Networks Rising

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Sometimes you read a book to learn about something new. But at other times you read a book to find language for that which is already part of the way you function in the world. I had the latter experience reading the new book by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Hayim has been the guru of social network theory in the Jewish world for some time, having published on it as early as 2001 in his article “Network Judaism: A Fresh Look at the Organization of the American Jewish Community.” But he has taken his analysis to the next level in two ways. First, now that reality has caught up with the theory, the book is filled with examples of congregations that have used elements of network theory to re-invent congregational life (for the better, to be sure). Second, he co-authored the book with a Lutheran minister, Rev. Terri Martinson Elton. It is confounding to me how often the Jewish community is ready to accept ideas and adopt programs that are not informed by a rigorous examination of what is happening in the non-Jewish space all around us. We are not the first nor the only faith/ethnic community that is challenged to preserve elements of our group identity in a complex, multi-cultural society. Given that the book focuses on network theory as it pertains to congregations, having examples from the Christian world is an important contribution.

To the uninitiated, networks are to the contemporary information age what hierarchies were to corporate America or what bureaucracies were to the industrial age. Each is a form of governance that was particularly suited to the economic success of each system. Not surprisingly, because we are only in the infancy of the information age, many institutions, both private corporations and nonprofits, are behind the curve in modifying their ways of functioning and, as a result, they are significantly less effective than they might be. Think of how many companies that have not changed with the times have gone belly-up (e.g. Eastman Kodak). The same can be said about American churches and synagogues. The vast majority are still functioning in hierarchical ways that might have worked well 50 years ago. But the precipitous decline in congregational membership for more than two decades speaks volumes of the price to be paid for using an outmoded operating system.

The Herring/Elton book describes such congregations as stuck in a 1.0 operating system. They perceptively note that many congregational leaders fool themselves into thinking that they are changing with the times when they build a website and begin to use social media. Using the technologies of the “connected world” without changing the essential governing systems that go along with it, moves these congregations up to a 2.0 operating system. But if a congregation hopes to engage the next generation requires moving to a 3.0 system. That involves changing from authoritarian models of leadership to more democratic models; valuing innovation at least as much as tradition; moving from exclusivist standards that keep people out to inclusive models that are more welcoming; and much more. Anyone with a passing knowledge of historic religious traditions can see why clergy and congregational lay leaders are slow to adopt 3.0 ways of functioning. The values challenge the way religion has done business for millennia!

No institution changes quickly or easily. Those in positions of authority have a lot invested in protecting the status quo. This is true in all institutions. In the realm of religion, resistance to change can be easily championed by those who would claim to be protecting core values/practices of the respective religion and/or who are representing “the will of God.” Indeed, these are the arguments that have been made to justify, in the name of religion, slavery; the second-class status of women; the widespread practice of child marriage in the developing world; and the shaming and sanctions against LGBT persons and practices.

But despite the perceived threats to religious standards, network thinking can actually lead to a healthy renewal of religious traditions and the engagement of many younger people who are so alienated from the way faith communities currently function. By definition a networked organization will prioritize people over programs. It will allow new ideas to bubble up from the grassroots and not only come from the top down. It will breed a spirit of innovation and trial and error. It will celebrate diversity by welcoming in people of different backgrounds and life choices instead of perpetuating congregations of people who look alike, think alike and act alike.

Many of the most forward thinking foundations in the Jewish world are using network thinking to inform their funding. Case in point the Schusterman Foundation which has created several extremely robust networks like the ROI community, REALITY and their Network Incubator. Several years ago the Foundation created an animated video about networks and the Jewish community which is about as effective an explanation of the concept as you will find anywhere.

The Herring/Elton book particularly resonated for me. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) that I run is now starting to work with its third cohort of 20 rabbis across the denominational spectrum for a two-year fellowship. Most of the rabbis we work with were raised in synagogues that functioned in an older paradigm (1.0, or at best, 2.0). We need to equip rabbis with the ideas and models that will help them move their congregations into a newer paradigm. The core principals we teach are fully in synch with the 3.0 model that Herring/Elton describe in their book: How do you make a congregation mission-driven and program aligned? How do you empower laypeople so that they are motivated to be fully engaged co-owners of the congregation and not relegated to passive members who are only expected to pay dues? How do you turn Jewish practice into a joy-filled and life-giving experience so that Jews see that Judaism can actually make them happier and more fulfilled human beings because they are part of a covenantal, mutually obligated community?

Similarly, my newest project is actually called, Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. The Kenissa Network is identifying and convening emerging spiritual communities that are forging new paths for Jewish identification in the 21st century. Specifically, we are working in six sectors: social justice, spiritual practice, independent minyanim, Jewish learning groups, arts and culture and eco-sustainability. Each of the communities we are identifying have a unique Jewish take on their particular thematic focus. And while on the surface, the groups do not have a lot in common, we are building a network in which the leaders of these respective organizations can learn from one another. It will result in building the capacity of the entire innovation sector of American Jewish life.

Herring and Elton ask the following provocative question in their book: What if congregations and nonprofit organizations flipped their understanding of themselves from being dispensers of information to platforms for collective learning? It is a question that leaders of Jewish organizations would do well to ask themselves.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz directs the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) and Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD where he continues to teach and lead services. Among other books he is the author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.