The 7 Vital Signs of a Healthy Congregation
by Ron Wolfson
As one who has worked in the field of synagogue transformation for more than 20 years, I am often asked, “What are the vital signs of a healthy congregation?” Here are seven vital signs I look for in taking the pulse of a community:
- A welcoming website: If a congregation’s online presence shows me images of the building, an empty sanctuary, and multiple logos, I quickly lose interest. A striking Torah ark and stained glass windows may be a source of congregational pride, but they do not convey a feeling of warmth and welcome and are not very enticing to potential members. Conversely, when I visit a website that conveys a congregation with people learning and worshiping together, doing God’s work in a vibrant and energized atmosphere, I’m drawn in. It makes me want to look for people who are in my life stage in the hope of making new friends.
- Happy people: Are congregants excited when they come in for services? Do they welcome each other enthusiastically? Are the clergy, staff, and leadership in good spirits? When doctors examine a patient, one of the first diagnostic observations is the general feeling they get upon greeting the patient. A doctor can often tell almost at a glance if the person is healthy or not. When I visit a congregation as a scholar-in-residence and someone picks me up at the airport, I usually know within five minutes whether the congregation is a happy place or not, because I either hear all about the exciting happenings or all about the problems weighing down the congregation.
- Signage: Pay close attention to the words on your synagogue marquee or entrance areas. Do they signal that worshipers are entering a place of welcome and hospitality, or one of rules and regulations? In some communities I am “greeted” with signs warning “DO NOT ENTER” or “DROP-OFF ONLY.”
- Tenure of service: When rabbis, cantors, educators, and/or executive directors have worked in a synagogue for 10 or more years, it’s indicative of a stable community. Professionals have had time to get to know people well, enabling them to build the kind of relationships that are at the core of healthy congregations.
- Households vs. human beings: How do board members respond when I ask, “How many people do you have?” If their answer is the number of households or membership units rather than the number of human beings, it’s a signal that the leaders do not realize that people and relationships come first.
- Quality of the coffee: Is the coffee really good at the oneg? If the congregation puts its best food forward – pun intended – it demonstrates that hospitality is a priority.
- A Clear Vision: Congregational leadership should be able to articulate a clear vision of what the congregation is in business to do. They should also be able to answer in the affirmative to the following questions. Does the congregation…
- Change my life?
- Strengthen my family?
- Give me a community of friends to be with me during the ups and downs of my life?
- Teach me to use Jewish study and practice to enhance my life?
- Connect me to both a sacred and civic Jewish community in a significant way?
- Give me a sense of belonging to the Jewish people?
- Deepen my relationship with the State of Israel?
- Lead me to do the work of repairing the world?
- Help me to build a relationship with God, however I define God?
Checking your congregational vital signs and taking the temperature of your culture is a good way to begin the process of shaping a relational community offering a path to meaning and purpose, belonging, and blessing.
Ron Wolfson is the author of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community, and the forthcoming The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (all Jewish Lights).
Want to hear Ron Wolfson speak about creating healthy congregations and his exciting new book? He’ll be a featured speaker at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place Nov. 4-8 in Orlando, FL. Register now at urj.org/biennial.