Congregational leaders who embark upon change efforts develop contrasting images of the qualities they seek in their congregation and of the characteristics they hope to shed, transcend, or avoid. They aspire to become what we call visionary congregations, those that most effectively develop, nurture, and apply powerful, widely shared, and widely understood visions of the sacred community. In contrast, they distinguish their communities from what we call functional congregations, those that may excel at performing discrete functions that satisfy their consumer-members but tend to fall short of genuinely achieving an integrated sense of sacred community.

The composite images we draw here emerged clearly from interviews with the lay and professional leaders of eight transformed congregations. Not only can these leaders point to their currently held view of their congregation’s ideal features, some can also point to the time when their dreams began to take shape and when their dissatisfactions came into sharper focus. All engaged congregational leaders had to face their congregations’ shortcomings and envision the ideal state to which they could realistically aspire. Dissatisfaction with the seemingly adequate, functional present was a necessary prelude to envisioning the extraordinary congregation they wanted to become. We found that functional congregations had six characteristics in common.

  • Consumerism: the fee-for-service arrangements provide consumers with discrete services, in particular, education of children for ceremonial celebration of bar or bat mitzvah and clergy officiation at life-cycle ceremonies.
  • Segmentation: programs stand on their own, with little integration of worship, learning, caring, social action, or community building.
  • Passivity: professionals exercise firm control over congregational functioning; worshipers sit passively; parents drop off children for religious schooling; boards deal with marginalia.
  • Meaninglessness: rote performance of scripted interactions, with little genuine significance or feelings of transcendent connection with Jews and Judaism.
  • Resistance to change: the routine is supreme, preventing diversification and serious consideration of alternative modes and structures.
  • Nonreflective leadership:  focuses on program and institutional arrangements rather than purpose and vision.

The synagogues we studied successfully challenged their congregants to be life-long, year-round, thoroughly committed and practicing Jews. We call these synagogues “visionary.” Through the course of our interviews, our key informants provided contrasts between “the congregation we once were” and the “congregation we have now become.” Some spoke of them (other, more typical congregations) versus us (a very special congregation), distinguishing the ordinary and mediocre congregation from the extraordinary and vital congregation. Visionary synagogues have six characteristics in common.

  • Sacred purpose: a pervasive and shared vision infuses all aspects of the synagogue.
  • Holistic ethos: the parts are related to each other, such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim are intertwined throughout synagogue life.
  • Participatory culture: on all levels—congregants, lay leaders, professionals, and family members of all ages—engage in the work of creating sacred community.
  • Meaningful engagement is achieved through repeated inspirational experiences that infuse people’s lives with meaning.
  • Innovation disposition is marked by a search for diversity and alternatives and a high tolerance for possible failure.
  • Reflective leadership and governance are marked by careful examination of alternatives, a commitment to overarching purpose, attention to relationships, mastery of both big picture and detail, and a planful approach to change.

At the heart of the visionary congregation is an overarching commitment to sacred purpose, a commitment that suffuses all aspects of the community. Where the functional congregation delivers specified services to consumer-clients, its visionary counterpart provides sacred experiences to members of a holy community.

Visionary communities maintain a holistic ethos where the parts are integrally related to the whole. This ethos attempts to minimize boundaries between people, programs, institutions, groups, and space and to promote cooperation between and among the various domains of the congregation. It rejects dualisms such as education versus entertainment and study versus action. It rejects the segmentation of functions common in most congregations, such as compartmentalizing worship, learning, caring, and social action. It also rejects an atomistic view of the congregation as separate from everyday life, the larger Jewish community, and the larger society.

For leaders, clerical or otherwise, of visionary congregations, a highly participatory culture signifies not loss of control but success in leadership. Congregants’ participation, initiative, and leadership are not seen as impinging upon the prerogatives of leadership; they are signs of its effectiveness and success in making engagement with the congregation truly inspiring and meaningful.

