Creating a Culture of Experimentation in Your Congregation

May 15, 2017Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

One of eight principles the URJ has articulated for driving strong congregations is experimentation. That may seem like an oxymoron: a synagogue – steeped in thousands of years of tradition, experimenting? But if we’ve learned anything from the trajectory of Jewish history, it’s that we are an adaptive people. From the paradigm shift after the destruction of the Second Temple to the birth of the State of Israel and the growing richness of the North American Jewish community, ours is an inventive tradition. 

Why do congregations need to experiment? Professor Marty Linsky of the Kennedy School at Harvard University and a former URJ Scholar, argues that our world is changing so fast that we’re encountering problems we’ve never faced before – and so the solutions are no longer obvious.

You might be able to imagine the ways changes in the world have had an impact on congregations – from social media, to the new way millennials operate in the world, to increasing lifespans, to new family structures. Experiments help us figure out the best way to move forward and ease the pressure to have the answer or to be the problem-solver.

What are some of the advantages of conducting experiments in your congregation? 

1. Labeling a new initiative an "experiment" or "pilot" can lessen resistance to trying something new.

While some congregational leaders are eager to experiment, others might be resistant or concerned about change. When you use the language of experimentation – when you say that you are simply “testing an idea,” “piloting,” or “experimenting” – you can minimize this resistance and potentially get buy-in. Calling an initiative experimental implies that you’re trying something just for the moment, rather than making a permanent change to your congregation’s program or culture.

This concept can be illustrated by an example that many congregations have experienced: The educator wants to try something new in the religious school and needs board approval to do it. Calling the educator's new initiative an experiment or a pilot is often the reason it gets supported instead of being shut down.

2. Using the language of experimentation can reduce the fear of failure.

Experiments, if run properly, provide you with data. Sometimes that data will be that the idea that you introduced didn’t work in your congregation, for a list of specific reasons. This isn’t a failure, though, because the goal of an experiment is to try out a new idea and learn from it. The data you receive – even if the new idea didn’t work in your congregation – provides the opportunity for learning. Ask yourself: Why didn’t it work? How will you take this knowledge and apply it to your next experiment? 

3. Because experiments are smaller than making a complete change, congregations can often run more than one experiment at the same time.

Conducting several experiments simultaneously provides congregations with the opportunity to test out multiple approaches to a single area of congregational life, and to receive multiple data points at the same time.

This approach results in efficiency and means that congregations can truly see which approach is most successful for their community. For example, many religious schools that want to try something new in the field of religious education will run different experiments; they may run a traditional Sunday school model, while also running a family education model. Or they might have some kids learn Hebrew in the classroom and some do it via Skype. In the area of small group engagement, congregations will run multiple types of small groups – from a Mussar group to a biking group to a new parents group – to see which ones seem to be the most successful. 

4. Congregations can make mid-course corrections to their experiments.

When deciding to do something new, certain leadership teams may execute the new idea without ever evaluating how or whether it is working. Experimentation gives you the space to evaluate your work, and make tweaks and adjustments along the way based on what’s working and what isn’t. Experimentation also allows you to abandon the orthodoxy of “this is how we’ve always done it.” With experiments, there is no one way of how things should work. 

How can you sustain a culture of experimentation in your congregation? Dr. Rob Weinberg, in a teaching to URJ Community of Practice participants, made a strong argument that one way is through how you manage people in your congregation, including: rewarding innovative behaviors, extending support to change-makers in your institution, fostering teamwork and partnership, and allocating time for planning, experimenting, and reflecting. In order to create a sustainable culture of experimentation, ask yourself:

  • “Does our staff team have time to immerse themselves in and plan for the future?”
  • “Does our board take time to reflect, outside of programmatic and fiduciary responsibilities?”
  • “Do our staff and board members come together to do this work collaboratively?”

Dr. Weinberg argues that one way to support experimentation is to behave like Reform Jews: “We love tradition,” he says, “and we’re willing to change anything to keep it alive.” We don’t experiment for the sake of experimentation. We experiment because this moment in time requires it of us, if we are to make Jewish living a force for relevance in our individual lives and in the life of our world. On to the next experiment!

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