By Robert H. Isaacs
For almost a year, we at the Evans Consulting Group have had the opportunity to work with a congregation* that was formed from the “integration” of two proud neighboring Reform congregations. The changing demographics of the area made it difficult, if not impossible, for the two congregations to continue independently. With the decline in the number of Jews, both affiliated and non-affiliated, each synagogue faced a challenge to its very existence.
Both of the congregations had long histories, with one dating back almost 100 years and the other almost 60 years. They had very different cultures, with the “younger” congregation having spun off from the older one. Times change and both congregations reached the conclusion that the best way to move forward was to come back together and to form a single new entity moving forward. Though this was a thoughtful and difficult decision for the leadership of the two congregations, the harder work – that of integrating their members into one institution and beginning a new history together – represented the real challenge.
The leadership of the new congregation has taken extraordinary actions to keep all of the members informed of all of the activities related to the new congregation. The new congregation has made sure to respect the histories and traditions of the predecessor congregations while beginning a new history of its own.
The new temple hired an energetic rabbi to lead them (soon to be followed by a new cantor). Many activities were undertaken to bring the two populations together and, slowly, the members have begun to develop deep and positive connections to the new temple and optimism for the future.
One of the initial decisions made as part of the agreement to become one was to sell one of the existing buildings and to locate in and expand the remaining synagogue building. The leadership of the new congregation then retained Evans Consulting and embarked upon a major fundraising campaign in order to renovate and expand their chosen building to meet the needs of the new 21st century congregation and to increase their endowment to meet future financial challenges. As this campaign has moved forward, with leadership from both the clergy as well as lay leaders with histories in both legacy congregations, there has been an impact that has gone beyond the raising of dollars.
While the purpose of the campaign has been to raise much needed revenue (and is well on the road to financial success), there has been another, and possibly more important, result. While not deliberately planned as such, the campaign has become a unifying experience for the congregation. Volunteers with histories from both “legacy” congregations have joined together to make the efforts a success. Working side by side they have established new and, hopefully, long-lasting relationships and friendships. Donors, with their generous contributions, have made investments in the congregation and are now invested in its success. Whether by their labor or their dollars, the once divided membership has come together to make a strong statement about their future.
The demographics remain and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be a challenge but the strong, decisive leadership that has brought these two populations together has succeeded in changing the conversation from “doom and gloom” to a brighter tomorrow. With their dedication to a common goal, this new congregation is emerging with energy, confidence, and optimism about their place in the community, their future and, most importantly, each other.
There are distinct lessons to be learned from this exercise for other congregations, regardless of their age or if they are merging with others:
- Open communication from leadership to congregants is good practice and will propel happiness and involvement in congregational activities;
- The involvement of clergy in strategic organizational decisions makes efforts move along more smoothly, leading to better decisions;
- While some missteps always occur in decision-making, admit the mistakes and move forward;
- Some congregants’ feelings may either be misunderstood or misinterpreted but everyone wants to believe that their opinions are being sought and heard by leadership … and not whimsically dismissed;
- Lapsed members may return under certain circumstances and they should receive invitations to re-affiliate, especially following a major organizational or policy shift;
- Former clergy who have relocated do maintain interests in their previous congregations and should be invited to return periodically to share the bimah with others.
*In keeping with our firm’s policy of respecting confidentiality and privacy, we do not intentionally identify the congregation with which we are working. But know that it’s clearly flourishing today!
Robert Isaacs is CEO of the Evans Consulting Group, a firm now in its 25th year that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. Evans Consulting advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluates nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders, and performs a wide variety of development-related services. He spent more than 20 years in executive roles at two large synagogues and a major JCC and is passionate about sharing what he’s learned. He has been a frequent and sought-after presenter at national conventions, focusing especially on contemporary approaches impacting on and relating to fundraising, budget management, working with outside contractors, building staff teams, and ethics in the workplace.He can be reached at [email protected]