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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?

  • What were their issues and concerns about the future?


The group then considered who was going to make up the future Sangha – and began thinking of target profiles.


“From a business standpoint, you can’t target everybody. ‘Oh, our target is the universe.’ Well, it’s hard to create a strategy to attract the universe to your company or your temple. So, who’s it going to be? Every temple needs to make decisions for themselves, whether it’s younger people, older people, families, singles, seekers, Japanese Americans, new neighbors, people from marginalized communities, LBGTQ people. You have to make choices. I don’t think it’s one profile, but it can’t be everybody.”


Finally, the plan was created, followed by goals — initiatives and actions.


“We decided that we could probably handle five, six initiatives,” Schlesinger said. “One was about fundraising. One was about ministry. One was about growth. One was about communications. One was about education.”


He encouraged temples and churches to be realistic about setting deadlines to achieve their goals. “What do you need to do more urgently, and what are we going to do the second half of the year?” he said. “And what are the key initiatives that maybe we won’t even get to this year, but we know they’re important for us to get to.”


He said periodic check-ins were held, and the plan is updated each year.


“It’s a living, breathing document. So you know, it’s going to change because we’re Buddhists and we know nothing’s permanent, right?”

Messaging’s role


Rick Kawamura, a Palo Alto Buddhist Temple Sangha and Board member who works in digital marketing, spoke about the importance of messaging when looking to attract new members.


“We’re looking to create more awareness and affinity for the BCA and our temples, and ultimately to grow membership,” he said. “The world has changed and how people live within it. We don’t read newspapers as much or even at all, we don’t answer home phones. But people are glued to technology, whether it’s their laptop or their smartphone. A lot of them are primarily looking at things like social media apps, whether it’s YouTube,Facebook, or Instagram.


“How you create awareness for your temple and how you communicate with an audience is very different than it was five, 10 or 20 years ago,” he continued. “So we need to adapt and need to find new ways of doing things because our audience is different.”


He spoke about messaging as a “strategic narrative” that can motivate Sangha members, attract new members and possibly get people to contribute more.


“When you think about messaging, you have to understand, ‘Who am I targeting? Who is my message for?’”


He urged focusing on the “Why”— your purpose or cause — instead of “What” or “How” in a sample messaging approach.


Borrowing from the concepts in the book “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek, Kawamura explained that people don’t focus on ‘What’ you do, they focus on ‘Why’ you do it.


Kawamura said interest in Buddhism has been on the rise globally, with an increasing number of people looking at meditation and kindness with all the chaos going on in the world now.


He presented metrics on popular Buddhist influencers on YouTube that have hundreds of thousands of views, as well as a Facebook site called Tiny Buddha that has 4.8 million followers.


“The messages (on Tiny Buddha) aren’t necessarily Buddhist in nature, but It shows that people are searching for daily messages about positivity,” he said. “There’s an audience out there for messages of hope and happiness. You just have to decide, ‘How are you going to attract and connect with these people?’”


He also discussed social media platforms like Meetup and Yelp and how important messaging is in your description or “About Us” as users search for Buddhist groups, events and temples to explore and join.


To create updated messaging for the BCA and member temples, Kawamura and Rev. Harada started by defining a target audience aimed at growing membership — non-Buddhists, who are searching for a community of like-minded individuals and families to learn and live a Dharma-centered life.


And this is the strategic narrative they came up with:


“We live in an unsettling, chaotic time, everything from racial and political tensions to global warming and the ongoing pandemic. We find ourselves at odds with others and the world around us.


“Not all religions respond well to these issues. Others have ideologies that alienate people of certain races, other ideologies, or sexual orientation.


“Shin Buddhism offers a path and community that embraces all and forsakes none. It shows us a path through the chaos of our times.


“We cannot control events in the world, but we can control our perspective on the world. This shift in perspective allows Shin Buddhists to see positive where others see negative, to be grateful when others see complaints, and to see a world of wisdom, compassion and light, when others see darkness and pessimism.


“The proof is in the lives of Shin Buddhists over the centuries who have lived through chaos, turmoil, and tragedy, to live a fulfilled, meaningful, and grateful life, no matter what life presents to us.”


He also described revamping the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple website to include more of a ‘Why” message about joining us on our journey to live a life full of gratitude, happiness and awakening.


Kawamura said: “We tried to set a tone that’s very welcoming and open to everybody. It’s a family-oriented organization that we have.”


The response to the revamped website has been positive, he said, adding that some individuals have contacted the temple via the website, expressing interest in joining.


“We feel the website is working and attracting new people, and they’re responding and asking questions,” he said.


Key takeaways for temples looking to broaden their reach and attract new members, according to Kawamura, are:

  • To maximize “getting found,” broaden your reach

  • Go digital with easily consumable content

  • Focus your messaging on “Why”

  • Be approachable

  • Optimize the end-to-end journey and all the touch points a new visitor might experience with your temple


Next: Town Hall speakers discuss: using the digital medium of a website, YouTube and social media; and the value of offering meditation and mindfulness.





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