Shifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode

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By Maher Budeir, founder and trainer at Balanced Leadership Institute, Inc.  A firm dedicated to training Muslim nonprofit board members and leaders.  www.masjidboard.com.

How do we get our communities to be more strategic?

We, as Muslim communities, have been performing in a survival mode.   We are reactive.  We focus on tangible programs and buildings.  We look at here and now, and if we are really good we look at one year out.  We think about education options after we already have kids.  Then we look at elementary schools because our kids are that age.  Even though one can argue that if we are able to build a single school it should be a middle or high school as those years are the most difficult for our kids to manage.  But we do not look at the big picture and we do not look far ahead.  Similarly, we expect our masjid board to deal with what happens in the masjid this week and next month.  In response, our organizations have been focused on operations rather than strategy and long term direction.  The average masjid board focuses on how to expand the building to accommodate worshippers as the Friday services attendance grows rather than focussing on the next generation who is in most cases absent from the masjid altogether, and many are barely hanging on to their faith.  We define our institutions by what we have within the four walls rather than the impact on individual lives and the influence on the larger community.

So, how do we transform ourselves to become better strategists?  How do we develop our institutions to become the best run institutions with the balance of excellence in operations and foresight in strategic development?  There are many ingredients that are necessary to advance the development of our Masjids and our schools.

At the operational level

Upgrading our skills and competencies.  Our organizations must be run by professionals who specialize in their individual fields.  Managers and directors must be experts in leadership principles and have strong people skills.  Technology professionals must manage the technology systems, professional accountants must manage our financial matters, and our facilities must be designed, built, and maintained by professional architects, engineers, and facility specialists.  And we do not need a million dollar budget to do that.  Most mid-size or larger communities would have many well qualified professionals within their congregations.  We need to open up our Masjid leadership culture and make it welcoming, so we can reach those resources within the community. Having a handful of people control all management and processes in an organization can stifle the organization and keep skills and talents in the community out of reach. It is the responsibility of masjid leaders to create the welcoming culture and the professional expectation to facilitate reaching the next layers of professional Muslims.  Professionalizing the operations is the responsibility of the executive committee/management team/operation team.  The organization’s board or trustees are part of setting expectations and creating the sense and structure for accountability.

At the strategic level

Systematically assessing our organizational structure, looking at each component of the organization and assessing its current status.  By that I mean the five components:

  1. Governance
  2. Management
  3. Programs
  4. Resources
  5. Systems

These are the main components of each organization.  A mature, high functioning organization needs to have each of these components well developed.  In reality, most Islamic institutions are developed in a need focused basis and the development is driven by needs of specific individuals, expecting certain services and certain events, and if the community is fortunate enough, some visionary individuals come along and randomly insert some visionary ideas during the establishment of the organization. The result is that some components like programs and maybe management may develop well ahead of others, like governance and systems.  Most institutions in their first 10 years of operation are in the survival mode. Pouring all of their energy and resources into establishing basic needs, a facility, hiring basic staff and starting enough programs to validate the need for services.   Rarely, is it that we find a young Muslim organization going through a genuine development of a vision, mission, and guiding principles before starting operations or even in its first few years of operations.  Having a strategic plan in place that is agreed upon by stakeholders in the first five years is almost unheard of among Masjids.  The governing entity (board of trustees or board of directors) is the entity that should evaluate the overall structure of the organization, work on developing a mission and purpose statement, guiding principles, and a strategic plan. This requires specialized expertise and skill sets that are different than what is needed on the executive team. Both are places of leadership but the executive team is about action and execution of plans.  The board is about setting standards , establishing strategic goals,  and measuring progress.  Most Muslim organizations have not distinguished between the two entities.  Most have not been structured to have this separation between governance and execution.  A small organization can definitely survive without separating the two.  Even a good size masjid can survive with one board assuming governance and management.  Some even argue that a masjid has survived  and functioned fine for 20 or 30 years with one entity assuming the governance and management functions.

What is our standard?

