquey or unfriendly. It’s stressful to walk into any congregation without knowing anybody, but when there are only 10 or 20 people in a room, being new is even harder. This may make it difficult for new members to integrate into your congregation.

The practice of audacious hospitality is paramount to engaging potential members, but you have to be careful about coming on too strongly. Being surrounded by 20 people can be just as off-putting as being ignored by 20 people! By creating a thoughtful plan for greeting guests, you can be both hospitable and engaging.

4. Find power in networking.

Small congregations in remote areas may not be experiencing growth. In addition to the general feeling of isolation that comes with living outside of Jewishly dense metropolitan areas, watching the numbers decline can cause a doomsday mentality.

A shift of mindset to the positive – being proud of and invested in your community – is essential to building a more vibrant and welcoming community. The Tent, the URJ’s online collaboration platform, offers the opportunity to interact with leaders from other small congregations experiencing challenges similar to yours. Networking and exchanging ideas will help you gain a brighter perspective and know that you’re not alone.

The Tent isn’t the only powerful networking tool available to isolated and remote communities. Each URJ member congregation also belongs to one of 35 URJ Communities, connecting leaders from similar geographic areas to discuss best practices, share resources, and create a network of support. URJ Community events and other URJ programs are a great way to feel the power of belonging to the Reform Movement – and URJ Small Congregation Grants can provide financial assistance to get you there.

Engagement in small congregations isn’t just about attracting new members. It begins with looking inward to understand what is unique about your community, and what talents your members bring to the table.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Merry Lugasy is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of small congregations.

Merry Lugasy
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