Strategic Planning in Synagogues – Why Bother?

By Debra Brosan and Michele Levin

Our brains are wired for certainty. As David Rock, brain science and leadership expert, notes in his SCARF Model[1], “C” stands for certainty. Paradoxically, there is a need in the Synagogue world to be nimble and ready for change.

Our answer to reconciling our human need for knowing and controlling our future with the speed of change our synagogues are experiencing, is planning, specifically strategic planning. We believe that the process of planning is necessary to the continued health and prosperity of our organizations.

We want to offer a re-do on the traditional ways strategic planning is facilitated.

Synagogues are member, board and staff driven, relational and with a culture that inherently accepts change every 2-4 years with a new volunteer board. Synagogue boards are unique in that the volunteer board members are also the customers. Unlike nonprofit boards that raise money for a specific cause or even the board of a museum or hospital, each synagogue board member belongs to that organization and receives multiple types of services. Often, this mushiness makes it significantly more difficult for board members to act on behalf of the entire organization and not on behalf of their own needs. There is also an inherent question of who runs the ship; the clergy, the executive director (if there is one) or the board president. Combine that with the constant rolling off and on of board members, synagogues are more susceptible to changes in strategic focus. On the positive side, we believe this demonstrates nimbleness and is a strength that proves synagogues are primed for change, as change is part of our DNA. Strategic planning creates a road map that clarifies the vision, purpose and priorities of the organization and guides decisions such as allocating resources and determining future direction. The road map transcends the lay leader changeover, and allows for consistency through transition.

While the process can be time consuming and expensive, the outcomes are far reaching. The most important thing to remember when embarking on this journey is just that, the journey is what matters most, not the end document. The learning during the planning process is inspiring and energizing. A good example is when we worked with a large synagogue that wanted a new fresh approach to the way they delivered services. The work we did with the strategic planning team inspired the leaders to push at the edges of what spirituality meant for them and the congregation, which then mobilized change. The outcomes from the strategic plan reached programming, preaching, and teaching.

The approach we employ can be summed up in six steps:

  1. Creation of the Strategic Planning Team (SPT). This is a small group we work directly with to facilitate the process. This team manages the process.
  2. Internal data collection – Through surveys, interviews and focus groups stakeholders are given an opportunity to express what they want, and what they are willing to stand by and support. This part of the process also includes review of all relevant existing documents such as past strategic plans, membership materials, organizational charts and current mission and vision statements. Often, we hear that there is negativity in the organization about strategic planning. We pay attention to this, as in many cases there is truth in that negativity. We are interested in what didn’t work that last time they planned, as well as what worked.
  3. External data collection – We look at external and internal trends that impact the organization. Such trends could be demographics, societal, generational, technological, economic or cultural, as well as looking at other organizational and operational models, partnerships, and innovations.
  4. Identify the strategic focus areas – Considering the issues the client initially expressed, and identifying what emerged in the data.
  5. Define actions steps and assign who will implement with a timeline – moving the thinking forward to action. This step is vital in corralling the energy from envisioning to execution. Often, in this stage, task forces will be created for the work to continue.
  6. Implement, evaluate, and fine-tune the plan.

All of this, of course, is sound business practice for any organization, for-profit or nonprofit, and especially synagogues. In synagogues, where financial resources can be limited, it is important to find other value-added benefits to the process. Such value is how planning unites and creates community and goodwill. Not only do they come away with a plan for the future, the organization is stronger and more cohesive having gone through the journey. There is also a value-added educational benefit, the process creates a board of recursive strategic planners who bring out the plan at every board meeting to update and check for progress.

Internal data collection is an opportunity to transparently give voice to all constituent groups. Through a process, we call “Listening Sessions,” members of the constituent groups are given the opportunity to “envision,” expressing their hopes and dreams. Together with the SPT we identify the groups and co-create the questions that will inform the planning. Then, we as the consultants, facilitate the Listening Sessions or train members of the STP to be the facilitators and collect this critical data about the wants and desires of the synagogue members. Listening is a powerful tool, it gives voice to constituent groups, creates buy in for the process and better assurance of follow through once the plan is finished.

Collecting external data affords an opportunity to connect with like-minded organizations and can lead to new and innovative partnerships. One synagogue we worked with identified a new opportunity and financial resource through connecting with another nonprofit looking to rent space.

Once data collection is completed we analyze and synthesize the information and present back to the SPT the themes that emerge from the data. The SPT reviews the information and shares it with appropriate staff and the board to test the direction of the process. We then work with the SPT to narrow the themes to 3-5 implementable strategic focus areas. A religious school we worked with had a distinct and separate preschool, elementary school and middle/high school. Although creating a more cohesive flow between the schools was on their long-range agenda, after reviewing the strategic focus areas that emerged from the data they realized this needed to be addressed sooner rather than later.

After the strategic focus areas are determined, we map the focus areas in a way that is fluid and transparent. The map contains the goals, objectives, action steps, responsibility and timeline. All the necessary information for implementation and evaluation are addressed through the map, which becomes a living, breathing document. The maps need to be easily understood to use and disseminated widely. Boards often display their maps on the walls of the synagogue, to draw every person to them, so they can find their place in the change. This process, has an ongoing back and forth with the organizational stakeholders and board to always check for buy in and understanding.

Strategic planning, which must be customized based on the diverse and unique needs of the synagogue, assures the added value of moving forward both internally and externally through a journey that fosters cohesiveness, buy in, implementation, and even perhaps a spark of innovation.

[1] David Rock, “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” (HarperBusiness, 2009): Neuroscience explanations for workplace challenges and dilemmas, and strategies for managing them.

Debra Brosan, gestaltworks, llc and Michele Levin, gestaltworks, llc.
Debra and Michele are dedicated in helping to create effective, healthy congregations through organizational development, strategic planning, and training.