Throughout the BCA, Vista Buddhist Temple is becoming known as an exceptional success for increasing its membership.
But this remarkable story — which has seen the temple more than double its Sangha to 115 paid members — had its roots in a difficult and down period nearly 15 years ago. And it took the determination and hard work of temple leadership — particularly, the efforts of Terri Omori, the Vista President at the time, her husband, Vista Vice President Ford Omori, and the board members, including current Vista President Ricky Schlesinger — to devise a strategic plan.
“I think what motivated us was desperation,” Schlesinger said. “We did have a precipitous drop in membership. It’s been kind of an evolution.”
Vista’s story transcends the temple itself and holds lessons for any temple — regardless of size. The lessons are: first, clarifying the situation at hand; identifying the challenges; creating a vision for the future; and coming up with a plan for action.
In 2008, Vista had reached its lowest point in paid Sangha members — 55. What’s more, the temple was operating in the red financially.
“We just needed to make a drastic change at that time,” said Omori, the current BCA President-elect. “I asked the board members that they needed to step up. We had to come up with a plan and do something.”
The first move that Vista made was to reach out to Orange County Buddhist Church, and to ask Rev. Marvin Harada if he would be willing to be Vista’s supervising minister. Vista decided to contact OCBC because the church had a stable of Minister’s Assistants, who could be tapped to give Sunday services at Vista.
“Rev. Harada goes, ‘Oh, absolutely,’“ Omori said. “He was just so positive.” Rev. Harada agreed to send an OCBC Minister’s Assistant to Vista to conduct Sunday services.
And Rev. Harada saw Vista’s ability to attract new members first hand when he entered the Hondo during the temple’s Hanamatsuri festival.
“He saw it filled with people just curious about Buddhism,” Omori said. “That’s when he said, ‘Yes, Vista definitely has potential.’ You have this community out here that’s just curious. Whether they join or not is something you don’t know, but at least you have to be able to promote your temple.”
Vista began emphasizing Buddhist education classes and promoted the classes at Hanamatsuri and Obon. The classes would be held a week or two after the festivals — while interest was still fresh in the minds of the curious.
In addition, the temple began offering meditation sessions and formed a recovery group dealing with various addictions.
Creating strategic plan
Omori and Schlesinger have business backgrounds, and used their expertise to develop a strategic three-year plan with other board members.
“We used more traditional strategic planning tools from the corporate world with the board to identify what the key issues were, including membership development, and then create actions around them,” Schlesinger said. “I think that practice was really helpful for the whole board. And, then, influencing the whole Sangha to what were the key issues.
“Certainly, growth was one of them because we had a sustainability issue,” he continued. “I had a number in my mind that if we didn’t have X number of members, the temple wasn’t sustainable, financially or in terms of volunteerism. We just knew that if we didn’t grow our Sangha, it was going to be really difficult for us to be the temple we wanted to be. I don’t have to tell anybody at the BCA what it takes to hold a Hanamatsuri or Obon festival. It takes a village. If you have half a village, it’s really hard to hold the festival.”
In addition, the strategic plan included financial management and fundraising, facilities management, and ministerial affairs.
A game plan was established to promote the temple through its website and social media, informing existing and potential members about the Dharma teachings and Shin Buddhism. That heightened visibility was extended to include an information booth at festivals, taiko ambassadors, community service outreach, and connecting with the local college institutions.
The game plan also listed customer service, such as providing a comfortable, inviting place for visitors, as well as retention — taking care of existing members.
‘Nurturing your Sangha’
“I call it a balance,” Omori said, referring to addressing the needs of the temple’s traditional base of Japanese American Sangha members and the non-Japanese American newcomers. “You have to have a really good balance, and that’s where nurturing your Sangha comes into play.”
Vista came up with a new members orientation session and a taiko workshop to create a welcoming spirit.