A major theme in American religion over the last twenty years or more has been the rise of meaning seeking on the part of Americans of all faiths. In Robert Wuthnow’s terms, religious adherents have increasingly shifted from the mode of “dwellers,” where extant religious structures are sufficient, to that of “seekers,” where the journey is an end in itself. Current and potential congregants choose to affiliate and to become more or less involved in congregational life based in part upon the extent to which such involvement provides them with genuine meaning. Congregations are challenged now more than ever to provide environments and experiences where meaning making can happen. As people and culture continue to diversify and evolve, the objective requires ongoing innovation. As Alan Wolfe observes, “All of America’s religions face the same imperative: Personalize or die.”

The leaders of the visionary congregations with whom we spoke cast themselves as change agents who promote innovation but carefully pace and monitor change. Given the complexity of instituting and monitoring innovation, a visionary congregation requires a leadership and an organizational culture not merely predisposed to innovate but also committed and capable of engaging in genuine reflection.

For years social scientists have been tracking the ever-quickening pace of change in technology, culture, and society. Management experts have been nearly unanimous in proclaiming that corporations and the people who lead them need to develop the tools to make sense of the changing world around them, to recognize emerging obstacles and opportunities, to manage adaptation and innovation, to assess their successes and failures, and to adjust their responses in light of these assessments. Innovation demands ongoing reflection and attention.

No congregation performs perfectly as a visionary congregation in all aspects. Rather, we envision the six characteristics shared by visionary congregations as continual, in which the core distinction of a congregation is that it is always in pursuit of sacredness over consumerism, holism over segmentation, participation over passivity, innovation over routine, meaning over rote interactions, and reflection over inattention.

Behind these characteristics lies the larger story, the story of how the synagogues themselves were transformed, from “lim
ited liability” institutions to sacred communities; from shuls with schools to congregations of learners; from having clergy who made hospital visits to having congregants who visit one another; from having a small and somewhat beleaguered social action committee (or no social action committee at all) to joining a citywide social justice coalition that engages a broad range of congregants.

By making such changes, these synagogues have joined a national trend in churches, too. The news is filled with stories featuring evangelical megachurches transforming the face of American religious consciousness. But quietly and with much less fanfare, mainline churches too are starting to move into the twenty-first century with a new sense of intellectual, spiritual, and prophetic excitement, reaching far beyond the small band of regulars and into the very heart of the church’s membership rolls. If religion in America has a future beyond just its conservative right wing, it will depend on this kind of transformation of church—and synagogue—culture.


Adapted from Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL401_SMSacred Strategies:
Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary

by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen,
Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman

Sacred Strategies is about eight synagogues that reached out and helped people connect to Jewish life in a new way—congregations that had gone from commonplace to extraordinary. Researchers  Aron, Cohen, Hoffman, and Kelman write for synagogue leaders eager to transform their congregations, federations and foundations interested in encouraging and supporting this transformation, and researchers in congregational studies who will want to explore further.

AL389_SM Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements
Zachary I. Heller, editor 

Jewish religious communities today share a number of challenges, from the increase in secular or unaffiliated Jews to emerging Jewish spiritual communities forming outside the synagogue. Brought together by the late Zachary I. Heller of the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, twenty of the leading Jewish thinkers have contributed to this comprehensive collection of essays. Each writer brings unique expertise and perspective in describing the development of contemporary religious movements in American Judaism, their interrelationships and tensions, and their prospects for the future. Their combined voices create a timely discussion of the many urgent issues bearing down on American synagogues.

AL323_SMThis House We Build: Lessons for Healthy Synagogues and the People Who Dwell There 
by Terry Bookman and William Kahn 

This one-volume guide to a healthy congregation combines the wisdom of a rabbi with the expertise of an organizational development consultant to demonstrate the power of positive relationships and show how to avoid some of the common traps that can lead to serious conflict. Using the life of the synagogue as its central illustration, this book gives vital lessons for congregations of any faith on how to be a healthy community of believers.

AL295_SMThe Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
by Diana Butler Bass 

Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.

AL364_SMCreating the Future Together: Methods to Inspire Your Whole Faith Community
by Loren B. Mead and Billie T. Alban 

Congregations today face a multitude of challenges in trying to adapt to a quickly changing world. Balancing new concerns with core values is a complicated process that can leave too many members feeling that their voices and needs are not being met. Creating the Future Together explains how congregations can use large group methods to navigate these new waters. This book is designed to familiarize leaders with these whole-system approaches and to provide a conceptual framework for evaluating their potential usefulness against any given challenge.


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