The Role of the Rabbi in Increasing Shul Membership

Is The Rabbi Responsible for Increasing Membership
We received an email, a while back, from a reader who is a member of a small orthodox shul in a competitive Orthodox neighborhood. The Rabbi is a fantastic guy and a mensch of the first order, but he is not bringing people into the shul. The writer wants to know is this the expected role of the Rabbi, or is it more the role of the Board of Management?

Roles Go Beyond Initial Understandings
I think that the primary responsibility of increasing membership lies with the Officers and the Board. When a Shul hires a Rabbi, it is helpful to be explicit about what roles are expected including increasing membership. Even if not specified, helping to increase the membership of the Shul is usually in the best interest of both the Rabbi and the members. The question then becomes in which ways can the Rabbi help increase the membership.

Why Do People Become Members
To explore the question further we need to look at some of the reasons people become members:
1) They like the members of the Shul
2) The Rabbi answers their halachic and hashkafic questions
3) They like the davening and other services the Shul provides
4) The Shul is a convenient choice

How the Rabbi Can Help
Here’s how the Rabbi can help in each of these areas numbered above.
1) He should take the time to understand and relate to the membership’s particular needs. This will encourage more members in the existing categories to join the Shul.
2) He needs to be easily accessible for questions from the members. He needs to provide halachic and hashkafic answers appropriate for each individual. He needs to know when and what leniencies are appropriate.
3) He should make sure the davening is appropriate from the members in terms of quiet, speed and speeches. He needs to provide classes and find others to provide classes that are relevant to the members. He should encourage and work with the officers and the membership to increasingly provide appropriate services for the members.
4) He usually can’t do much about the Shul location, but he can make sure the times of davening are convenient for the members.

Different Roles in Different Communities
The ideas above are general and the needs and focus of a particular Shul and Rabbi depend on its location, needs and authority and financial structure.

Originally posted in February 2012

9 thoughts on “The Role of the Rabbi in Increasing Shul Membership”

  1. Mark,

    Thanks for taking this up …

    In thinking about why we are having difficulties attracting members, I turned my mind to what brings people to a shul and your 4 points are all valid, but I think there is one more less tangible point but which has a major impact on this issue: the concept of inspiration.

    People come to shul to be inspired and they naturally look to the rabbi to do this. Sure, he can be a great guy and answer questions, but these days I think people are looking for that extra oomph from their shul experience. In asking around, I think that people are happy to come to a shul with a good atmosphere, quiet davening etc, but what really makes them get up and come is that sense of inspiration from the rabbi. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbi needs to be a great orator and there have been many shuls with rabbis that have only mediocre sermon skills, but there needs to be some sort of charisma coming from the rabbi that inspires people to want to more with their Yiddishkeit. People want to feel uplifted from their shul experience, and somehow I think this is rabbi-driven rather than Board-driven.

    If a shul’s membership increases by a large percentage, people would comment that the rabbi is doing a great job – so if this is the case, then does the reverse apply?

    What do you think?

    1. Sam, I agree that the Rabbi is a big part of the equation and personally I think it’s important that the orientation/drashos/sermons be growth oriented, but it has to be at the right pace with the recognition that not everybody is growing at the same speed. It could take a few years before the Rabbi is familiar and comfortable with the Shul’s growth-orientation and knows the right amount of inspiration/motivation to apply.

      I think that the president/board still bears a great deal of the responsibility for growth and it may be unfair to place so much of the responsibility on the Rabbi. There are many factors that go into a Shul’s popularity and it is often difficult for particular shuls to grow in neighborhoods with many choices. Perhaps it makes sense to “get out of the building” and talk to your friends in other Shuls and ask their opinion as to why your shul is not drawing a larger membership.

  2. If any membership-enhancing duties are considered to be part of the Rabbi’s job, they should be in the job description created before candidates are interviewed. Ambiguity or lack of detail on this point can bring unwelcome surprises later.

    1. I want to add that demographic trends in some cities or neighborhoods work against membership enhancement, by leading members or potential members to more desirable places to live. In such instances, even the most charismatic rabbis can have a tough go, even to retain members.

    2. Bob, it gets tricky here because it’s a little bit of an uncomfortable situation treating the Rav as an employee. The more you specify the more employee-like the Rav becomes.

      You have to find a middle ground between making it clear what your expectations are while at the same time leaving the Rav a little room so that he can establish and maintain adequate authority after he is hired.

      It’s nuanced like most SP issues and perhaps it needs it’s own post.

      1. If the board does not make its expectations known to applicants, it could have a rude awakening later, and only itself to blame. The time for the board to back off to allow the Rav to develop his “space” is right after hiring.

      2. Bob, I agree with you in principle but the complication is in the details.

        For example, in our topic let’s say we tell the Rav that he must play an active role in increasing membership. Do we set membership quotas for the Rav? If we don’t set quotas, how can we assess whether he has fulfilled our expectations? If we do set quotas and they are not reached, what action do we take? Perhaps it’s not the Rav’s fault that membership hasn’t increased.

  3. Years ago, my husband and I were members of the kehillah of the well-known, outspoken and independent Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zatzal. One day, Rabbi Miller joked: “My former shul held a membership drive. We were driving members out.” There was some substance to the joke, as Rabbi Miller zatzal actually encouraged some members of his previous shul to go to a different shul with a different rabbi, wanting to help that rabbi establish his own kehillah and feeling those people would do better at another shul. However, now whenever my husband and I read about a shul having a “membership drive,” we start laughing, thinking not about adding members but about driving members out.

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