“I started asking new members what are the things we could have done,” Omori said. “They wanted us to explain a lot of things that longtime members take for granted. They said, ‘Well, you know it’d be nice to know what that white envelope in the newsletters are for’ and little things like that. Or, ‘I really don’t get the concept of Dana.’ So we developed this new members orientation for an hour after service.”
Ford Omori would act as one of the Sangha ambassadors before service. “During regular Sunday services, I could recognize who the new guest is prior to service,” he said. “I would introduce myself and explain what our services are like.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about not knowing what it is you’re saying or anything like that,’“ he said. “Just so they’re comfortable and experiencing the service. I like them to come up and offer incense and things like that and kind of explain what those things represent, so it’s not all mystical while they’re sitting through services and while everybody’s chanting.”
Over time, Vista has steadily grown its membership — and its success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2020, Terri Omori gave a PowerPoint demonstration before the National Council on the topic of BCA membership. In September 2021, she was one of the speakers at the virtual Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s 58th annual State Lay Association Convention.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll throughout the BCA, and Vista is no exception. In-person services are on hold for the time being.
“I think this pandemic is functionally a timeout on Sangha growth,” Schlesinger said. “When you don’t have in-person services and your temple isn’t open, it’s impossible to bring in new members and to do outreach and all that other stuff.
“The important point here is that there’s a difference between Sangha retention and Sangha growth,” he continued. “Keeping your members requires a certain set of activities and bringing in new Sangha members into your temple requires different actions.”
During the pandemic, Terri Omori said Vista has made a concerted effort to keep in contact with its senior Keiro members through home food deliveries and Dharma School students sending cards to homebound seniors. She called the temple’s senior members and told them about Bishop Rev. Harada’s weekly “Dial the Dharma” message, the BCA’s Wheel of Dharma newspaper and the temple newsletter as ways to receive the Dharma.
“They all kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about us, Terri, we’re fine. We’re receiving the Dharma,’“ Omori said.
Omori and Schlesinger emphasized that Vista’s approach is not a one-size-fits-all strategy and is unique to Vista — but that components of the plan can be used and adapted by other temples and churches.
“Every temple has a different set of circumstances, issues and challenges, and exactly what we do may not be the prescription for any other temple,” Schlesinger said. “But they have to sort of figure out for themselves what their issues are. I think that the format of deciding that you’re going to do some planning, that you’re going to be intentional about these issues is critical. I think the overall message is to be more proactive, be more assertive, be more analytical, think about what the issues are and how to counterbalance some challenges.”
‘Think outside the box’
They also said that temples must change — constantly. “You have to just have this awareness, and just keep adapting to things and think outside the box,” Omori said.
“I think what the Omoris are describing is the sense of community — and the Sangha is a community,” Schlesinger said.
He said one of the challenges that all temples and churches face is Buddhist education in terms of teaching the basics of Shin Buddhism — especially when it comes to attracting new members.
Ford Omori pointed out the diverse demographics of the Vista temple as one of the temple’s strengths and advantages.
“We’ve been fortunate as well because we’re a smaller temple and a very diverse temple,” he said. “A lot of the older temples still have the Issei, Nisei tradition where they’re kind of limited and rely upon the Japanese American community for that support. We recognized early on that we don’t have that, so we’ve had to change. That’s interesting because one of the main Buddhist tenets is that everything changes.”
Another important component to Vista’s success is the support received from the OCBC leadership and ministerial staff, according to Terri Omori.
“A special collaboration developed, which Vista is most grateful for,” she said.
Bishop Rev. Harada singled out Vista for its accomplishments.
"Once at Vista, I met a young woman, who attended the temple’s Sunday service for the first time and became a member right then and there,” Rev. Harada said. “When I asked her why she chose to join so quickly, she said, 'I feel like I found my home.'
"If we are going to turn around our membership decline, it has to be addressed by all sizes of temples, large temples, medium-sized temples, and small temples. The Vista temple, while one of our smaller BCA temples, has been able to grow through their religious programs and by being a warm and welcoming Sangha."