The Ten Commandments for Smalls

by Kari Tuling

Having served six different congregations that were each under 100 families, I have become something of a small congregations expert. Based on that experience, I thought I would share the 10 commandments for successful small congregations:

  1. Stop apologizing. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that your membership will be in the triple digits – but why should that be a problem? A congregation of 1,000 member units will have certain advantages (for example, the ability to run three targeted programs at once all in the same building) but you have your advantages as well. It’s possible for your rabbi to know everyone by name. It’s possible to tailor the religious school around a child’s individual needs. It’s possible to have the entire congregation attend a shiva minyan. And so on.
  2. Enforce turnover in your leadership. What is the fastest way to kill a congregation? Allow certain members to sit on the board indefinitely. You absolutely must – and I cannot stress this enough – create a mechanism for turnover and see to it that your newcomers are able to cycle through the leadership positions. Otherwise, three things will happen, to your great detriment: (a) newcomers will leave because they will see that they have no hope of being heard (b) the ‘perma-members’ on the board will eventually veto any and all new ideas (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’) and (c) if someone persists and actually tries implementing a new idea, doing so will create an old-guard/new-guard split. New blood is necessary to the health of the congregation.
  3. Decide whether you are a havurah or a congregation. A havurah is a collection of families and/or individuals who come together to pray regularly and observe the holidays. It has a loose structure, without significant dues requirements. Usually, it is entirely lay-led. A congregation, on the other hand, offers a fuller range of community services, such as a calendar of religious education and support for lifecycle events. A congregation requires a much greater commitment of time and money to be successful. And a congregation requires a rabbi, even if it’s just for a handful of times a year, to do lifecycle events and provide expertise for your educational program.
  4. If you are a congregation, your biggest regular line-item expense should be the rabbi. This is true regardless of whether it’s a High Holiday pulpit or a full-time position. The quality and quantity of rabbinic time that you are able to offer your community will also define the quality and quantity of the education that you are able to offer. So, if you are spending more each month on the building than the rabbi, it’s time to sell the building.
  5. Consider splitting your treasurer in two. Have one person balance the accounts and another write the checks. It’s easier to recruit someone for half the job (eliminating the perma-treasurer problem) and you are much less vulnerable to embezzlement. You might think that your accounts are too small to be worthy of embezzlement, but you’d be surprised – I remember hearing of one case where the treasurer of a high school’s band booster club stole $20,000 over the course of six years. It can happen.
  6. You will need to hire someone to keep track of the office work. At minimum, the clerical aid sorts mail, checks messages, and copies things for the rabbi.  It does not need to be a large allocation of time or money, but you need someone to do it. But you should not rely entirely on volunteers to take care of the clerical needs of your congregation. This is true for the same reason you don’t rely on volunteers to clean the toilets – you need to keep these things on a regular schedule or else they start to stink.
  7. Do not allow your rabbi to do clerical work. Your rabbi is your biggest expense and your greatest resource. Do not waste that big money expense on something a high school senior can do. Every moment the rabbi babysits the copier is a moment the rabbi is not in front of a class or next to a congregant in the hospital – so insist that this resource be used well. While you are at it, also be sure to create a system for answering the office phone that does not rely on your rabbi.  One possibility is to have an answering machine or voice mail with a number that may be called in case of emergency. Another option is to hire an answering service, like what physicians use – these services are surprisingly inexpensive. 
  8. Establish regular office hours. Even if it’s only once a month, it is useful to have a clear time and place for doing Temple business. Have both the clerical/administrative person there as well as the rabbi. For example, I serve my congregation on a full-time basis; my assistant and I are both in the office four weekday mornings each week, for a total of 12 hours. The outgoing message specifies when the office is open and informs callers as to the timeframe in which they might reasonably expect a return phone call. 
  9. If your rabbi is part-time, then your president will need to run interference. Most people have an idea in their head as to what the rabbi does. But that image may or may not line up with what you have actually hired your rabbi to do. The demand is infinite whereas the supply is quite limited – and people who are hurting and in need of pastoral care might act out in strange ways. So your president’s first priority should be to protect the rabbi from unreasonable expectations.
  10. Identify potentially major donors in the community, create a defined vision for your congregation’s future, and go and ask potential donors to help make it happen.  Chances are there is someone in your community who has the kind of money to be a game-changer for your congregation. You must overcome your shyness and inexperience in asking for money and go ask in person for a staggeringly large amount. I’ve worked for communities where they have a significant endowment and for communities that do not. There is a world of difference between the two.  If you want to create continuity in your community and ensure a Jewish future, then first you need to learn how to go and ask for big money.

Kari Tuling serves full-time as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, a small congregation of about 70 families located in Plattsburgh, New York. She also teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh, thanks to a congregational endowment.

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