Reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News
by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer
For a complete list of resources for congregations available through JRF see http://www.jrf.org/congregations
January 24, 2008
Bnai Keshet in Montclair has just completed its long-range planning project. It’s a job committee chair Betty Murphy doesn’t think the Reconstructionist synagogue could have accomplished without the expertise of consultant David Teutsch.
“Having an outside arbiter was really great, especially when it came to people’s opinions,” she said. Teutsch also helped committee members keep focused and identify the right areas of concentration, Murphy said.
Another congregation, Temple B’nai Abraham, undertook its own long-range planning process in 2005. The congregation opted to proceed without a consultant on a comprehensive review of every facet of synagogue life
“We studied many other strategic plans,” said Myrna Wertheimer, who served as cochair of TBA’s long range planning committee. “We looked at plans from other synagogues and researched them thoroughly. Then we picked the one we thought was most comprehensive.”
Two synagogues, two ways of facing the future. With Jewish life and institutions in flux, congregations have embraced the language and style of corporate planning. But the field is so new that there is not yet a consensus on how to take a largely lay-led nonprofit from where it is to where it wants to be.
Hoping to fill the gap is Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. The Minnesota-based organization set out not only to study the field of synagogue consultants but also to develop a how-to manual for long-range planning, one of the more complex projects synagogues undertake and one that generally requires a consultant. Results were made available in December.
STAR has also undertaken a third project designed to measure the impact of a well-trained consultant on the long-range planning process. Results from that study will be available in March.
The STAR survey revealed that it is too early to talk about a “field” of synagogue consulting, although a few key organizations are most often cited for their expertise. In addition to STAR, there is the Los Angeles-based Experiment in Congregational Education, associated with the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; the ecumenical Alban Institute; and Synagogue 3000, another nonprofit synagogue transformation group.
STAR found that synagogue consultants come from different backgrounds and have different levels and areas of expertise. They are unable to cite a body of work considered a philosophy of the field or any compilation of best practices.
Most worrisome, said Teutsch, one of three people who conducted the study, the research revealed that there is no quality control in a field in which a consultant can cost between $15,000 to $40,000 (a rough estimate, since so few of the consultants surveyed agreed to provide their respective prices).
The study “produced much starker results than I had expected,” he said.
The Louis and Myra Weiner Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and its former dean, Teutsch is also a synagogue consultant. In addition to conducting the survey, he was hired by STAR to serve as a consultant to three synagogues as they prepared their manuals for long-range planning.
Bnai Keshet was one of the pilot synagogues participating, along with Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Three other synagogues going through the long-range planning process without a consultant also participated.
In response to the survey results, STAR is putting together a list of potential consultants as well as a study that will reveal some tips on what makes a good consultant (see sidebar).
The long-range planning document is designed to help create best practices in that field — for that reason, consultants hired for this kind of work can use it as a guide, as can synagogues that cannot afford to hire a consultant, said STAR executive director Rabbi Hayyim Herring.
“By having a manual, we can maximize the potential for a successful strategic planning process,” he said.
Teutsch warned that synagogues that attempt to work without consultants often flounder in carrying out the process, according to the comparison study of synagogues working with and without the outside assistance.
That is not to say it cannot be done. “What was surprising was the incapacity of congregations to do meaningful and substantial planning of any sort without help,” Teutsch said.
B’nai Abraham, working without a consultant, selected committee members carefully to represent different subgroups of the community. They included members with differing backgrounds, including people with professional experience in planning and written communications. They chose people who would be willing to put in long hours. And they made sure they had buy-in from the professional staff.
The process began in 2005 and ended in July 2007. The synagogue is now implementing many of the committee’s final suggestions, and Wertheimer called the process “gratifying.”
But Teutsch remains skeptical of TBA’s results, suggesting that the temple is the exception that proves the rule.
“We saw congregations that were able to do it because they had a pro bono consultant with excellent skills. A consultant does not have to get paid but there does have to be someone with experience at a professional level. The question is always who drove the process,” he said.
Teutsch remembers a congregation in Florida that completed a strong long-range planning process without a consultant. But in that case, the rabbi had an MBA and planning experience before he came to the congregation. “So, in effect, they had a consultant in the rabbi,” said Teutsch. “The question is where do they get their professional-level expertise? It does not have to be external to the congregation.”
STAR’s Herring hopes the work they have done will lay the foundation for the creation of a field of synagogue consultants, with certification and guidelines.
“It would be helpful to create a professional association where people can be accredited; where they would be expected to have a level of knowledge; could network, meet, and share experiences as well as materials and resources,” said Herring.
Teutsch goes one step further. “I’d like to see an organization created that would set standards and certify synagogue consultants. It should offer training both for those with certification and those who do not have it because it needs to be developing a common set of knowledge bases, tools, and strategies.”
He thinks it could happen in a couple of years “if someone wanted to get behind it.”
The only question is, with all the consultants and planning, are synagogues turning into businesses?
According to Teutsch, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Synagogues are complex organizations. They serve diverse populations. Their programs are frequent and often complex. They ought to be making decisions based on Jewish visions and Jewish values, but they need to do it in a businesslike way,” he said. “So if you mean by ‘business’ running everything according to the bottom line, no, that would not be a good way to judge or help a synagogue be successful. But if you mean be attentive to excellent management practices, yes, that’s what we mean.”
What makes a good consultant?
THE FOLLOWING TIPS from David Teutsch are based on a STAR study expected to come out in March.