Aging of Reform Congregations
by George Rosenbaum
Many Reform congregations struggle with membership renewal as the proportion of their older members increases. Aging members gradually become less active in the congregation as energy or health wanes and travel becomes more difficult. Although members are living longer now than prior generations, congregations face difficulty in retaining members who are reaching an advanced age. With declining participation, some elderly drop their memberships.
At the same time, attracting younger members is becoming more difficult than in prior generations. The size of Reform congregations is thus impacted at both ends of the life cycle. Congregations need to be cautious that efforts to address both problems -serving the elderly and attracting youth — do not become counter-productive, by inhibiting renewal or by discouraging affiliation of younger members.
A recently-completed study of one major U.S. Reform congregation illuminates both horns of this dilemma. It surfaces issues that emerge from service aimed at retention of elderly members and suggests guidelines to help manage those issues. Above all, it raises sensitivity to the risks entailed when programs aimed at elderly members discourage younger families and individuals from becoming members.
Retention of Aging Members
Loss of aging members results from death and resignation. Obviously nothing can be done about the former, and the case study suggests that more than half of the elderly resignations were essentially unavoidable: moves to retirement homes, or to warmer climates, frailty, and affiliation with their adult children’s congregations.
The remaining elderly resignations provide an understanding of the needs to be addressed in developing service aimed at elderly members. Aging members feel a gradual loss of community as their friends in the congregation die, participate less actively, and/or give up their membership. As their social fabric wears down, their relationship to the congregation becomes more fragile. While this is a natural process, it can be slowed both by programming that sustains companionship and by programming that integrates elderly members with their successors, rather than moving them off to the sidelines.
Intervention in the natural process of withdrawal must not become a trade-off between the retention of the elderly and the acquisition of young members. Survival of the synagogue is contingent on attracting young families, not on retaining elderly members. Synagogue leadership must be watchful about programs that serve the elderly but have unintended negative consequences in attracting and holding younger members.
In facing this tricky and formidable challenge, programming can be thought of in three ways:
- Programming that is age blind, structured and communicated to achieve age integration, built on interests that unite younger and older members. Worship, perhaps is at the forefront. But, since only a minority of members worship weekly or even monthly, worship alone is not sufficient to achieve age integration. Sounding out younger and elderly members in advance of formulating integrative programming will help assure appealing to common interests.
- Programming targeting the elderly, to defeat the weakening of membership bonds as peers in the congregation diminish and both physical and emotional strength wane. Avoiding such defeat requires strengthening motivation so priority is given to the synagogue relationship. Appropriate targeting can be supported through a database of older members for both phone and mail communication. By skillfully targeting the elderly, not only in the nature of programs but also in the way they are communicated, the synagogue can avoid distancing prospective and current younger members.
- Programming aimed at younger members must appeal to distinctive interests of younger members, without regard to elderly members. Elderly members who observe the synagogue’s engagement with youth are likely to be gratified by the continuity and renewal of the congregation. Indeed, witnessing the process of continuity may strengthen their own bonds to the synagogue. The converse is not true. Younger members seeing too much emphasis on service to the elderly may wonder whether they have made the right choice. This is not a sin of youth, but an endeavor to find meaningful relations with their own age group in the context of the congregation.
Attracting Young Members
Although our synagogue case study aimed at providing guidance to address the needs of elderly members, it also yielded insight into the critical problem of attracting young members, without whom any synagogue is doomed.
Mobility in our society creates geographic separation between parents and their adult children. Thus, synagogues can no longer count on family continuity to contribute significantly to renewal, and young people are on their own in finding a synagogue. The age of marriage and childbearing has risen substantially over the past two generations, so the decision to affiliate with a synagogue becomes deferred.
Our study found that younger members affiliate with synagogues in their thirties, typically when reaching a decisive juncture in their lives: moving to a new area – often in their first house, and with their first child approaching nursery school age. They now confront two realities.
- They want to be connected to a warm, welcoming community. In reaching for that connection, the synagogue is a natural choice, offering both spiritual and social dimensions, giving it strength and distinguishing it from secular communities.
- They want their children to grow up Jewish, even though they may have suspended their own Jewish involvement for a decade or more before family formation. This commitment can be especially powerful when a spouse has converted, as well as in interfaith marriages where parents have agreed to raise their children Jewish.
The prime focus for congregations seeking new members should be identifying and attracting families at the life stage where the need for a synagogue has resurfaced, appealing to their needs and hopes as they arrive in the synagogue service area. Their need to establish themselves in their new community can take precedence over an eventual or even immediate need for religious schooling. Pre-school and religious school are vital elements, but fall short of satisfying the need for a meaningful social and spiritual connection. If the only perceived benefit of affiliation is religious school, renewal of the congregation is fractured when religious education is completed.
The problem of membership renewal by the elderly is far easier to solve than the fundamental problem of synagogue renewal through attracting young members. In allocation of attention and resource, great care is needed so that programs supporting retention of elderly members do not weaken the congregation’s ability to attract and retain young members.
George Rosenbaum is Co-Founder of Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, a behavior and opinion research firm.