However, the question we need to ask is: “Is survival the goal”?  Are we striving towards existence and towards providing services week in and week out?  Or are we committed to run the masjid as the best functioning organization? Shouldn’t the house of Allah be the leading example of how a high functioning organization should run? Shouldn’t our masjid incorporate the highest standards of running a non profit and demonstrate that incorporating Islamic principles can only enhance and elevate the level of performance? Shouldn’t the masjid ensure that each generation is more involved in the larger community, better committed to serving Allah (SWT), better educated about their faith, and better capable to represent Islam in their community than the previous generation?  If a masjid has survived for 20 years having one do-it-all board, imagine how much better it could have done if it had a more mature,better defined, and more professional organization from day one.  How many more youth could have been saved and not been abandoned? How may converts could have had better guidance and companionship in their journey? How many families could have been counseled better, how may young adults could have become more interested is pursuing islamic studies professionally? How many non Muslims could have been positively impacted by an well functioning organization that promotes positive values?

Even in the business environment, a business can start small with a businessman who wears many hats.  He/she may manage the business, strategize for the best business plan, and do the books, and many other things.  However, as a business grows, the smart business owner realizes that he is better off seeking professional help to do the accounting.  Eventually, the business person may realize that he/she needs to hire a manager so that he/she can free his/her time to do what he/she does best, such as developing the business, or working on partnerships, or changing the business strategy to start franchising.  The businessman will always own the vision and keep an eye on what the future holds, while the hired manager takes care of daily operations.

How are we measuring success? This is the deen of Allah (SWT), and the Prophet’s message of doing good and spreading goodwill and excellence (Ihsan).  Just serving is not our criteria.  Our organizations must be the best run, highest performing nonprofits.  They must set new standards of professionalism, efficiency, and excellence.

In summary,

  1. There has to be a commitment on the leadership of our Muslim organization stemming from the Islamic teaching of doing what we do with excellence (Ihsan)
  2. Leaders must recognize that it takes two sets of skills and for most mid size to larger communities separating governance and management will help focus and effectiveness at the operational front as well as the strategic front.
  3. Opening up the organizations’ culture is essential for reaching the professional talent and skills in the community.
  4. To get professional results, the organization must seek specialized and trained professionals.
  5. Trustees and board members must understand the essential components of the organization and have a good sense of the level of development of each component.
  6.  Seek professional training and services in areas where we do not have experts.
  7. Do not be shy to examine other social nonprofit, faith-based or otherwise, organizations, benchmark their experiences, and learn from their results.  It is much easier to find a well functioning model and then overlay the Islamic aspects to it, than to start from the ground level.
  8. Network and benchmark other mosques around the country that are already well developed and talk to them and seek their advice.  In this age of connectivity, one can easily connect and follow successful organizations to learn from their experience.
Omar UsmanShifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode

Youth Directors – What Will It Take For Us To Realize…?

Roots Program

This was originally posted on AbdelRahman Murphy’s Tumblr. You can see more of his work at the Roots Program website.

“I have to stop pretending.”

He said that, as he looked up at me, sipping his water.

Like many of the counseling sessions that I do, this one happened at a restaurant – neutral atmosphere, not threatening, lots of life around us. Unlike many of them though, this session was grounded in reasonability and clarity – not thoughts clouded by emotions or trauma (that’s not to say that emotions are always clouding, but sometimes they can lead to irrationality).

This definitely was not the first person I’ve counseled re: their apostasy (probably seen at least 100 at this point in my service), but it was definitely the most impactful. I usually don’t find any benefit in trying to persuade, convince, or negotiate faith. I just like the person to tell me their story, who they are. This lunch lasted for about 2 hours.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation, with a man who was born Muslim, and 29 years later, is calm, cool, and collected leaving the faith.

On his religious practice.

“I prayed five times a day for the last 20+ years. Even when I moved away from home, I kept up with it, reciting Quran that I didn’t understand, simply out of fear. I was raised in fear – that if I didn’t pray, I’d go to hell. That if I did this or didn’t do that, I’d go to hell. It was constantly being pushed through fear. I was also always told that my friends, and certain family members who weren’t Muslim were kuffaar and they were going to hell. That was a significant portion of my life that I was told that.”

On his relationship with his dad

“I love and respect my dad. He’s a wonderful guy. Stoic, not really emotional – I can probably count on my one hand how many times he’s verbalized that he loved me, but I guess I always knew that he did. Though it would’ve been nice to hear him say it more. This tension I’ve been feeling about my religion was hurting my relationship with him, though. Even though I never told him, and I was still going through the motions of prayer whenever I was here, I felt guilty on the inside, and that made me not want to be around him – the fear of angering and disappointing him kept me from visiting home and seeing him for an entire year.”

