USCJ Staffing Survey:
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

By Dr. Ray Goldstein
and Barry S. Mael

For well over a decade synagogue leaders have been faced with changing demands and needs of their kehillot and how to respond considering budgetary constraints and the concomitant reductions in staff. In order to better understand the current staffing patterns in our kehillot and to compare that data with surveys of this population conducted in 2014 and 2015, we issued a survey in the fall of 2017 to the leadership of our nearly 600 member congregations. We received 285 responses from synagogues ranging in size from under 50 members to more than 1,500, with the majority reporting 5-10 full-time (32 hours or more per week) and more than 10 part-time (less than 32 hours per week) professional or other staff (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Number of Full Time Staff

As with the 2015 results, rabbi remains the number one professional position in our congregations (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Full Time Senior Staff

Looking at the distribution of various ritual positions, Figure 3 shows that, although the second rabbi position appears in kehillot at about the same rate as cantors in congregations with 100-199 membership units, the cantor position rapidly proliferates above that size cohort while the second rabbi position begins its increase only in the 300-449 cohort. The second rabbi passes the cantor position in occurrence in communities over 750 membership units.

Figure 3 Full Time Ritual Staff

In an attempt to maximize staffing/cost balance, there is much discussion of combining certain clergy positions. However, the data obtained through this survey shows that the conversation outpaces the reality in congregations (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Education Director Hours Per Week By Kehilla Size

In the area of professional education and youth staff, full-time early childhood directors are more common than full-time education directors, directors of congregational learning or youth directors in every size cohort (Figure 5). The licensure requirements of early childhood programs, requiring full-time supervision and management, may explain this.

In fact, full-time education directors dropped from 37% in 2015 to 31% in 2017. We question whether this drop is due to a decline in school enrollment which leads to more part-time or shared positions or if more of our synagogues simply no longer have religious schools.

In regard to shared positions we did not ask for the positions with which education director roles were being combined (Figure 4). The education position is the most prevalent shared position in the 200 through the 749 size cohorts, reaching or exceeding 20%. The youth director position was the next most frequently shared position at 7.66% (Table 1).

Figure 5 Full Time Education Staff

Table 1 lists some of the positions we examined in the survey.

Position Title Full-time Part-time Shared
Administrator  19.33  10.22  2.67
Assistant/Associate Rabbi  19.59  2.86  1.63
Communications director  8.33  3.17  5.16
Congregational Nurse  0.41  1.64  0.00
Congregational Social Worker  0.00  2.88  0.00
Development Director  3.23  0.40  1.61
Director of Life Long Learning  10.98  2.03  4.47
Educational Director  31.08  19.52  11.95
Engagement/Outreach Director  4.78  2.79  3.98
Executive Director  50.55  3.32  1.48
Hazzan  38.29  14.50  6.32
IT Director  1.24  0.83  2.07
Marketing/Publicity Director  4.00  2.00  5.60
Membership Director  3.59  1.20  5.98
Rabbi (Only or Senior) 88.38  2.86  0.00
Webmaster  1.74  2.61  4.35
Youth Director  13.71  32.66  7.66

We were also very interested in determining if our congregations are employing positions integral to the maintenance and growth of membership, such as engagement, marketing, communications or membership directors. As you will see in Figure 6, it appears that only the larger communities are making an investment in professionalizing these areas. The findings for the three years for which we have data show a very slight increase in the number of reported membership and engagement directors (Figure 6). Since these relationship-building roles are critical to the attraction and retention of members, we can only assume that these essential functions are being carried out by volunteers in the smaller communities, if at all.

Figure 6 Relationship Management Positions 2014-17

Overall the data shows that synagogues are still staffing with the same basic models and positions of years past even though there is much discussion of different needs and challenges in the 21st century. When we looked to see if new positions such as engagement/outreach director, membership director, marketing/publicity director or communications director existed, we observed that none of these positions appeared in more than 8% of our synagogues.

Also, congregations are still leaning more towards operations versus ritual. As noted above, while the rabbi is the most common staff position, full-time executive directors and administrators (63.88% combined) remain more prevalent than full-time hazzans at 38.29%.

Based on the results of our 2015 survey, we had developed a number of recommendations for how our kehillot can move away from traditional staffing patterns towards staffing that will help create and maintain thriving sacred communities. Two years later, we think these recommendations are still important and relevant.

Staffing must be aligned with the mission/vision of each kehilla. There are far too many instances in which congregations identify clear priorities based on an updated mission and/or vision statement but maintain staff that is not representative of those priorities.

Staffing must also align to budget. Because of fixed costs such as contracts, mortgages, etc. there is not always much room for discretionary budgeting but, when possible, personnel lines should reflect where the congregation wants to go as opposed to where it has been.

Attention should also be paid to task analysis. It is critical that leadership undertake a process of analyzing current job descriptions and tasks to determine what gaps exist. These gaps then need to be filled either by hiring new staff or modifying existing positions to change job descriptions and priorities.

Any discussion of staffing in our synagogues should also include how and when to utilize volunteers as opposed to paid staff. Congregations should ensure they have clear expectations and job descriptions for volunteers, with accountability for the volunteer’s work.

Frankly, the analysis of our 2017 staffing survey left us with as many questions as answers. We see synagogues facing challenges regarding membership, in-reach, fundraising, communication and outreach and yet we see no evidence that staffing models and patterns are changing or adjusting based on these new demands. It is very important that moving forward synagogues begin to staff based on need and vision and not simply past practices if they hope to survive and thrive in the years ahead.

Dr. Ray Goldstein is USCJ Kehilla Relationship Team Leader and Barry S. Mael is USCJ Senior Director of Kehilla Affiliations and Operations.