Is Your Congregation in Rehab or Hospice?

It’s safe to say that religious affiliation in the United States is currently in decline. This is a phenomenon reported by the Pew Studies and one that transcends religions and denominations. Older congregants are passing away or retiring elsewhere, and the younger generations are too bogged down by student loans, rising healthcare costs, and over-programmed children to provide enough financial sustainability for the future. Most importantly, these younger generations (X, Y, and Z) don’t want the same things that the Baby Boomers wanted (and still want); they didn’t grow up thinking that you just join a congregation because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Rather, they grew up in a world where “benefits of membership” is a key understanding needed before joining any affiliation. As a rabbi born in 81, throttling the line between Gen X and Millennials, I have watched far too many congregations struggle with this challenge and ultimately end up voting or acting against their own interest. Instead of working hard to address the change in America’s religiosity and needs, congregations make short-sighted decisions, attempting to placate the older wealthier congregants with what they find comfortable.

At a recent dinner with a group of congregational leadership, I asked them, “where is your congregation? In rehab? Or in hospice?” I explained that they, like most congregations in the United States are in one of the two and expounded upon the metaphor. Rehab is hard. It hurts. Something is broken, you are in recovery, having to thrust yourself, strain yourself, push your limits. It’s difficult sometimes to even motivate yourself to get out of that hospital bed and get to work, but you know that if you don’t, your wounds will never heal, your muscles will atrophy, and you will go nowhere. You need a motivator, someone to tell you that you can do it; you need real tangible and achievable goals, and you need to push and cry through the pain. Congregations, the smart ones, are doing this now: reevaluating dues structures, changing music services, hiring new clergy, focusing on young family programs, giving younger generations the voice and the wheel to steer it. Change is hard. It’s painful to hire or fire staff; it’s hard to change calcified habits, good and bad; it’s hard to hear new melodies, do new programs, and have new focuses. People get attached to rituals, and they take the removal of tradition personally. But being in rehab produces what is also needed in synagogues: productive discomfort. Only with hard work, the lack of fear of change, and productive discomfort can a synagogue break free of muscle atrophy and start to walk forward again.

Of course, there are those congregations that have no interest in doing this work. They deny what is happening around them, blaming their lack of service attendance on things they cannot control, withholding positions of leadership from the next generation because they don’t have experience, shutting down new ideas and progress. These are the congregations that have little or no interest in new scholarship, the changes of contemporary rituals and liturgy, and would rather live in a bubble of nostalgia. They shuffle into worship services, dressed to the nines, sneering at those in jeans, giving the evil eye to children bouncing in their seats until the families stop feeling comfortable and leave. They sit in a gilded image of sanctuary they grew up in, hearing outdated melodies and embracing outdated decorum. They are unable or unwilling to notice the increasingly empty and cold seats around them; their decisions are based not from the advice of the current clergy, but from what the clergy of decades ago decreed. They worship the golden calf of wealth and clout, and survive off of their idea of “ownership” of the building, believing with full heart that because they have donated moneys, their word carries more weight and they can literally shift the tide away from change. These are the congregations that have no strategic plans, or if they do, do not listen to the planners; they are the congregations that look at falling membership, a lack of leadership turnover, and a stale inertia keeping them floating through the world and they say to one another “this is fine.” These congregations have found themselves in hospice. They are but shells of their former selves: the body has given way, the strength has diminished, the organs are shutting down. And, those congregations receiving palliative care, have the nerve to look around and say, “I just don’t know why people stopped coming.”

Seth Godin, a respected entrepreneur and blogger wrote about two kinds of mistakes businesses make. As it turns out, they’re the same kind of mistakes congregations make:

There is the mistake of overdoing the defense of the status quo, the error in investing too much time and energy in keeping things as they are. And then there is the mistake made while inventing the future, the error of small experiments gone bad. We are almost never hurt by the second kind of mistake and yet we persist in making the first kind, again and again.

Congregations don’t have to be in hospice, and they don’t have to give up when things get too hard. What is comfortable is not always what is right. Sometimes traditions have to change; sometimes strategic plans have to change; sometimes the entire method and blueprint need to be changed. Yes, it can seem scary, it can seem risky, but that productive discomfort gets the congregations up out of the bed, gives them a fighting chance to survive, to live, even if it means living differently from how they were. The pain of hospice is far greater than the pain of rehab, and the former ends with the lights being turned off, the building sold, the transformation of a once great congregation into a small group of curmudgeons, resentfully holding together their congregation with both hands. The latter transforms a congregation wounded, into a stronger, better, more experienced group of multigenerational wisdom, looking to the bright future.

The tools and helpers are out there; the ideas are being created, the wheel reinvented. But  before congregations start hiring new clergy and new staff, and placing young families in leadership positions, they must first make a full understanding of where they are: rehab or hospice.  Only with that knowledge can they decide their fate in this changing world.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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