On leaving Islam emotionally vs. rationally

“I grew up as the only Muslim in my school. I was used to people asking me about Islam, the mockery and insults that occasionally came with it. If I was leaving Islam emotionally, I would’ve done it then. My entire life, I didn’t feel any pressure to leave from my peers, I only felt pressure to stay from the Muslim community. The push to dogmatically believe because “that’s just the way it is” was a stronger repellant than being made fun of as the only Muslim in my high school.”

On his Islamic educational experience

“My religious educational experience growing up was done at Sunday school. But you can’t really learn Arabic for a few hours one day a week. You can’t really learn your religion like that. I didn’t need Muslim classes one day a week, I needed Muslim friends and socializing during days of the week and weekends. I can’t really say that I sought out Muslims when I went to college, because I never really hung out with Muslims before I went to college.”

On his current long-term girlfriend

“She’s a Christian, we’re in a long-term relationship. You know, when you get to my age and start thinking about getting married and having a family, thoughts about religion come up, especially when you’re marrying someone who doesn’t share your faith. What will the kids be? Who chooses? I’ve always felt that because I didn’t know my religion that well, I didn’t have a right to suggest that they be Muslim. And how was I supposed to meet a Muslim girl, anyway? We were always taught that girls were haram, the classrooms were always in separate rooms, if a girl was Muslim we were taught to avoid her and not look or talk to her – so yeah, I meet wonderful non-Muslim women and now my girlfriend is Christian.”

On his siblings

“Yeah, I have brothers and sisters, and they went through the same process that I’m going through. This…discovery.”

As we finished our food and conversation, we both got up to leave and were walking out. We shook hands, I thanked him for taking time to meet with me, and he looked at me with an extremely sincere and serious look and said, “hey man…I wanted to say something: I may not be Muslim anymore, but I think if you were here in 95 when I was growing up, I still would be. I’m not Muslim anymore, but I’m happy the youth who are living here now have someone like you.”

While someone may see that as reassuring, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever heard. The reality of our community is that we are preoccupied with things, meanwhile our people are leaving. I couldn’t help but walk away thinking, “what will it take for us to realize…?”

Omar UsmanYouth Directors – What Will It Take For Us To Realize…?

So, You Think You Need To Build That Gym?

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Guest Post from Maher Budeir from Balanced Leadership Institute, a nonprofit board training firm.

This article was partially inspired by a speech delivered by Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda delivered at the Second Annual ISNA Masjid Forum, which was held in Dearborn, MI, on May 10, 2014.

The Good News

We hear it in many mosques all over the US these days. Every community is realizing that serving the youth requires different resources and methodology than what it took to serve their parents. We are realizing that the youth will quickly find other ways to grow and other places to hang out if they are not served within our community.

This is an important step and level of thinking for the community. Even the more “traditional” Mosques are coming to this realization. It is unfortunate that it took a couple of decades for our community to finally get to this place. The good news is that we are there, and the majority of the mosques, if not all, recognize the need to allocate some resources specifically to meet this need of serving the youth adequately so that they may voluntarily continue their involvement and engagement in the community even through their most difficult years of development.

The Not So Good News

Let’s face it, when it comes to community development our community has not proven to be very sophisticated. Like what my friend Ibrahim often says, “we seem to define success by square footage.”So naturally, when the question about incorporating the youth comes up most communities resort to the seemingly easy answer: let’s build a gymnasium. Youth like basketball. They will have a place to hang out. What we do not consider is: human beings are most impacted by social interaction. A gymnasium may attract a few teenagers for a while but without proper guidance that strategy may fire back. Without the appropriate human resources a gym does not do much good. Without a youth specialist who understands the youth needs at different phases of development, and understands the different needs of each gender, the youth will not going hang out for long. Our unsophisticated, knee-jerk reaction to try to answer the call for serving the youth, ignores that human beings are social beings. What they need in their early adulthood is someone to steward their socialization and development. Someone to be the role model and to be the listening ear. Someone to give them a slight nudge to redirect them on the right path, rather than the normally confrontational clash that they likely face at home. What we need to invest in is highly skilled young Muslim leaders who are professionally trained to provide guidance. They need the big sister and big brother who was in their place a few years ago, and have managed to avoid pitfalls and survive the generational devide that may exist between them and their parents. They need someone to teach them the life skills to help them overcome the challenges of being a young adult in this materialistic world full of temptations and challenges.

