Q: At our synagogue we are trying to learn more about congregational attitudes and members’ needs and wants. What method of group data collection would you recommend?

A: The congregational world is changing. Marketing-oriented leaders are expected to help the congregation look closely at members’ needs and wants. Marketing is difficult because most congregational leaders are “internally focused” and tend to expect members to share their interests, approaches, values, and priorities.

Focus Groups
To poll a large percentage of members, a survey questionnaire is useful, especially to obtain quantitative data—for example, the percentage of members that would agree to a 10-percent increase in dues. When planners want deeper qualitative insights, they often find that focus groups offer spontaneous, energized discussions. Focus groups are small (8 to 12 participants). Led by an impartial moderator, they address a pre-established set of questions.

The fluid nature of the focus-group process allows speakers to influence one another. In commercial market research, participants are paid, and they are seldom connected to the organization. In congregations, however, we rely on volunteers to take part without compensation. As consumer-members, they are not unbiased. In fact, as volunteers they are often more passionate and invested than an average member.

Congregational conversations elicit strong emotions. The moderator must ensure that no individual or subgroup dominates the discussion or intimidates others. All groups will include both extroverts and introverts. Introverts tend to “stand back.” The moderator must work to draw them out. In my synagogue focus groups I work to balance the desire for input with the Jewish tradition’s concern to prevent “harmful speech” (lashon hara). Attacks against clergy or lay leaders are unacceptable in a focus group; such talk entails unbalanced, uncharitable assessments of others. I often need to remind people to focus on congregational issues rather than individuals.

Group Interviews
In my group interviews, everyone fills out a questionnaire. Some questions deal with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Some items concern professional and lay leadership. Others ask what’s working and what isn’t. Still others solicit responses about members’ needs, and programs that might meet them. The facilitator, allowing everyone to offer one answer to each question, writes the comments on newsprint, demonstrating active listening, respect, and curiosity. Everyone participates without being overwhelmed or intimidated.

This “facilitator-centered” process reduces the opportunity for “unhelpful” speech. The leader may cut off certain topics and “move on.” He may paraphrase an inappropriate remark to help the group focus on the issue, not the person. I hand out the Alban Institute’s “Rules for Healthy Congregational Communications” at the start of each session to reinforce the value of balanced, respectful, fair speech. When the rules are emphasized and enforced in group interviews and discussions, members learn that serious issues can be managed with respect. Thus we not only gather data but also help the system reflect on its behavior.

Professional staff members are dismayed when they see planning groups building giant lists of proposed programs. They know that they lack time to direct such programs. Change agents may find that in their planning they inadvertently raise expectations that congregational leaders can’t fulfill.

I try to identify members’ underlying needs (children at home without supervision from 3:30 to 6:00 p.m., for example). When leaders have a clear picture of an unmet need, they can develop a range of approaches to address it. For this reason I have stopped asking groups to list all the programs they want. Instead of noting that “some people” might support a book club, the facilitator records that “Josh Stern from the Tuesday night group said he would support it.” When we set priorities for possible programs, we want to know who will take part—attend the book club, help plan it, host it, sponsor it.

Participants may also be asked to fill out a membership profile. I use a one-page form that identifies their Jewish background, their skills, and their interests. We try to follow up with each person to explore interests and identify his or her commitments. To build community, we must balance a concern for the member-consumer’s wants and needs with the congregation’s mission.

Providing Critical Data
The group interview allows the collection of more input by engaging larger groups (12 to 15). This highly structured process enables a less experienced facilitator to manage sessions. The interviews provide both objective data (written summaries of responses) and opportunities to observe group dynamics within a 60- to 90-minute session. The sessions supply critical data about congregational culture—its strengths and weaknesses, as well as insights into individual needs. They collect crucial information for strategic planners while building a sense of community among participants.

Bob Leventhal specializes in synagogue consulting services for the Alban Institute. Before joining Alban, Mr. Leventhal served as a business consultant, a university instructor of marketing, and a Jewish educator.