The Former Congregant

Originally published on Jewish Connectivity

I recently learned the phrase “the former audience,” a term used to describe people who react to and act in a story as it unfolds rather than observing it. People today are empowered. “We did it!” Dora the Explorer sings from my TV to my preschool kids. (Talk about a “former audience”– now you have to talk to the TV instead of just watch it!) Today we can organize with like-minded individuals for a few minutes or many years, in person or online. We can raise money for our own causes and communicate with massive amounts of people through extensive networks.

Might leaders of synagogues think about “the former congregant”? As my colleague Rabbi Arnie Samlan points out, people don’t want to only receive services any more. They want to be a part of something bigger and take an active role in determining its direction.

Here’s my start at a chart comparing the former congregant of today to the congregant of generations:

There are two crucial reactions for today’s Jewish leaders given this reality.

  1. Figure out what your organization’s added value is. What do you have to offer that “former congregants” can’t do or find themselves? This can be anything from quality conversational Hebrew instruction in a community of friends to ongoing opportunities to make a meaningful contribution to the local community. It can be spiritually uplifting worship or a place that stands for counter-cultural values. Decide why people would need or want to be a part of your organization, and do that well.
  2. Share. Adopt a generous attitude towards resources, partnership, information and leadership. Holding your cards close to your chest is a sure way to find yourself alone at the table while the rest of the gang has left to join a pick up game of basketball. Instead, practice “open source Judaism.” Allow leaders to emerge, help them to implement their ideas and bring together their networks.

Yesterday’s congregants have changed. Today’s congregations have to.

Wendy Grinberg is the founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab and clinical faculty at HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education. You can contact her at grinbergconsulting@gmail.com.

This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.

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