How Your Congregation Can Move Up the Change Continuum

October 2, 2018Amy Asin

It is universally acknowledged that the world around us is changing faster than ever. To stay relevant and thrive in this new world, change will be necessary in all congregations, even those that are doing well. The pace of change in the outside world demands it. Many congregational leaders are willing to change, but in most congregations, we see either disagreement or a lack of understanding about the depth of change required.

This continuum of change framework, adapted from the work of Dr. Robert Marshak, may be helpful as congregations grapple with issues surrounding change:

Continuum of Change graphic with explanations (from the bottom up) of Improvement, Transformational Change, and Disruptive Change

Most conversations in congregational life live at the bottom of this chart. How can we better do what we already do? How can we add something to what we already do to enhance it?

For much of what congregations do, we need to move into the realm of transformational, if not disruptive, change. The principle that we have to "start with why" drives us to re-examine our goals in light of existing conditions, which, in turn, likely will drive us to conclude that transformational change, minimally, is necessary for most congregations.

What we don’t know yet is whether it will be enough.

Transformational change, brought about by a change in goals, can get us to be the very best congregation we can be. Disruptive change allows us to compete in a world in which the current value proposition of congregations is not clear. To be relevant to new people in our communities, we may need to move to more disruptive change.

For example, Temple Sinai Congregation in Toronto, ON, recently re-envisioned its Tot Shabbat program. Their leadership describes a process in which they first considered improvements or technical changes – basically doing the same thing they’d been doing, but a little bit differently. Examining childhood development led them to change the prayer space and to keep the music in the service the same, rather than mixing it up. They could have stopped there and would have ended up with a similar Tot Shabbat service in the social hall instead of the sanctuary.

It was when they changed their goals and moved toward transformational change that they saw the real payoff. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Cantor Katie Oringel write:

We also revisited the goal of Tot Shabbat. In the past, we intended for children to gain synagogue skills so they would be comfortable praying as adults. We now aspire to engage the youngsters in prayer as the rambunctious, curious Jews they are today.

Restating the why of Tot Shabbat allowed them to change the schedule, the activities, and ultimately, the outcomes, making extraordinary progress toward their goal. As a result, they now engage more current congregants and attract many others who would not have come to a congregation in the past. Their willingness to change their goal from preparing children to be participating adults – which reduces the goal of Tot Shabbat to continuity of the synagogue for continuity’s sake – to creating an excellent experience for children today led the leaders to a new status quo.

The next step for this congregation, should they decide to take it, would be to consider an even deeper change that moves toward disruption.

Such a change would shift the vision – and allocated resources – from providing programming to families within the congregation to serving families in the community as a whole. This change could be accomplished by moving Tot Shabbat out of the social hall and into local parks or people’s homes. Eventually, however, the congregation will need a different economic model to fund a program that serves families who aren’t paying dues.

By not relying on the asset of their building (which is likely a deterrent for many people) and by removing the barrier of membership, they could potentially reach an entire new audience of families with young children. North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL met with success when it made this type of disruptive change.

Although the prospect of transformational change – let alone disruptive change – is daunting to us as leaders, it’s important to consider the outcomes for our congregations when there is no change. As former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki put it: “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.”

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