The Facts

The fact is building a gymnasium will likely consume $2 to %5 million in funds, 1 to 2 years of time, and consume so much energy from the community. Our communities can’t afford to waste the time or the money. Our investments should be directed towards skilled and talented young professionals who can guide our youth. This investment will, in turn, encourage the bright young people to be in those professions. We need our brightest students to specialize in sociology, psychology, counseling, and leadership. We need them to advance their Islamic knowledge and strengthen their foundation so they can become the leaders to lift our youth and empower them. In terms of facilities, if you live in any large metro area or even a nice smaller city chances are you have already paid for basketball courts to be built. You should also have football fields, tennis courts and community rooms. You have paid for them through your property and local taxes. In return you can use the facilities at the park down the street or the school around the corner. Our taxes are funding these places, so why should we be paying for facilities again when the fund raiser for the gym comes around. In this time and age, we need to work smarter. We need to be creative. Our centers are not defined by walls anymore. It is the people and action, the companionship, and the interaction that defines community. All of which does not need to be within the 4 walls of the mosque or community center. The youth we are trying to serve are well adapted to working and communicating virtually, they are comfortable redefining what is a community center. It is the parents’ generation that needs to breakdown the walls and widen its horizons. We need to become more strategic and more intelligent about where we invest, what results are we looking for, and what is the most effective way to get us there. We can not try to solve the youth engagement question in the same way we would have solved it in the 1970′s.

The bottom line. Getting the youth engaged is not about square footage. There is no silver bullet that will solve the problem overnight. There is no amount of money we can through at the problem to make it instantaneously disappear. Like every challenge that faces our community, methodical, scientifically based problem solving, and professional implementation are all necessary ingredients:

1. Make the strategic commitment to seek and hire the best talent, male and female, you can find to guide the youth and nurture their development. Be prepared to compensate these leaders well.

2. If you believe you do not have the funds to hire and adequately compensate these leaders, think again. Just remember how the same community that would have rallies to raise the millions needed for the gym. That community should definitely be able to fund a couple of positions instead. The cost of a gymnasium can pay full compensation for three professionals for more than ten years.

3. Realize that we can engage the youth by connecting with them and teaching them life skills. A skilled youth director will know how to create the connection and how to work on life skills through the Islamic lens.

4. Make use of the local facilities you already have in your community. Not only you will save on having to build facilities, but it also provides the youth with the opportunity to go out in the community as a group and learn how to properly engage with the larger community.

5. Parental education about the norms of youth development, and about communication is essential. Engage a professional family specialist to help.

6. Listen to the youth themselves. We under estimate their capability. Usually, young adults have an incredible combination of creativity and competitiveness. If facilitated well, it can yield some amazing ideas.

7. Pause ones or twice a year and evaluate the outcome. Do a methodical assessment of results and make the necessary adjustments. Youth development is an ongoing process.

Omar UsmanSo, You Think You Need To Build That Gym?

Create a Welcoming Masjid With A Tasleem Squad

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Dr. Ihsan Bagby gave a presentation at the ISNA Masjid Forum this past weekend and mentioned a term that stuck with me – Tasleem Squad. We all acknowledge the need for our masajid to be more welcoming, but how do we tangibly go about doing this? Here are a few suggestions.

Have a ‘Tasleem Squad’ at your masjid that welcomes people into the masjid at busy times like juma with a smile. Greet them, hold the door open for them. Brighten up the environment. They can also help answer basic questions like – Where is the wudu area? Where is the sister’s entrance? Where do I put my shoes? Someone stole my shoes, can you help me?

It is important to have people who look like the people. Dr. Bagby mentioned that a particular masjid may have, for example, a high Gambian population. If this is the case, make sure that you have a Gambian on the Tasleem Squad. Yes – we are all brothers and sisters, but make the initial impression as easy on the people as possible. Let them be comforted and put at ease by someone they can identify with, especially if they’re not a regular in the community.

