Recruitment and Retention Don’t Work Anymore

The way we frame these congregational membership committees is self-defeating. We cannot afford to waste the precious time of our volunteers or the effort of our team members.

By shifting our approach, congregations will be more responsive, attentive, and focused on the great tasks before us.

Unfortunately, making a shift like this is hard and it is easier to keep doing what we’ve done for a long time.

Membership Committees are best utilized for listening.

The current setup of membership committees focuses on a relationship that no longer exists. In an earlier era, it was a presumption that people joined congregations and only needed opportunities to get plugged into the community. Today, it is different.

  • There are many ways to experience Jewish community.
  • Congregations struggle to articulate the benefits of membership.
  • Membership committees focus on small details rather than big questions.
  • People join congregations due to relationships and positive experiences.

Congregations spend their time on tasks that don’t lead to a growing membership. But, a shift in alignment can significantly impact our congregations’ effectiveness.

Here’s the shift, step by step:

Stop thinking of membership committees as “recruitment and retention.”

This framework is holding us back from the actual task.

Recruitment focuses the congregation on membership as the core expression of belonging to the community. It imagines it as the “finish line” that we want people to cross when instead, it exists in the middle of our ideal journey for them.

Instead, we must be supporters of our people’s journey and be in service to them. Recruitment doesn’t create space for that.

Retention is closer to our task, but this framing ultimately distracts us. Retention presumes that engagement isn’t enough, that the benefits of membership need to be sweetened. Retention is when the congregation does the best work, it is a description of the result.

Membership committees are a data collection system.

The committee’s primary job is to gather data on how the congregation is doing.

Making calls, sending emails, and going on one-on-one coffee dates with new members, families, seniors, minyan goers, and all of the cohorts and subgroups inside the congregation. These conversations gather a profound volume of valuable information that can guide decisions later.

Instead of the clergy being the primary data collectors, though they are not exempt, the entire team becomes the funnel with which the congregation learns about its people.

This process is ongoing. Every week, every month, and every year, the committee spends most of its time listening to the people.

This change might be a challenge for your team. Not everyone will be on board. Making these kinds of adjustments requires trust and time.

Programming departments, clergy, and cohort groups act on that data.

When the congregation has collected all of this data about what is working for people and what is not, the staff and lay leaders can be focused on the implementation based on informed decisions.

This is where activities, prayer services, and additional benefits get tested. We shift our work to meet the needs of our people. Sometimes we’ll get it right, and sometimes we won’t. Iterating on what we offer provides learning opportunities for everyone, including new leaders trying new ideas.

There is no need to guess what our people want, and we are acting in a data-informed way.

When I initially launched a congregational Talmud class, it started as a conversation with a congregant. Then, as a few people in a coffee shop. But as we refined the program and listened to what people were looking for, the class grew. I didn’t need a specific retention effort, just high-quality, responsive experiences.

Track the data and progress.

As this system gets implemented, track who gets served and how well each program and initiative accomplishes its goal.

Tracking attendance is often an easy way to measure success, but it isn’t the whole story. We want to know if the right people showed up and if it met their needs. A program focused on meeting the needs of 10 members, and most of them showed up and benefited. That’s a success.

Track cohorts and groups of people in the congregation and how many programs serve them. It will be easy to notice who is missing.

A big chart with groups along the top, needs along the side, and programs in the intersection could be a simple tool to measure this.

In my experience, this process allows us to see the gaps in the offerings. For example, in my practice, it became clear that we didn’t offer anything for families with children under two on Shabbat mornings and that adults in their forties would benefit from more social programming.

It might also become clear that the same programs, repeated annually, do not have the anticipated impact because the habit superseded the data.

Continue to work through the cycle.

As we act on the data, the newly oriented membership committee will be gathering more data.

What did people like? What didn’t they like? Did it meet their needs? What’s missing?

This process creates a virtuous cycle of data collection and data-informed action. As the process continues, our ability to continually adapt to the changes around us and improve our offerings expands.

This process will take practice, and your teams will have to learn to trust each other. To listen and learn from one another. You might not get it right with the first effort.

The cycle of listening, acting, tracking, and listening again is how our congregations will be able to be more flexible, agile, and responsive to the people we serve.

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About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.

He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.