Creating Sustainable Worship Communities

by Barry Camson

Are you seeking to create innovative approaches in the communal aspects of Jewish worship and education or generally in your nonprofit organization? Have you grappled with the challenge of making this a sustainable endeavor?

I recently read an informative report by Beth Cousins on behalf of UJA New York. This report dealt with approaches to dues in synagogues. It came up with three models: the Mishkan, Journey and Hybrid models. These models are described in the report that is available here.

The discussion of dues in this report leads me to the conclusion that having a sustainable business model is important to our Jewish worship communities. The history of business models is an interesting one. Having a conscious, deliberate model of how one will operate a sustainable and profitable business did not automatically arrive as an aspect of doing business. The application of business models to nonprofits has been a more recent development that is still in progress. The next leap is to apply the idea of sustainable business models to our worship communities.

Admittedly, it is a challenge to hold the idea of a worship community and business model in one’s head at the same time. It seems to require a sentence like “the worship of HaShem is a money making enterprise.” However, that is what we have been about all of these years when we sought to sustain our traditional bricks and mortar congregations and their various programs through dues, dinners and donations. The role of a business model only becomes noticeable when we start changing the model of the traditional synagogue and asking how to financially sustain what we come up with.

There are, as the report made aware, a variety of experiments with different dues models around the country. While a sustainable revenue or funding stream is important to a worship community, a business model deals with a number of other factors. It deals with the purpose of the enterprise, clearly defined services or products being provided, who is providing them, the required competencies of those providing them and the characteristics of those being served. It deals with the delivery mechanisms of how services are provided. I believe that it should deal with the critical issue of how members are connected. It deals with how all of this fits together in a congruent, workable manner.

Revenue and funding streams and worship experiences need to be thought of in the same breath as part of this sustainable and workable system.

In the nonprofit sector, there are experiments with social impact bonds which are attempting to re-orient how services from nonprofits are funded. In the case of social impact bonds, investors invest in the provision of services of which government is also a funding partner which if these services attain certain specified levels of benefit provide a return to the investor. The point here is that our current investment, funding and business models even of our worship communities can be deconstructed and then rebuilt in highly imaginative ways.

Though I do not think we could measure increased kedusha, we could say with some comfort that the process of creating such a sustainable business model in the service of HaShem does produce increased kedusha. In the process, we may find other ways of defining the things that we value and financially supporting them.

What have been your experiences with regard to the question raised at the beginning of this post?

Barry Camson helps organizations and people utilize network approaches as a means of achieving their desired purposes in effective and humane ways. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com