The Tasleem Squad should also engage the people and help them connect with the masjid. It can be as simple as getting them signed up for the masjid email list.

Another way to  make sure your masjid is welcoming is by simply having good signage. Put up signs about parking, entrances, shoes, and so on. Those are the obvious ones. Some less obvious ones are to put up a sign that gives the office hours, contact information, and things of that nature.

The most overlooked opportunity to make your Masjid welcoming? Put up a welcome sign.

Literally.

Put something nice and aesthetically pleasing in the entry that says “Welcome to X Masjid.” The little things can have a big impact.

Omar UsmanCreate a Welcoming Masjid With A Tasleem Squad

What Brown M&M’s Have to Do with Your Masjid’s Adhan

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The rock group Van Halen (remember this?) had a provision in their performance contract that called for a bowl of M&M’s backstage – but with all the brown M&M’s removed.

This might sound like the typical ridiculous and illogical request a famous group might make, particularly when it’s said they would cancel a performance if they found a brown M&M – but there’s a lesson to be learned.

David Lee Roth explained it in his autobiography,

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening. [Snopes.com]

When it comes to running our masajid, there are a lot of brown M&M type of scenarios. For example, on Friday, is the adhan called out with the proper pronunciation? This can serve as an easy way to tell how much attention is paid to these types of details. What about when a person who regularly leads prayers having bad tajweed? What about a regular khateeb who shaves his beard?

For some, these details might be nit-picking. The reality is that it indicates the level of care and concern of the community and those in charge. We’ve settled for too long with lowering the bar instead of challenging ourselves to raise it.

It’s a lot like clean bathrooms. Everyone has something that represents their brown M&M’s. This is not a case of ignoring the small things for the sake of the big things. The onus is on those of us in charge to pay attention to the details and make sure we get the little things and the big things right.

 

Omar UsmanWhat Brown M&M’s Have to Do with Your Masjid’s Adhan

One Way to Deal with Cell Phone Disturbance in the Masjid

Omar UsmanOne Way to Deal with Cell Phone Disturbance in the Masjid

Do We Need to Rethink the Weekly Sickness/Death Juma Announcements? A Possible Alternative

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Let me preface this by saying I’m not a fan of any kind of juma announcements in general. I just don’t think they are an effective means of accomplishing the end goal of informing the community of important events.

The audience has just finished praying and listening to a (hopefully) good khutbah. They make salam and instead of having some quiet time to make dhikr and possibly reflect a little bit on the message, they get interrupted. Someone grabs the mic and it begins – Parking issues, fundraising, other fundraising events in the city, so and so’s second cousin’s brother-in-law’s nephew’s son’s best friend is sick so please make dua, please attend xyz halaqahs, Sunday school registration, and then another reminder about parking.

I remember helping to organize some events, and we thought it was a huge deal to make sure as many masids as possible made juma announcements about it. Here’s the thing I noticed over time: (unscientifically) whether or not they announced it at juma really had no impact on the number of attendees. It’s probably because most people tune the announcements out.

The worst kind of announcement is where the board requests a khateeb to read off a list of announcements at the end of the khutbah. The end of the khutbah should be the pinnacle of that reminder, the call to action and motivation and inspiration – and then you completely deflate it by making a jump-cut transition into telling people not to park at the restaurant across the street… “wa iqamas salah.

I also feel personally uncomfortable that we have an extended list of sickness/death announcements every week to the point that it has become ritualistic. I’m not trying to be heartless, but it wears on you hearing it week after week.

So what should we do about it?

Proposed Alternative

1) Aggressively sign everyone up to your masjid email list, and also have a website.

Send out the full list of email announcements every Thursday (and please also include who is giving th khutbah that week as part of your announcement). Update the website as well with the announcements so people can access it. Here’s one brilliant idea – the masjid website can have a map of the masjid and you can highlight where to park and not park.

The thing with an email is people can read it at their leisure – i.e. they can actually pay attention to the announcements because they’re not rushing to get back to work or pick their kids up from school. It also gives them a contact to ask questions to and find other relevant information that they normally can’t do easily after juma.

