Moving toward a Twenty-First Century Synagogue
Technology plays a pivotal role in how synagogues operate. However, these new technologies do not drive the temple’s creativity. Technology only creates the conditions for a different set of organizational values and actions to emerge. Congregational leaders must exploit the potential inherent in emerging technologies to markedly expand the possibilities of congregational reinvention and vitality.
Broadly speaking, the central leadership challenge today is to help synagogues shift from a closed-source platform to what is often referred to as an open-source platform. The term open source refers to computer programs where the source code is available to the general public, which invites free and open collaboration by members of the community. Speaking about congregations as open-source platforms is more than trendy jargon. Rather, by reframing a congregation as an open-source platform, congregational leaders can understand the implications of the sweeping changes underway in our most cherished institutions for congregational life. Gratefully acknowledging the work of five seminal thinkers on culture and social media, Chris Anderson, Jeff Jarvis, Beth Kanter, Alison Fine, and Charlene Li, here is how I understand the meaning and repercussions of thinking of congregations as open source platforms:
- Organizations no longer have exclusive control over their message—and that is perhaps one of the most anxiety-producing characteristics of an open-source age. Detractors are free to comment (sometimes unfairly) about an organization—spreading their views through text and video by blogging, tweeting, texting, Facebooking, or plain old-fashioned e-mailing. Organizations have to pay attention to well-meaning supporters as well, who may misrepresent an issue or program. On the other hand, organizations can also benefit greatly from this open environment. When enthusiastic supporters comment freely and publicly about their involvement in an organization, their views have more credibility than those of a paid staff member.
- Almost no information is private, and almost all information is accessible. Therefore, organizations must be transparent about their activities and operations or they will lose the trust of the public.
- When energized by a vision, many people will collaborate generously and voluntarily, cocreating content, activities, causes, products, and events that they find important. “Collaborative cocreation” means that “experts” and “non-experts,” those with official titles and those with no titles all, have equal voices.
- Mistakes happen when nonexperts are coproducers, but when a group of people works together, group members will take responsibility for correcting them.
- An organization’s success is tied to its ability to distribute knowledge and leadership. When organizational leaders try to preserve control by sharing information selectively (only with particular people or in certain settings), they limit their ability to draw on the talent of staff and volunteers.
- It is important to think of synagogues as a platform for organizing people with similar interests rather than believing our goal is to manufacture community from the top down. For example, most synagogues could serve as an organizing mechanism for people who have an interest in cooking. The synagogue does not have to “own” that group; it only enables interested people to come together. The synagogue could provide meeting space, recipes, information about kosher and organic food, and other related resources. In doing so, the synagogue can reach people who might otherwise choose not be involved in its activities.
- In a similar vein, synagogues need to move off of their organizational charts—which reinforce thinking only of existing committees—and cultivate the art of seeing communities that do not yet exist.
- Often, synagogue leaders implicitly equate community with large numbers of people. As social media resources make smaller groups sustainable, synagogues should recognize the importance of niche communities and foster linkages among them when appropriate. In an environment where people seem to prefer more intimate communities, it is time to relinquish an understanding of community that expects everyone in an organization should frequently celebrate together in large crowds.
- It’s critical to have 24/7, 365 day-a-year feedback and response mechanisms (through a website, voice mail, e-mail, chat, Twitter, and yes—even “snail mail”).
- Organizations should focus on what they do best and network with others to achieve the rest.
Social media are fundamentally changing the central features of organizational life. In light of these forces that are reshaping organizational behavior, each synagogue has the critical task of rethinking its mission and vision, organizational values, governance structures, approach to congregational engagement, cost structure, and use of technology. If synagogues and other nonprofits do not change these defining aspects of their organizations, they run risk of going out of business, as I explain below. We happen to be living in an era of discontinuity with the past, in large measure because of technology. This requires congregational leaders who will generate questions that challenge the fundamental purposes and assumptions of their organizations and then engage in strategic planning that will set their congregations on a new course for a new era.
This is an excerpt from Tomorrow's Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life by Hayim Herring
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