NCM Town Hall Held on ‘Messaging and Membership’

In a clear sign of its importance, the National Council Meeting devoted a lengthy — and well-received — Town Hall on “Messaging and Membership” to address the BCA’s decreasing membership and to offer positive ways to grow a Sangha.

The 90-minute Town Hall, held March 5, kicked off the NCM’s series of workshops and was attended by 180 people from throughout the BCA, and also Hawaii and Canada. This year’s NCM, titled “Strength in Sangha,” was held from March 4-5 and March 11-13, and hosted by the Central California District.

Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada began by giving an overview of the state of BCA membership, which has experienced a 28 percent decline in the past 10 years.

“We can’t continue that way,” Rev. Harada said. “The reason why we want to turn the membership decline around is because we want to share the Shin Buddhist teachings. We want it to be a living tradition in this country. We need to get our membership curve to go the other way — up — and, as the Bishop, it is my goal to turn this around during my term in office. But it’s going to take the effort of all of our ministers, leaders and Sangha members to do so.”

The Town Hall included a variety of speakers addressing ways to grow a Sangha, including: having a strategy and vision; how to “message” Shin Buddhism; using the digital medium of a website, YouTube and social media such as Instagram; meditation and mindfulness as starting points for newcomers; offering a Dharma recovery program to help people and grow the Sangha; the value of Buddhist education; and having a warm and welcoming Sangha.

Strategy and vision

Vista Buddhist Temple President Ricky Schlesinger spoke about the need for a temple or church to come up with a strategic planning process. Schlesinger is a cofounder of Eagle Creek, a well-known backpack company, and he served as Eagle Creek Executive Vice President.

“As Buddhists, we’re supposed to embrace impermanence, and we’re supposed to know about that stuff, right?” he said. “We see change in our lives. We see change in our community, but not so easily do we embrace change in our temple.

“Change is affecting all of us. Social conditions were different when the BCA temples were originally established. Families and individual lives have changed, our relationships with our temples have changed. And, as Sensei (Rev. Harada) says, the membership trend lines don’t look particularly optimistic across all BCA temples, and it was a big concern to Vista Buddhist Temple. The trend line reflects our temples’ abilities to adapt and make compelling change. And we need to do that at each and every temple, and we also need to do it at the BCA.”

He helped to create a 10-step strategic planning for Vista, using a business planning mode.

“The first part is you have to plan to plan,” Schlesinger said. “So, at Vista, we agreed that we needed longer-term change at the board level and we agreed that we would get involved in a formal planning process.”

The second step was selecting a team, primarily the Vista board and a few key members. He said an ideal size of a team would be “eight to 12” people.

The third step was creating a vision for the future. “You don’t start with today, you start with tomorrow. And you try to figure out, ‘What do we want for tomorrow, what could we be for tomorrow?’” he said. The team discussed ideas about what the temple would be like in five to 10 years.

Next, they did a SWOT analysis — assessing the temple’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Schlesinger said “you can’t think of every threat, you can’t plan for a pandemic, you can’t plan for war. So you have to think about the threats that are more relevant that you can control and that you can plan against.”

The group matched strengths with opportunities — or in sports jargon, the offense. And it matched weaknesses with threats — or, the defense. “You could have 25 strengths,” he said. The list was pared down for feedback from Sangha members.

The feedback came from different sectors of Sangha members: longtime members; highly committed members who have been around for 15 years or more; and newcomers who have been part of the temple for five years or less. Focus groups of five to eight people were selected from each of the three sectors.

They were asked the following questions:

  • How did they get to the temple, and what were their backgrounds?

  • What was the most important element of the temple to them as individuals — education, family, practice or community?