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Eleven percent membership growth over the last four years?! I couldn’t believe it.
The congregation in question, a participating synagogue in the URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project, was fascinating to me. It has 280 households, which puts it in the URJ’s “medium-sized” range, and it showed more than 11 percent growth in the last four years.
Nowadays, finding a growing congregation – let alone one experiencing such significant growth – doesn’t happen all the time. As the analyst of the URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project, I can confirm that this is indeed rare. In fact, on average, the 100 congregations that have participated in our benchmarking project report a membership decline by 2.4 percent throughout the last three years.
But this congregation grew by 11 percent. It must’ve been doing something amazing, right? I dug deeper into the data about this congregation – and was surprised by what I found.
First, I should explain that every congregation participating in the URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project has the opportunity to take advantage of three evaluative tools:
Together, these three tools help participating congregations take an inward look in ways consistent with other congregations, as well as to navigate the data with the help of a URJ-trained mentor.
In this case, I was not only overseeing the work as the project analyst, but I also served as this congregation’s mentor. In an effort to understand what they were doing right, I checked our normal “satisfaction indicator” from the congregation-wide survey, assessed through the question “I would recommend this synagogue to a friend.” Imagine my confusion when I saw that the congregation fell well below average on responses to this question.
I checked against other suburban congregations, other medium-sized congregations, and other congregations in their geographic area – and it turned out that this particular congregation was below average on all of these comparative measures, too.
Wondering whether the new membership was just a blip, I checked my next membership data point, a question that asked about maintaining membership in the future. On that question, the congregation hit it out of the park, scoring above average. How could this be?
I met with the congregation’s benchmarking project leaders and asked each of them two simple questions: “What is your role in the congregation, and how long have you been there?” Each person responded, “My whole life,” until one woman said, “Just 10 years – but my husband has belonged his whole life.”
Suddenly, I got it.
The data says their membership isn’t leaving the congregation, and the information the congregation’s leadership team shared validated that: This congregation has members for life, and frankly, whether they’re satisfied doesn’t much matter. In fact, 50 percent of survey respondents (representing 62 percent of their households) have been members for 22+ years.
On the survey question, “Over the past three years, I consider myself active in this synagogue,” this congregation fell below the average, with data backing up their anecdotal experience.
To the congregation’s leadership team, I pointed out the positives: Their membership was growing, and they had members for life. Other congregations yearn for this. But the leaders pushed back with valid questions: What’s the value of an inactive member to a longstanding congregation? What worth do they bring, especially when the congregation isn’t reaping any benefits, lifetime or otherwise, from these inactive members? I was pleased to see them reflect the URJ’s belief that membership growth isn’t the only measure of congregational success – that a congregation should go "beyond counting heads."
Leadership was also concerned about engaging new members, many of whom were younger and part of interfaith families. This was particularly challenging in a congregation where so many congregants had been part of the community for so long.
Acknowledging this challenge, the congregation set their first goal: “Develop more meaningful connections.” They would start small, by wearing nametags. The lay leaders would work on creating an inviting and inclusive environment, committing to being as welcoming as possible. They would review their policies to reflect a commitment to interfaith families – and I connected them with the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality resources to ensure they could meet their potential.
The data from the qualitative board self-assessment rubric helped this leadership team identify its second goal. Congregational leadership can become insular, making it difficult to find new leaders – and like many congregations, the leaders of this one had scored themselves lowest on leadership development.
We decided that leadership development would be the congregation’s second goal, connected to the first goal: How could they engage and welcome people so much that they’d feel part of the community and want to make change? In other words, how could we make them want to be active members? To help them accomplish this goal, I recommended that they access the URJ Emerging Leaders Resource and attend one of the quarterly training webinars for facilitators who want to use the resource as the basis of their leadership development curriculum.
What I loved about working with this congregation was that, even with 11 percent membership growth in four years, its leaders wanted the congregation to become the best version of itself that it could be, engaging members as they had not previously done. Using the three tools in the URJ Congregational Benchmarking Project, we were able to set goals and identify steps to make that happen – and I can’t wait to see what their future holds.
Learn more and apply for the URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project. Congregational leadership teams that participate by June 25, 2019, will receive their data by August 13, 2019.