Temple Aleph, founded by 12 families five years ago, has grown to 67 families. At the annual meeting there were two candidates for president: one was a “founding” member and the other was a “new” member who spoke of change and greater inclusiveness in decision making. The election became unpleasant and the new member’s family and several friends left the congregation.

Temple Bet has grown to 300 families with a full menu of programs and activities. While the temple is perceived as successful, several members have become critical of the rabbi’s lack of personal attention. At a recent board meeting, congregants described the rabbi as distant and unavailable except in times of crisis. These sentiments have become part of the group’s agenda for upcoming contract negotiations.

Temple Gimmel, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in January, has had about 450 members for two decades. Its leaders wonder why the temple has not grown despite three recruitment drives, a sound religious school, and the lowest dues of any temple in the city.

These scenarios echo patterns found in churches, patterns that have given rise to “church size theory,” a body of experience and observations about how church behavior changes at different sizes, and how they can get “stuck” at size transitions. But what would a synagogue size theory look like? Exactly how do synagogues change as they grow and decline? What are the challenging transitions, and how can leaders help congregations to move through them successfully?

Applying What We Already Know
Nineteen synagogue consultants met in Boston last summer to explore these questions and others with Alban senior consultant Alice Mann, whose writings on church size have drawn attention in the Jewish world. In the top-floor conference room of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies building, Mann described the theory of church size most often used by the Alban Institute, and drew on the experience of participants to learn how the ideas have already been adapted for use in synagogues. The group discussed the best way to measure synagogue size, the characteristics of synagogues of various sizes, and the challenges that transitional stages present in Jewish congregations.

Since last summer’s workshop, the three of us have met to consolidate what we learned and to clarify the questions stimulated by the encounter. In applying church size concepts to the Jewish setting, it became clear to us that some generalizations useful to mainline Protestants need to be “relativized” in order to apply them to the different institutional realities in synagogues. A broader perspective will help consultants, including Alban consultants, to serve Jewish congregations. In the process, we hope to expand our understanding of congregation size in ways that will help us to better understand the full diversity of churches.

Alban’s approach to congregation size makes three basic assertions:

  • Congregations fall into distinctive size categories, and congregations of different sizes organize differently.
  • Congregations do not grow or decline smoothly, but tend to “plateau” at predictable sizes.
  • In order to grow successfully past a plateau, a congregation must deliberately break with familiar patterns of behavior and begin to act like larger congregations.

At this conceptual level, the theory applies not only to synagogues but to all faith-based institutions. It is an established observation that humans tend to form primary groups of 12 or so, and clans of about 50. At about 150, a qualitative shift (the “tipping point”) occurs and a true organization comes into being, with official roles and structures, overt communication, and formal procedures. Larger organizations seem to work best when built of combinations of these natural-sized groups.

Church Size Categories
These numbers underlie the specific size categories most often used by the Alban Institute in its work with churches. Developed originally by size theorist Arlin Rothauge, the categories are:

  • Family church (up to 50 adults and children at worship). A small church organized around one or two matriarchs or patriarchs who often are the heads of extended biological families in the church. The pastor functions in a chaplain role, leading worship and giving pastoral care. A pastor who challenges the authority of the patriarch or matriarch or presumes to be the primary leader of the congregation generally will not stay long.
  • Pastoral church (50-150). The pastor is the central figure, holding together a small leadership circle. Two or three major “fellowship groups” compose the congregation, but each member expects personal attention from the pastor. The pastor’s time is largely taken up maintaining the work of the leadership circle, and personally leading worship and small group programs.
  • Program church (150-350). Churches of this size are known for the quality and variety of their programs. Separate programs for children, youth, couples, seniors, and other age and interest groups provide entry points for a wide range of people. The minister’s role is to recruit, equip, and inspire a circle of key lay leaders and staff. Decision making is distributed, and pastoral care is shared by laity.
  • Corporate church (350 or more). This category of church is known for excellence in worship and music and for the range and diversity of its programs. There are specialized ministries to narrowly identified groups of people, several of which aspire to be known beyond the congregation for their excellence. The senior pastor spends more time preparing to preach and lead worship than most clergy, and must be skilled at working with a diverse staff of full-time professional leaders. Decision making is carried out by a multilayered structure of staff, boards, and committees. While clergy continue to provide pastoral care, especially in crisis moments, most members find their spiritual support in small groups or from lay visitors.

The first three of Rothauge’s categories account for the vast majority of churches, but not the majority of attenders. According to University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves, “only 10% of American congregations have more than 350 regular participants, but those congregations contain almost half the religious service attenders in the country.”1 Some practitioners are calling these largest congregations “resource churches.” Not all congregations over 350 are the same “size.” Carl George describes transition points between super-churches (1,000-3,000), mega-churches (3,000-10,000), and meta-churches (10,000 and beyond).2

The question, then, is how basic concepts of church size apply to different norms and patterns of synagogue life. The question is complicated by the fact that synagogues vary a great deal among themselves. The Boston workshop, which drew consultants from various denominations of Judaism, has begun to define the questions that require research.

