Conversations that Matter: Five Years of Congregational Strategic Planning at USCJ

By Aimee Close and Bob Leventhal

Since launching our first cohort of Sulam for Strategic Planners (SSP) in 2013 with ten congregations, we have facilitated a year-long planning process with 52 congregations of various sizes, in 17 states and one Canadian province. In other words, 10% of all USCJ congregations have engaged in an intensive, year-long strategic planning process with us. If we include those who have done more short-term strategic work with us, we have engaged over 20% of USCJ congregations with our strategic tools and resources over the last five years.  

In that time, over 500 members of USCJ congregations have served on an SSP strategic planningcommittee; over 1,800 members have been engaged in a strategic planning task force; and over 5,000 members have completed our congregational survey.

Through our intensive year-long program, which includes the consulting services of our USCJ Transformation Specialists, we provide congregational leaders with the tools to recruit a planning team, gather data, create a shared vision, and engage the community to help design strategies that are within their capacity, and that will help their congregations thrive for generations to come.

Planning Builds Leadership Capacity

One of the first things we tell leaders engaged in SSP is that the journey is more important than the final report. We explain that our process is less about conducting a survey or writing a plan, and more about creating a safe space for courageous conversations to occur. We call this space the container, and we go to great lengths to protect it by coaching planners to remain open and curious rather than rush to solutions before knowing whether they are even asking the right questions. Frequently, we find that we need to slow people down in order to ensure that they don’t omit important steps in their eagerness to get to the final report.  

Sometimes we find that planning teams have individuals who try to steer the group toward pre-determined outcomes. These may be self-proclaimed experts who feel that they don’t need input from the congregation or the staff; or dominating people who cut off dialogue; or passive aggressive individuals who stop coming to meetings, making it hard to move the work forward. This is why we emphasize the importance of a collaborative and diverse planning team, which makes it more difficult for someone with a personal agenda to hijack the process.

We have learned that most congregational leaders have similar concerns, regardless of the size of the congregation or where it is located. While some are considering alternative dues models or trying to find new income streams, others are experimenting with creative prayer or focusing on becoming more welcoming and inclusive; but the three broad areas that appear to keep most congregational leaders up at night are member engagement, financial sustainability, and leadership recruitment.

SSP increases the capacity of congregations to address these issues. For example, we teach leaders how to engage members in mission and vision work, a critical prerequisite for any development campaign; in task force work, which serves as a great leadership training opportunity; and in community conversations, which help engage members who may not otherwise be engaged in the life of the congregation.

Strategic Conversations Are Our Critical Deliverables

Throughout the planning process, we set up conversations of various types, which help to engage a wide range of people from all across the congregation, from its top leaders to its most peripheral members. These are some of the questions we ask planners in order to measure the success of the planning process in engaging their stakeholders:

  • Did you recruit a diverse planning team and engage them in the data gathering process?
  • Did you share the resulting data with the board and have a conversation about what it means?
  • Did you have a conversation with the congregation about what you learned from the data?
  • Did you engage the planning team and the board in a visioning process where they discussed their hopes and dreams for the congregation?
  • Did you recruit task forces to do a “deep dive” into specific focus areas?
  • Did the task forces have meaningful conversations and make recommendations?
  • Did you have meaningful conversations about the task force recommendations and how to prioritize them?
  • Did you have a conversation with the board and the staff about the recommendations, and their role in implementing them?
  • Did you appoint an implementation chair to report back to the board on a regular basis regarding the progress of implementing the plan?

At the conclusion of the year-long process, we have taken planners on a journey to help them build a great team, discover the right questions to ask, engage the community, and create and prioritize realistic recommendations to move them forward and help them to thrive. These strategic conversations that we insist upon at each stage are at the core of our process and help to ensure a successful outcome.  

Satisfied Isnt Good Enough

One of the tools we created to help engage the congregation in the data gathering phase is our congregational survey which measures member satisfaction with various elements of congregational life, feelings of connectedness to the congregation, and attendance at various services and programs, as well as some general attitudes. Over 5,300 individuals have taken our congregational survey over the last five years.  

We found it very interesting that while 84% report being satisfied with their congregation overall, only 41% say that they are “very satisfied” and just 47% strongly agree that they would enthusiastically recommend the synagogue to a friend.

This is critical because the folks who report being “very satisfied” and would “strongly recommend” are the congregation’s “raving fans” (from Ken Blanchard’s book by that name). As Blanchard teaches, in today’s world, being satisfied is simply not enough. It is the congregation’s “raving fans,” those strongest supporters who participate with passion and energy, and inspire others to join and engage, who will help us build our congregations. Members who are simply “satisfied” do not bring in others and do not inspire engagement.  

