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Pay What You Want: An Examination of Dues

The New York Times posted an article about the changing sources of income for some synagogues. Rather than requiring membership dues based on family size, age, or income, some synagogues are now asking people to voluntarily pledge money to the congregation.

How congregations bring in money is an important conversation in most religious communities. But these conversations are also dependent on a congregation’s view of its own culture. What does contributing money mean for the individual and for the community? From the article,

“A [voluntary] system that was designed to be more fair didn’t seem to be that way because we had people with very similar uses of the temple, and very similar means, paying very dissimilar amounts,” said Emanu-El’s executive director, David Goldman. Mr. Goldman said the synagogue’s revenue dropped with voluntary pledging and bounced back with mandatory dues, as did the sense of transparency, fairness and stability.

Emanu-El’s congregation ended up deciding that voluntary contributions seemed inequitable and unfair. Seemingly, their congregation’s shared view of commitment and involvement included paying a certain amount to have the benefits of the organization.

Other congregations, however, wonder whether enforcing dues reduces involvement of low-income families because of their inability to pay.

Scott Roseman, a lay leader at Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif., described the requirement that congregants with lower incomes explain their financial need to a synagogue official as “a super embarrassing process targeted to those with less.” Rabbi Alexis Berk of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans called it “the shame route.”

“This generation of Jews doesn’t find it inspiring to be told what their obligation is, what their burden should be and how guilty they should feel if they don’t do that,” Rabbi Berk said.

For congregations struggling with deciding whether to institute dues or ask for voluntary donations, it’s important to consider the cultural expectations of the congregational community. Is donating money/paying dues to a congregation an indicator of membership of a club, and thus it should institute dues? Or is it an indicator of commitment and support of the ministry and organization, where one donates the amount he or she feels comfortable donating? Who should have the control over the choice of donation, the institution or the individual?

 

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org