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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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One Response to “The 7 Vital Signs of a Healthy Congregation”

  1. avatar

    I appreciate these. There are others from my less experienced perspective.

    Fiscally responsible: are the best financial decisions being made for the synagogue and congregation for securing its future? Do congregants engage in financial decisions and show an interest in temple finances as members of the community?

    Safe and secure: does the congregation audit and resolve safety and security? Are safety and security discussed among the congregants, including making our homes safer and families protected? Does the synagogue participate in educational and informational meetings?

    Strategic thinking: is there an openness to discuss critical issues with safety for congregants? Are tough issues identified respectfully? Are congregants engaged and deliberate on the issues of the day?

    Succession Planning: are we preparing for future temple leadership?

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