Almost all of the BCA’s temples have been losing membership over the past several decades. The concern becomes personal, when we see the popularity of Buddhist practices becoming an acceptable part of America’s health and wellness movements.
The reasons for this decline may be multifold. Therefore, the solutions would involve many areas. The BCA Propagation and Membership Committee presented a workshop at the recent BCA National Council Meeting (NCM) on Feb. 25. This article reviews significant points of that workshop.
Each delegate received a handout of ways to attract new members and a sample information sheet to present to every visitor to our temples.
Hopefully, this information can be used as a guide to evaluate the conditions at each temple to see what attracts or detracts visitors from returning to see if temple participation may be something beneficial to the visitor. It would be most effective for temples to form a committee just for the purpose of evaluating present conditions and instituting changes that make it more inviting for new members.
One wonders how many temples are actually using materials generated by BCA, such as the presentation last year by Vista Buddhist Temple at the 2022 NCM. The Wheel of Dharma has published several articles: “Vista Is Singled Out for Its Membership Growth,” February 2022; “Town Hall Held on ‘Messaging and Membership,’” April 2022; “BCA Town Hall Presents Variety of Ways to Grow Membership,” May 2022; and “Town Hall Focus: Buddhist Education,” June 2022. We can determine our future by making changes that bring positive results.
Our situation may be made more vivid by this analogy. If we were a retail store with our business going downhill, we might wonder why. Poor ads and signage might not let shoppers know what we sell. Once inside, shoppers would not know how to find what might help them. Current, popular products are not available. Information about the store’s history would not help if other signs and labels are confusing. Store employees were not knowledgeable about their products. Regular customers would know where different products are placed, but new shoppers would be lost. Would you return to this store?
BCA temples differ in size, locations, and sanghas. Some may be doing well. Others not so well. By focusing on these six areas of concern, any temple will find a shift in attitude. The basic points of this approach are to share what our present members enjoy about participating in our Sangha.
It is more appealing to hear the benefits of the temple, rather than an explanation of the doctrine. It is difficult to relate 13th-century mythology to a 21st-century problem. By relating the benefits of Shin, the doctrine becomes valued.
We have identified five benefits of Shin that should interest new seekers:
Gratitude as a familiar way for ordinary people to realize the uniqueness of receiving as a practice. Voicing “thank you” for ordinary things leads to a life of gratitude that leads to a spiritual awakening.
Belonging to a temple or Shin community is to have a suitable place to practice with fellow travelers. Shin values and practices differ from the usual American, religious thought.
A definition of self that is practical and leads to a spiritual component.
Service to others as a fundamental value in an awakened life.
Our connection to our spiritual nature as a balanced effort to counter our ego-centric nature. Our spiritual nature maintains our connection to all those in the past, present, and future.
More details of these benefits are offered in a CBE seminar presented on March 11. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hieqrZ2v-jc)
There are six areas of temple activity that can be enhanced to appeal to new and former members. Many of our adult children who have gone through Dharma School and YBA are prime candidates to become new members. We should ask them why they were dissuaded from our temples and what we might do to correct that.
If all six areas are enhanced, the results will be increased not by a factor of six, but exponentially by 36. Even if the new member numbers are not as expected, the attitude of the present membership will be positively improved. By recognizing the benefits, we naturally feel better.
In this 21st century, our website is the main source that will attract new seekers. The BCA can help with the design. Rather than have educational material on doctrine or the history of Shin, have information on how one may attend a service. The Palo Alto Buddhist Temple (https://www.pabt.org/) and Orange County Buddhist Church (OCBC) (https://www.orangecountybuddhist.org/) are good examples of inviting websites.
At all services and activities, all members should greet new faces with “Welcome. My name is ______ . What is your name?” It is much more effective to have all members as greeters, instead of designated greeters, as that encourages other members to ignore new faces.
We should provide each new visitor with a simple pamphlet that promotes the temple. A sample pamphlet was given to each National Council delegate. We should inform the visitor of our benefits at their first visit when their interest in Buddhism is at the highest. It is important to get the name and email of the visitor in order to invite them to future events.
We want to make it easy for the visitor to return to receive more information about our Shin temple. This pamphlet of activities should be kept current by printing it monthly. Also, it would be helpful to have a sheet explaining rituals in a way that relates to our current concerns, not some traditional history.
We should be aware that people come to hear how the doctrine helps them. Using familiar terms to describe traditional terms is helpful. Does the Dharma talk help the listener realize the benefits of the Shin Dharma? If the Dharma talk is more inspirational than informative, it will touch the heart and encourage the seeker to return to learn more.
We should be aware that services are not just to hear about doctrine, but to experience it. That means that we are building relationships with each other. An informal hospitality time after the service is best with tables, chairs, snacks, and drinks. Visitors should be invited, personally. The speaker also has a chance to clarify her/his talk and answer questions.
Temples often have other groups that use temple facilities or are affiliated. Membership may or may not be required. Members of these groups should be invited to become temple members. New groups, such as EcoSangha, crafts, ukulele, dana or WellCare groups could be formed to accommodate the interests of new members. A recurring introductory class would be helpful.
Most temples have popular community fund-raising events (bazaars, Obon). It is a great time to have short, introductory talks in the Hondo. The talks should emphasize the contemporary benefits of Shin and not be an explanation of foreign, traditional terms, which only presents Shin as an outdated, historical religion. Collect the names and emails of those who attend. Send email invitations to these people to attend a more informative introductory talk a few weeks after the community event. Provide food, drinks, and social time.
Become better known in the community by having minister’s assistants and leaders participate in community events, such as LGBTQ Pride week, interfaith events, and civic events. The temple may use their property to host some events.
The five benefits of Shin and the six areas of temple activity are listed on a handout given to each delegate at the recent NCM, along with a sample welcome pamphlet. Temples may use this as a guide and add or modify the suggestions. It will take some time and effort to implement the many changes.
We suggest a good method to check the effectiveness of our efforts. Each month, have a former Dharma School or YBA adult attend a service. Have them report whether they might become interested in joining the temple. Our potential pool of new members come from outside the Nikkei community and also from those who grew up and left the temple. Their assessment is a clear indication of why our temple conditions dissuade or appeal to others.
It is up to us whether the legacy of the Issei and Nisei continue to provide practical and spiritual support to those in the future. Share the reason you are an active member of a Sangha.