The New Synagogue Math: When We Hope That 1 Plus 1 is More Than 1 But Less Than 2
Changing demographics, declining religious school enrollment, troubled finances-a sure formula for frustration (to say the least). It could also be the prompt for thinking anew about the way we do business. This may not only be happening in our congregation, but also in our neighboring Jewish congregation. There will be those who will shrie (yell), “oy gevalt!” and want to walk away, and those who will shrie for merger. Before resorting to one or the other, let me offer several considerations:
- Try to remove the “M” word (merger) from the conversation. Rather than allowing for possibilities, it carries the sound of demise. Instead, consider ways in which the two (or even more) congregations might consider collaborating.
- Use metaphors to describe the potential alliance. Be creative in doing so. Will we be like conjoined twins, sharing a rabbi, an educator or staff members? Will one congregation absorb the other? Could we build a campus with several organizations housed in one facility? Should we cohabit, living together but not dissolving our organizational walls?
- If consolidation is the goal, don’t jump right in. Consider consolidation as a marriage. Before joining together for a common future (getting engaged) consider dating for a while. Do we get along? Do we have common values? Can we agree on what is important and what is a luxury?
- Remember that self-interest is key here. The model of success for collaboration is to ensure that our core values are preserved. The form, whether it is a free-standing, newly built synagogue or it is a storefront, is less important. The substance-why do we exist as a congregation-is vital.
- Do your best to get to yes. Follow the principles of William Ury and Roger Fisher, both of whom are members of the Harvard Negotiating Project, in their book Getting to Yes. (I recommend everyone involved in leading the process read this book.)
- Don’t bargain over positions
- Separate the people from the problem
- Focus on interests, not positions
- Invent options for mutual gain
- Begin with small leadership groups–both within each congregation and with teams composed of members of both congregations. Expand the circle as trust is built. There will be challenges along the way, but having a core team is vital.
- Utilize the wisdom of others who have travelled this path before you.
- Consider that if this is only about finances (rather than sustaining a sacred community) then we are only delaying the inevitable rather than building a future.
- Doing nothing, also known as “maintaining the status quo,” is also an option. Consider, instead, what your community’s trajectory will be if you continue along the current path.
Turn to your board for leadership. If you are on the board, lead. There is no time like the present, even amidst challenges, to build a stronger future.
Rabbi David Fine is a Senior Consultant with the URJ Congregational Consulting Group. Despite the fact that his areas of specialty are congregations in transition as well as mergers and alternatives to mergers, he remains a realistic optimist. He follows the thinking of Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna who notes that the Jewish community has consistently responded to external pressure with internal change and growth. Rabbi Fine can be reached at DFine@urj.org.