By Stan Beiner
Growing up, my family belonged to a small Orthodox congregation that lacked the name power of other larger synagogues. The board decided that it wanted to increase its name recognition by developing events to draw more people in. And so my father and some of his buddies stepped forward and volunteered to develop programs that would increase the shul’s visibility. Following their own instincts, the committee secured the services of a legendary dancer Miss Gina from Baltimore’s famous “Block.” People had a great time at the sold out event and a lots of money was raised. It was the talk of the town. So, it was a surprise to my dad when the rabbi and president came over the next day to express their outrage as to what occurred. After all, the successful event had created a buzz about the shul. He could not understand why the rabbi felt betrayed. The rabbi explained that it was an Orthodox shul whose first major event had featured an exotic dancer. The congregation had lost standing in the community and it would be hard to face his colleagues. Would people question if it really was an Orthodox synagogue? To which my dad replied “But… everyone had a great time.” My father and the rabbi did not talk for a long time. Truth be told … my dad was absolutely wrong despite his good intentions.
The fallout of Miss Gina’s performance illustrates what can occur when an organization loses its way. The congregation’s mission was to provide a religious and communal environment based on Orthodox precepts. A dancer from the Block should not have been the headliner. The vision might have been to bring more attention to the shul but Miss Gina was not reflective of the synagogue’s mission.
The most successful institutions are guided by impactful mission and vision statements which are often the determining factor between excellence and mediocrity. They are both critical building blocks; each is essential and serves an important role. It is particularly important in the Jewish world where schools, congregations, and agencies can sometimes step across the boundaries of their stated purposes causing confusion and frustration amongst sister institutions. I once lived in a city where the community center announced its intention to start a teen trip to Israel. The problem was that the Jewish education agency was already running a very successful Israel teen tour that every congregation supported. For the center, it was about trying something new but it was not perceived that way. Instead, the community reacted negatively because the agency was straying from its stated purpose of serving local needs. The program was dropped after one year.
Why does it matter?
My grandfather, Sabba William once told me “To thine own self be true.” If you don’t know who you are (aka Mission), you are less likely to figure out where you are going and the best way to get there (aka Vision.) Members of Adat Emunah knew what their congregation stood for. However, lost in their enthusiasm for a unique idea, they lost sight of the bigger picture.
So what actually defines a mission and a vision?
Sums up the organization’s reason for being by answering:
- What do we do?
- Why are we doing this?
- Who are we doing this for?
- How do we go about doing it?
- Embedded with passion and purpose
- Length can vary between several sentences and a paragraph. If it is a longer statement, use devices such as acronyms to help people remember the core message.
- Serves as the “elevator speech” when explaining who you are and what makes you unique
- The mission is like the 100,000 car maintenance. Missions should reviewed, reaffirmed, and revised (if needed) every 8-10 years
Addresses the direction and aspirations by focusing on:
- What do we want to become?
- What will we be doing over the next few years to serve our mission to the fullest?
- What key outcomes are we seeking to achieve.
- Inspirational and strives to rally the troops
- Usually limited to a few key statements
- Vision outcomes should be measurable.
- The vision statement is the regularly schedule oil change. Visions are designed to cover a shorter timeframe (3-4 years)
Old school thinking (in Millennial Speak – fifteen years ago) presumed that the mission statement was a staid and formal definition of the organization’s purpose while the vision was the inspiring call to action. The mission was created with the head and the vision was created with the heart.
But that’s not a Buick anymore! In reality, both mission and vision statements should be crafted to inspire and motivate the organization. The mission is why people become a part of your congregation, school, or agency; the vision is why people stay and why they volunteer. While vision statements changed more frequently, to stay relevant and vibrant, Mission statements also have to evolve. In 1900, Conservative and Reform congregational missions did not speak of women’s participation. Now, the word egalitarian will often be used in stating who they are. The Jewish Community Center of today evolved out the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
With a mission statement in place and a vision statement established, the details can then be hashed out in strategic planning. All three are opportunities for engaging employees, clientele, and leadership.
My Uncle Socrates Goldberg was fond of saying, “Know Thyself.” To know thyself, an organization must be in alignment with its purpose. A quality organization will constantly monitor its decisions, strategies, and choice of personnel in order to reflect the mission … which is why Adat Emunah was the talk of the town for the wrong reasons.
Which leads to the last big question … What does this have to do with institutional excellence? I’ve spoken to a number of professionals who share that the number one challenge they have is finding employees that will be as passionate about the work being done as they are. They need people who aren’t just there to collect a paycheck. The solution lies in creating a vibrant culture in which the mission and vision are firmly engrained into everyone’s DNA. Missions and visions serve as the engine; people are the fuel that makes them run.
The entertainment committee’s selection of Miss Gina is just one illustration of what happens when the players are not all on board (pardon the pun) with the mission.
Birthright is an example of what happens when funders and staff completely buy into the belief that bringing young Jewish adults to Israel will recharge their identities. Much energy and thought is put into this constantly evolving program. Participants know they are getting a great deal. They love the experience and come back renewed. When mission and vision are in alignment and everyone is onboard, it all comes together. That is why it matters.
It behooves every congregation, agency, and school to devote time to a structured process designed to ensure that their mission and vision statements resonate in people’s hearts AND minds. Organizations of excellence will live by those words and make certain that whatever happens is in keeping with its stated purpose.
Epilogue: Despite the audience’s enthusiastic response to Adat Emunah’s first major event, it came to be understood that such a show would never take place again. The mission of the Orthodox congregation was kept in mind when a tasteful comedian, approved by the rabbi, was brought in the following year for the second annual fundraiser. My father and the rabbi did reconcile but to the end, my father still thought Miss Gina was one of his greatest coups. Bless his heart.
Stan Beiner is a School/Nonprofit Consultant, Sermon Coach, educator, and author.