Connectedness Creates Raving Fans

Exploring the data a bit further, we learned that while most survey respondents initially joined their congregation for reasons related to location and branch of Judaism, they remained affiliatedfor other reasons.  These were the top three:

  • They feel that the rabbi knows them
  • They find the congregation to be warm and welcoming
  • They feel a sense of community

When asked about the clergy, most respondents gave them very high marks. Overwhelmingly, members report that the clergy know them and are responsive in times of need. Numbers tend to be significantly lower, however, when people are asked how well they feel the lay leadership knows them.

When asked about how connected they feel to the congregation, just 39% strongly agreed that they feel connected and only 34% strongly agreed that they have good friends in the congregation.

Not surprisingly, those who feel most connected to the congregation and its leaders are the ones who report being most satisfied and are most likely to recommend the congregation to others. It would stand to reason then that increasing how connected people feel to the congregation and its leadership should be a top priority of every synagogue.

A Small Congregation Takes a Big Step Forward

In the Spring of 2016, we received an application for our strategic planning program from a small congregation on the West Coast of about 180 households. They were not in a metropolitan area, nor in a community with a large Jewish population. The congregation was not in crisis, but they had been experiencing declining revenue, declining attendance, and low engagement, and there was some tension among the leadership regarding how to move forward.

The congregation applied, and was accepted, to SSP, and asked one of their new, young board members, who was a well-respected business owner, to chair their planning committee. They also made certain that the rabbi and executive committee were on board and committed to the process.

They completed their plan a year later, in the summer of 2017, and it was approved by the board. Since that time, there has been a status report at every single board meeting, and almost all of their initiatives have been implemented.

These were a few outcomes of the process:

  • A completely re-envisioned membership committee with new people, a new mission, and new goals. Six of the eight committee members are brand new leaders who emerged from the strategic planning process.  
  • One of the first projects the new membership committee implemented was a system to follow up with prospective members by scheduling coffee dates with them and offering to bring them to Shabbat services
  • A new communication committee was established, whose first project was a complete redesign of the website and increasing the social media presence
  • A brand new dues model was designed and implemented

… and these were a few of the resulting impacts on the congregation:

  • Twenty brand new leaders were identified during the planning process and have become engaged in committees and on the board
  • Shabbat service attendance is up by 10% in the past year
  • After several years of declining membership, there was a net gain of 20 member households this year, an increase of more than 10%
  • Dues income is up by over 30% compared to last year
  • People are still talking about the Community Conversation that was held during the planning process, which attracted over 120 people and led to deeper engagement of many of those who attended

As a result of the strategic planning work we did with this congregation, the leadership has been able to turn the congregation around. Membership numbers are up, dues revenue is up, Shabbat attendance is up, volunteerism is up, and people are much more engaged. In the words of the planning chair of the congregation, “SSP changed everything!”

Every Congregation Has the Capacity to Become More Strategic

The vast majority of congregations that began SSP completed the process and produced a plan. Not all of them have experienced the same degree of impact as this small West Coast congregation, but all have taken some important strategic steps forward.

As consultants, it is our job to provide tools and resources, and help to create a safe space forconversations, but ultimately, it is the congregation and its leadership that needs to recruit the participants, review the data, make their own meaning, and do the work.

One of the most critical lessons we’ve learned in doing this sacred work is that while many congregations simply do not have the bandwidth to engage in a full strategic planning process, even with our extensive support, every congregation, regardless of size or location, has the capacity to engage in meaningful conversations about the future, and take some strategic steps forward.

In order to encourage and help facilitate some of these more modest strategic efforts, we have developed some additional resources, including 20 minute webinars to assist leaders in creating a mission and vision, and a leadership assessment to help identify areas of strength to build on. It is our hope that with these additional resources, we have helped to add a few more rungs to our Sulam, our leadership ladder, enabling more synagogue communities to reach greater heights.

Aimee Close is a Synagogue Consultant at USCJ who works with congregations across North America in the areas of strategic planning and leadership development. She lives and works in the Greater Boston area.

Bob Leventhal is USCJ’s Director of Leadership Development. Over the past 17 years, Bob has worked with hundreds of congregations, previously as a consultant for the Alban Institute and currently, as a staff member at USCJ, and has written extensively about synagogue leadership and long-range planning.