By Rachael Burgess

“Do you have any resources about how to deal with guests, calls and emails from people who are interested in becoming a member or are curious about our congregation?”

As part of my work on behalf of the Reconstructionist movement, I often field questions from congregations related to marketing and communications.

It’s a smart question.

In an age when people avoid religious institutions, an email or phone call from a prospective member is an opportunity that synagogues cannot afford to lose. But, too often, congregations drop the ball.

To my surprise, I couldn’t find examples, templates, or even articles on the web about how to handle prospective member inquiries. Is the situation so rare that it doesn’t warrant best practices? (If so, that’s an even bigger problem.) Or do congregations assume they’ll know how to respond in a welcoming and prompt manner?

It seems congregations have a procedure for just about everything – scheduling emergency meetings, Hebrew school pickup, notifying parents in the event of a security concern, how to wash dishes in the community kitchen, ordering food for an oneg, the list goes on. But not a procedure for handling prospective members who contact them.

Yes, synagogues should reach people and not wait for them to call or walk through the doors. But how can synagogues have influence beyond their own spheres if they don’t know how to talk to prospective members coming to them first?

We plan so we don’t have to improvise, which is when we tend to make mistakes or let things fall through the cracks. A plan for inquiries can help your congregation learn about the prospective member, follow up promptly, and show your community values this person.

Here’s what your plan needs:

1. A designated person to receive and make initial contact

Many synagogues have an administrator to answer phones and receive general emails. For smaller communities, this may be a part-time volunteer. This is one of the most crucial roles in any Jewish community because this person is, most of the time, the central hub of all community information and the first person with whom a prospective member will likely interact. Empower this person to be a welcoming voice and face in your community. Provide this person with tools and information to answer questions and ensure follow up.

2. A list of frequently asked questionsand the answers

When a prospective new member contacts a synagogue, the person usually has a specific question. While it’s rare for a prospective member to call or use the synagogue’s “contact us” form, there are questions that are asked more than others such as: When are services? How much do your High Holy Day services cost?

Make sure the person responding to prospective members has an easily accessible list of those common questions and the answers to those questions written out.

Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible question. In that case, it’s okay to promptly find those answers and respond to the person within 24 hours.

3. A way to gather information

The person contacts a synagogue to know if your community is a right fit. Can your congregation provide for the person’s needs? When the request comes in, set up a phone call and learn about the person.

Don’t be an interrogator. Learn the person’s name, contact information, neighborhood, goals for themselves (or possibly, children), and so on. Make a form with questions listed out as a conversation guide and a way to organize the call notes. I created a Google form as an example.

4. A way to distribute the information

Speaking of a Google form, the information gathered about the prospective member needs to be distributed. Whether these notes go to your rabbi, president, or a membership committee, make sure they receive the information. I suggest making a digital form in a program such as Google forms or a similar program. Fill out the form on a computer during the phone call, press “send,” and it will automatically email the people who will follow up with the prospective member.

5. Something to walk away with

I came across an article in a while ago in eJewishphilanthropy called “A Concierge for the Jewish Community,” about Big Tent Judaism’s program to help connect people to local Jewish organizations and activities.

While Big Tent Judaism is no longer around, the idea of the program stayed with me. I liked the idea of offering a potential member something after an initial conversation. If the person moved to the area, offer a guide to everything Jewish in your city like restaurants, stores, clubs, day care centers, JCCs and any local Jewish activities.

If you have some time (I know, I laugh at that thought too), think about creating guides for parents, empty nesters, young adults, or seniors who may contact your synagogue. Even if the prospective member decides not to become a member, the person will never forget how you helped and may send others your way.

6. Follow up communication (ASAP)

There are plenty of online resources for professionals learning about how to follow-up after initial contact with a potential client or employer. Much of that advice is applicable to following up with a prospective congregation member. I came across an article called “How to Follow Up After Meeting Someone in Person,” which had a helpful guide for creating a follow-up plan.

For example:

  • X days after the first contact, send an email.
  • X days later, send an event invitation.
  • X days later, schedule time for coffee/lunch/dinner.

I should disclose that I understand the website is called The Art of Manliness and this might be off-putting. But this article is very well written, helpful, and the advice is applicable to anyone.

7. A facetoface meeting

Practically everyone in religious life today recognizes the importance of personal, face-to-face interactions. Whether scheduling lunch with the rabbi, an invitation to an event, or a dinner date with a current member family, your congregation should find opportunities for the prospective member to see your community and the people who make it great.

8. A plan review process

Now we have a plan, but we are not done yet. Make sure this plan doesn’t collect dust.

  • Teach your plan to your community and your leadership.
  • Put it into action and tweak it as needed.
  • Teach it repeatedly until you are sick of hearing about it. At the very least, review at least once a year so you can continue to grow a community that does not let anyone feel forgotten.

It can take years for a prospective to decide to join a synagogue. You may not win a member over with your initial response, but you sure can lose one. Don’t improvise when a prospective member calls or emails your community. Help them feel like valued members of your community. Treat each response as if the future of your community, indeed the future of the Jewish people, depends upon it.

Rachael Burgess is communications associate for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. She is also the facilitator of an online synagogue branding, communications, and marketing community.

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