2) Limit sickness/death/dua request announcements to people who are directly part of the community – and announce only on your email list.

I realize some will take issue with this, but where do we draw the line? The door is open to essentially announcing 500 people to make dua for every Friday when it’s left open as it is. How many announcements about this is too many? If you have a limit, how do you say no to someone but not another person? We have to think about the bigger picture implications of these types of decisions.

The other issue, and I’ve dealt with this as a khateeb, is people handing you slips of paper right before juma with more and more dua announcements. Again, not to be heartless, but forcing someone to make a quick half-hearted dua does not serve the purpose well. A sincere dua from yourself would probably go much farther.

Limiting it to people in the community, or even their immediate relatives can be one step. An easier step though, is to utilize your weekly email newsletter as the place for such announcements.

3) No fundraising announcements. 

People come to juma for a spiritual boost. Leave the donation box for the website, and even the flyers and forms in the lobby. But let’s stop making it part of the juma ritual. Nothing kills me inside more than staring off into the glimmering shiny wonderment of the extravagant masjid chandelier as the rays of the sun bounce off it during juma, and walking out and being told to donate to keep the lights on.

By the same token, if you spell out the actual fundraising need in your email, the amount needed, and provide a way to donate online, a person can process that information and give. But again, you’re giving it to them in a format where they’re more likely to read and process it – i.e. it’s more effective (and that’s the goal, isn’t it?).

4) Have no juma announcements. 

Go 4 weeks at least without any announcements and see if there’s any real change. Yes, there might be some exceptions and emergency situations. But if you establish that the default is no announcements, when you do stand up to make one, people will listen. It won’t be drowned out in the noise of telling people about all the fundraising dinners happening for the next 5 weeks.

The fundamental change in thinking required is to go from what serves the administration best to the ‘user experience’ of the average attendee at juma. What can we do to make their experience the best possible? For me – it’s getting rid of lengthy, unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective juma announcements.

 

Omar UsmanDo We Need to Rethink the Weekly Sickness/Death Juma Announcements? A Possible Alternative

Systems Thinking and the Future of American Mosques

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Guest post by Wadud Hasan - From a young age, Wadud has traveled to communities across the US for programs, seminars, conferences, and had been a key leader during the launch of several Mosques and full time schools in the North Dallas area (by His enabling grace). He is currently completing his graduate studies in Leadership and Organizational Performance at the Vanderbilt University Peabody College, a top ranked school of education based in Nashville, Tennessee.

The inspiration for this article comes from an ALIM program he attended with Dr. Sherman Jackson where Dr. Jackson made a comment to the following affect that resonated with him: “The best ideas of how to design our Mosques, and community spaces are yet to emerge.” Wadud wanted to apply the theories and research of Learning Organizations to the American Mosques and reflect on what the future could look like for our Mosques. He welcomes other thinkers to connect with him to further research and/or write on this topic. He can be reached at whcoordinator[at]gmail.com

The Concept

Based on Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.

System Thinking is a discipline for seeing the wholes, seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” In complex systems. Cause and Effect is a not a linear but a circular pattern – an important axiom is that every influence is both cause and effect and nothing is ever influenced in just one direction.

Systems thinking empowers us to address the sense of helplessness when people say: “It is the system. There is nothing we can do about it.” – because Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the “structures” that underlie complex situations.

The way we try to address problems through short-term solutions without understanding how the whole system works often produces dramatically different effects in the long run. But systems thinkers need to be patient as Time Delay occurs in a system since actions in a complex system do not always have immediate outcome. So a Systems thinker needs to prepare for the delay. Quick solutions without understanding the dynamics of a system can produce Unintended Consequences.

Applying Systems Thinking to the context of American Mosques

Faith based organizations, and places of worship play a tremendous role in shaping today’s youth as productive, contributing citizens of tomorrow. The American Mosques have long preserved the faith, character, and social network of the Muslims in America. While these mosques have acted as nuclei for building productive communities, the newer generations of American Muslims increasingly feel a need to take these Mosques to the next levels as comprehensive community centers as they deem many of our mosques as stagnant in the “developing” stage due to lack of commitment, understanding, vision, and systems thinking.

