Yesterday morning, I flew to Orlando, Florida to attend to some matters following my father’s passing (it is amazing all the things that need to be done – someone should write a short manual), and to share in the simcha of a cousin’s wedding. While on the plane, a very friendly gentleman, Dennis, sat next to me. Now, I must admit that typically I am not much of a talker on planes. I like to either sleep (especially flying east when the flight is at 5:45 a.m.) or read. Plus, I know that whenever I enter into a conversation it inevitably leads into what I do professionally and it often seems way too hard to try and explain. Eventually we engaged in small talk and then we had a fascinating conversation.
Dennis was outgoing and affable. He was passionate about his work and his beliefs. It turns out Dennis is a “Ministry Coach” – he works with churches around the country to help them be better at what they do. He works with clergy, the laity, as well as the congregation as a whole by gathering survey information and then developing a road map for the future.
After Dennis explained his role, I cut to the chase and asked him what success looks like. In the past 12 years, his organization has worked with 800 churches. Change is hard. The church, the clergy, the laity all have to want the change to happen. Yet, in too many of Dennis’ consulting assignments, the church elders like things as they are, while younger members and those “seeking” want something very different. And the clergy are caught with their own vision and ideas. How you create alignment is what will bring about success. Coaching can only help you understand where you are today and develop a road map of where you want to go. It is up to those “on the ground” to make the change happen.
This is not just a church issue or a synagogue issue. This is a challenge for all non-profit organizations.
Dennis also shared the following story with me (and I must admit I know very little about Christian scriptures so he had to explain all of this to me). Matthew, a disciple of Jesus, tells a story about a farmer out in his field beginning to plant his crops. The farmer learns through the process of planting seeds (people’s longtime interest and commitment) that there are four types of soil.
The “roadside soil” is just too hard to plant the seeds. In this case, the person is just not interested.
The “rocky soil” may allow the seed to go into the ground, yet not to any level of depth. Therefore what is learned really never takes root and fades away.
The “thorny soil” is where the seed goes in, it begins to bloom, and then the thorns choke whatever is trying to grow. There are so many distractions for people’s time, energy and resources that despite all efforts people do not engage.
The “good soil” is when the seed gets planted and it begins to bear fruit. It not only bears fruit for today, but for future generations and makes a lasting impact.
We are all working to make our “communal soil” inviting, welcoming, inclusive, nurturing and meaningful.
At the end of our conversation, Dennis shared that the greatest challenge for churches today is moving beyond the historical measures of success, what he called the “three B’s” – bodies, building, and bucks. Basically, how many people are coming each week…does the ministry have a nice building…and does the church have the money to maintain its work. Dennis said that this is the mindset of the past. The future is all about relationships – knowing people…who they are, what they want, and enabling them to find their role in their community of interest. Because, “if these churches are going to help bring people closer to the kingdom of God, each person needs to understand that he/she has a role in building that community.”
This seemed right out Dr. Ron Wolfson’s latest book, Relational Judaism. Dr. Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. His book focuses on how to transform the model of 20th-century Jewish institutions into 21st-century relational communities offering meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.” We have to care about the people we want to engage in Jewish life. As Dr. Wolfson says, “When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.” (I will write more about this book in the near future.)
It is time for all organizations, Jewish and secular, to move beyond the “three B’s.” Today is all about relationships and positive experiences. People are seeking community…intimacy…and face-to-face/interpersonal relationships. It is how our community will bear fruit for generations to come. And we are on the right path.
Finally, I watched with great interest the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition last evening. Mazel tov to Arvind Mahankali, the 13-year-old from Bayside Hills, N.Y. (and a two-time 3rd place finisher), who correctly spelled "knaidel," defined on TV as a small mass of leavened dough – better known as a Jewish dumpling. I believe my grandmother would have been delighted to invite both Dennis and Arvind over for Shabbat dinner.
PS – Please join us for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s 93rd Annual Meeting scheduled for Thursday, June 13 at 4:00 p.m. at Zidell Hall in the Rose Schnitzer Manor. We will provide a report on the past year, thank our outgoing Board members and welcome our new ones, and share an exciting announcement about a new community initiative.