Searching for the Key to Measuring Synagogue Size
For churches, as noted previously, average Sunday attendance—including both adults and children—generally is the best measure of size. Church membership statistics are notoriously unreliable, subject as they are to pastors’ boasting and the accumulation of “dead wood.” The number of pledging units is a second-best measure, as it includes only people who have taken action, but changes in this number tend to lag reality by two or three years. Also, pledging units may include either one or two adults. So attendance seems to be the best size measure for most purposes.

Synagogues customarily report their size as a number of family units. Because most congregations require annual dues payments, this figure is analogous to church pledging units, only perhaps a little firmer because a church “pledge” can be a token.

Worship attendance is less useful as a size marker for synagogues, which often have many dues-paying members who rarely attend regular worship services. Shabbat worship attendance is commonly as low as 10 to 40 percent of membership, especially in Reform and Conservative congregations. High spikes in the attendance graph frequently occur when a bar or bat mitzvah service is held during the Shabbat service. The High Holy Days are often the one time when almost all of the membership attends services.

Sabbath worship attendance does not play the central binding role in most synagogues that it does in most churches. Other forms of participation, including sending children to religiou school, Brotherhood or Sisterhood activity, home ritual observance, study group participation, and holding leadership positions may be regarded as equivalent indicators of “active” membership. There are exceptions: in Orthodox congregations and the growing number of informal home minyans where Shabbat worship is more central. Workshop participants, however, reported a renewed emphasis on worship attendance as a central element of Jewish living.

The ways synagogues differ from churches call attention to some of the ways churches differ from each other. There are mainline Protestant churches where, temporarily at least, activities other than worship—Bible study, music groups, women’s organizations, or committees—play the central role of binding members to the group. In Southern Baptist congregations, the kind of participation leaders track most carefully is Sunday school attendance (adults and children); while it is generally assumed that most will attend worship, church size and health are gauged by the Sunday school numbers. There are also new ways or organizing churches that divide the public “seekers service” from the smaller worship for believers; the seeker event seems more like an educational presentation or a rally than like traditional worship. The most common patterns of church life are not the only ones.

The Answer Depends on the Question
These observations suggest that at least for synagogues (and perhaps for churches as well) there may be no one best measure of congregation size. The most useful measure probably depends on the question you are trying to answer.

If you want to know how many clergy and staff a congregation should employ, you need to understand the level of expectation for staff-intensive services such as religious school, adult education, and youth and young adult programs. In most synagogues, the most labor-intensive constituents are children up through bar or bat mitzvah age. A second group is older youth who remain active. A third is the active circle of adults who attend worship, call on the rabbis for pastoral care, and participate in adult study groups. The largest and least labor-intensive group is those who attend only occasionally and call on the synagogue only for weddings, memorial services, and so forth.

If you want to know how large most members perceive the synagogue to be, then it will be important to look at the largest gatherings of members. Invariably this will include High Holy Days worship, but may also include the annual fundraising dinner or other events for which the entire congregation is expected.

If you want to describe the decision-making dynamics of the congregation, then you need to look for measures of the number who are active in synagogue governance. Possibilities include attendance at the annual meeting, size of the temple board, and participation in committees and affiliate groups. How many members would show up at a meeting to approve a new building? To select a rabbi? Such numbers may be estimates, but it is important to have some idea how large a group may become involved, actually or potentially, in major synagogues decisions.

The Need for More Research
In future studies of synagogues size, we suggest the following tentative list of statistics that should be gathered, in approximate order of their systemic impact on the synagogue:

  • Number of children up to age 13 in member families who are enrolled in the synagogue religious school
  • Number of children up to age 13 in member families who are enrolled in Jewish day schools
  • Number of youth over age 13 who participate in synagogue youth programs
  • Number of adults who belong to member families
  • High Holy Days attendance
  • Average Shabbat worship attendance

It may be that with research and experience this list can be reduced to a simplified heuristic. But only by comparing all these measures (and perhaps others) with descriptions of the shape of congregational life can we define the typical size categories that will be most useful to leaders of synagogues.

What’s Next
Churches and synagogues are different in many ways, and yet like all organizations they shift to new patterns of organization and behavior as they grow and decline. This proposition has rung true enough to leaders and observers of synagogue life that some of them have used, adapted, and translated congregation size ideas first developed for churches. Consultants in the Boston workshop were able to substantiate from their experience in congregations that, as congregational communities shifted from one size category to another, three characteristics observed in churches hold true: First, the expectations of congregations change. Second, the roles of rabbi, professional staff, and lay leadership are redefined. Third, the infrastructure—number of staff, ways needed to communicate, etc.—needed to support the organization changes.

In the dialogue begun last summer, we have started to clarify the questions that need to be answered on the way to a size theory that is indigenous to Jewish institutions, not adapted to them from elsewhere. In the process, we expect to gain insights that will be of help across the full spectrum of diversity in congregational life.

An expanded version of this article will appear in Size Transitions in Congregations, the second in the Alban Institute’s “Harvesting the Learnings” book series. To order, call 1-800-486-1318, ext. 244.

1. How Do We Worship? (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 1999), p. 8.
2. Prepare Your Church for the Future (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1992), p. 54.