Systems thinking can reveal the short and long term scope of impact of our Mosques; firstly in the lives of American Muslims and then in the betterment of lives of our extended communities – our neighbors of all faith and cultures. A greater depth in Systems thinking will eventually show how impactful some American Mosques have been in producing even a global impact and what all Mosques can do to reach such a level. American Muslims are able to practice their religion freely in America in a very pluralistic Muslim community often capable of free themselves from cultural biases. This has helped the good bulk of them to become more open in understanding and embracing our differences. This leads to increased tolerance, and greater conversation within the intra-faith and interfaith space.

However, one of the issues that many American Muslim communities are still trying to work through is the unmet needs for more home-grown religious leaders. Many Mosque boards are still first generation immigrants with biases rooted in their cultural origin and often are not very aware of this. Many such boards continue to hire immigrant Imams that cannot present their knowledge within the American context and hence are not able to reach the desired level of success in attracting the youth (pre-teens, teens, college students, and young professionals). While an increased number of communities across the US are becoming more aware of this issue and are starting to hire American born Imams that can make faith relevant to our youth, a large number of growing communities are yet to take the leap.

Systems thinking at American mosques can also generate greater awareness of where we are lacking in service. We need to connect with, cater to, and take care of our elders. We have to dedicate an increased number of programs for them, listen to their wisdom, and help bridge the gap between them and the younger members of the community. Our Mosques also need to pump out programs, events, and social opportunities for the young working adults – counsel them and provide services as they get ready to start a new family, have children, and need new knowledge, skills, and network to be successful in these new roles. Support for new parents, family friendly events, childcare facilities, children’s extra-curricular clubs, and events are direly needed.

Events, sports, academic, and extra-curricular support is another area we can engage in after-school to serve our Pre-teens and Teens. Mosques can especially play an important role in providing such after-school programs in cities where the public schools are failing and children regardless of their faith and background can use extra academic, and extra-curricular support to get ahead in school. Reducing high school dropouts, and developing conscious citizens is a national commitment that many of our resourceful communities and mosques could play an important part in.

All these services need to be provided in right proportions and should be developed strategically in phases to build capacity and to keep everyone engaged. Paid and full time religious leadership and support staff play a key role in making sure that our Mosques are meeting all these needs of our communities and do not become stagnant organizations. Many great Imams – who are youth centered and yet have the ability to connect with the adults in the community, are not able to keep up with the increasing demands for all the services people need. And the mosque boards and trustees are failing to activate the principles of Systems thinking to find a solution.

Systems thinking involves critical thinking about the cause and effect of every decision we make. Our communities are continuously talking about the need for raising more funds, and lack of funds is used as an excuse to justify why the only full time employee at the mosque should be the Imam or if you are lucky you also have a full time Office Manager. But the buck stops there! One of the biggest complains of the American Imams is that the majority of their time gets spent on counseling the community members – issues related to marital relations, parenting conflicts, and mental health. The compensation package is another major area of concern – many organizations are lacking in their salary standards and are not able to attract or sustain talents that are maturing beyond the scope of the current organizations. When the Mosques do not mature and evolve along with its talent – they are losing great human capital resources and are not able to replace these voids. Lack of understanding of this cause and effect relationship has made leaders oblivious to the need for creating the infrastructure needed to allow the Imam to carry out their main responsibilities of spiritual leadership, community relations, vision creation, and program development to name a few.

Time Delay, and Unintended Consequences are important concepts of Systems thinking that are playing out in the American mosques. Untrained Mosque leaders do not understand why expanded services are needed often-using lack of funding once again as the excuse. While adding other important personnel such as the full time community counselor, and the youth director are pertinent to the growth and long-term survival of these organizations. Structures training and reflective exercises based on the Systems thinking principles can tremendously help the boards realize how the whole system works over time, and shift their mindset to assume responsibilities they were not ready to accept otherwise: that you have to give a little now to get a lot back in time – that increased services and participation are the keys to eventually bring in the financial support they are always looking for. Consider the following Systems View for example:

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Figure 1.1 -Understanding the entire system of cause and effect relationships, the time delays of return on investments in our community, and the harmful unintended consequences of quick fixes based on partial short term systems view can help shift the mindset of the Mosque leaders across the US.

 

 

References:

• Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

 

GuestsSystems Thinking and the Future of American Mosques