A New Analogy for Growing Minyanim

Lots of us have been to weddings or various other lifecycle events where dancing is likely ensue. There is often a moment where people feel like there should be dancing but no one has yet struck out in that direction. A few people get out there and grab a couple other people but it still somewhat awkward. Oftentimes a bunch of people join up quickly and things get going fast, furious, and freylich.  Pretty soon other folks see that it’s hot and they join up too. The dancing has quickly gone from a dozen or so to a hundred or more and it grinds to a slow crawl. The excitement of the original dancing has died down and people are taking short strides to the right, careful to avoid stepping on feet of elbowing the folks in front and behind. my grandmother’s mall-walking group has more pizazz. This may happen in cycles depending on the occasion and communal dynamics.
Rebecca Meyers suggested, that minyanim have similar cycles. I would add that this trend is not limited to minyanim though lay-leadership and thre assumption that everyone is an active member of the community may exacerbate this process.
It would seem to me that the minyan version of the trend goes something like this:

  1. Several people who are for some reason dissatisfied with the current options, think there is need for a new place to daven.
  2. A group of those people try to get something started.
  3. It sputters at first but the potential is recognized by those in the new minyan and some who are not yet.
  4. As more folks join, potential is actualized, things are rockin’.
  5. People start streaming in from all directions.
  6. What was funky and fantastic becomes overcrowded and less dynamic.

When I first heard it, this analogy struck me as quite astute and a very good fit.
It brings up a couple of questions.

  • why do minyanim in step 6 get less vibrant and the davening less good?
  • how can you avoid some of the problems created by step 6? what do you do if your group, despite smart community organizing reaches step 6?

(cross-posted at divinity is in the details)

6 thoughts on “A New Analogy for Growing Minyanim

  1. Let’s be frank: The problem obviously begins in part 5 (at the latest), in which “People start streaming in from all directions.” Many of the people who are “streaming” are going to simply be surfing–they’ve heard about a “cool new” minyan and want to check it out. Maybe they get an aliya or two. Maybe they enjoy chilling with their friends and a communal meal every Shabbos or so.
    Are they committed to the founding vision of the minyan? Does the minyan have a founding vision? Is its vision and its growth model sustainable and real? Why does this specific minyan exist? Vis a vis #1: Why are people dissatisfied with the current option/s? Will breaking off from the current option cause a net gain or loss? Is the new minyan an effort to reach out from the community to the Creator, or are there elements of self-projection that are inherently destructive to spiritual/cognitive health?
    Does the minyan have a leader? Is the leader well-connected to the community? Can the leader integrate and motivate the community to pursue the leader’s vision? What about families and children? Are there activities outside of prayer that people can engage in? Those are a few key questions.

  2. Assuming lay-led communities, do the people “streaming in” in step 5 know that the community’s continued vibrancy depends on them, and are they empowered to make this happen, or do they assume that the original group (from step 2) is going to keep things going forever?

  3. Erics asks: Can the leader integrate and motivate the community to pursue the leader’s vision?
    Interestingly, I think questions like this can sometimes contribute to the Stage 6 problem as well. Good leaders are about empowering participants to actualize their own communal visions, not just those of the leader. (That’s where many synagogues get into trouble… programming is top-down and not necessarily reflective of what people actually want). Communities stagnate when there isn’t space to try out new ideas. One of the vatikim (old-timers) at an organization I work with is famous for saying, “I’ll know that I’ve succeeded as a leader when you younger folks do something I completely disagree with.”
    Of course, any community needs to be committed to a common vision to succeed, but I think the best communities are those in which the vision is determined communally or is at least open to change based on what the community needs.

  4. woah–I come back from class, and find myself [semi] famous…..
    who knew kvetching with a friend instead of helping cook lunch could be so productive? 🙂

  5. nice point Rebecca!
    I’m actually tempted not to put the blame on the tpes of people who join in stage five. It’s hard to get past inertia in a large group, the way my professors in large lecture halls could barely get answers out of students, while in a small class those small people will interrupt the teacher. The same way, its a challenge to get any sort of motion in a large group.
    I’m what the effect would be of making a clear expectation that everyone participates in whatever way they can, whether it means setting up chairs, giving a dvar torah, or leading davening. it would probably push some people away, and not be enforceable, but it would mean that most people are actively participating.

  6. (Rebbeca M was already famous!)
    but seriously – there’s no way to stop stage 6 from happening. However, sometimes stage 6 minyanim are important, too. Look at Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, for example. its been stage 6 for at least three years, but its an important fixture in the shul scene in Jerusalem, it functions nicely, and it won’t be going away anytime soon. And lets face it – people don’t always want meaning. sometimes they want to daven and go home.

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