t was July 8, 2010. Unfulfilled for 7 years chasing a dream and vision that the organization he was with could not help make a reality. Clad in a plum gingham print shirt, talking to Jim Grey, LeBron James famously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.
This incident has always fascinated me. He was the hometown hero. Born and raised in Akron, playing for his local team the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took them to the finals, they should have been on the cusp of a championship. Movie scripts could not be written better. If anyone was emotionally vested in helping this organization, it was LeBron. Yet he realized that Cleveland could not help him reach his potential. So he left for an organization that would.
Cleveland lucked out in finding the talent, but they weren’t able to retain it.
We can talk about the importance of team (and we have), but there’s a reason certain NBA players make $21 million a year, and some make $700k (i.e. 30x less). You can have a world class organization, but without some level of talent, you won’t achieve much. By the same token, you can have amazing talent (Carmelo Anthony), but it will go to waste in a terrible organization (Knicks).
ver the past 20 years, the Muslim community in the US has seen major shifts. There was a stage where we struggled to get basic facilities off the ground. Many places were in survival mode doing whatever they could to establish Juma prayer and Sunday Schools.
Imams were brought in from wherever possible and were expected to lead and guide the community. In general, they often grew with the community. They would be there when a kid finished reading Qur’an for the first time (ameen ceremony), and most likely for their high school graduation as well. It was a spiritual pillar of support. For me, from the age of 7 until 15, our masjid had a total of 2 imams [and I only cut it off at age 15 because we moved to another city]. Now, it is not uncommon for a masjid to go through 3 or 4 imams in that same span of time (and that includes periods without an imam at all).
So what’s changed?
Communities are essentially Islamic organizations. You have talent, and this is what attracts the people. But you also have an administration that has to provide support. You can have a great superstar, but they will not perform to potential without a great coach, general manager, front office, scouts, assistant coaches, trainers, and so on. The talent is only one part, but there is a whole system that is required to make it work.
Put it another way – imagine if Barry Sanders ran behind the Cowboys’ offensive line in the 90’s.
How do we define the “talent” in our communities? Obviously there is the imam, but there are more – resident scholars, youth directors, khateebs, sisters coordinators, Qur’an teachers, and Sunday School teachers just to name a few.
The nature of organizations has changed as well. The masjid is no longer the only organizational type. We now have humanitarian organizations, third spaces, educational institutions, and a host of online outlets. Each of these organizations are magnets that attract (or compete for) different types of talent.
The masjid has for the most part been a fairly static institution. Many have tried to expand the masjid with Islamic schools and gyms, but the purpose of the masjid beyond a prayer space always opens up a debate. In this case, direction must come from one of two places – the talent, or the organization.
hat happens when the two are in conflict? The community, in general, looks to the imam for guidance and vision. What can this community accomplish? What should it do? What is the best way of achieving that? What is the organization’s role in shaping or supporting the vision?
This year the Philadelphia 76’ers are tanking. This means they are losing games on purpose to improve their ability to get good young players and be successful in the future. That is an organizational strategy. In 2007, Kobe Bryant famously ripped on Andrew Bynum and building for the future when the Lakers could have had Jason Kidd.
And in 2011, the NBA owners ‘locked out’ the players due to an inability to reach an agreement on how to divide revenues in their negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement – leading to a work stoppage and a shortened season. Players during that time were said to be exploring the possibility of creating another league to compete with the NBA.
When an organization starts going in a different direction, they often do so at the expense of their most talented players – who want to leave for winning situations (talent attracts talent).
very couple of weeks on Facebook, I see a new announcement about an Imam leaving his local masjid. Although these messages are diplomatically worded, they make clear that the root is a fundamental disagreement in vision with the administration.
This was more difficult to do before because Imams didn’t have many options. If there’s only one league you can play in, then you’re stuck. Now there are other types of organizations to join – and even the option of becoming your own personal institution.
In other words, masjids no longer hold the same leverage they once did. This means having to adapt. The cheese has moved.
Change comes naturally. By definition, talented people are usually in a growth mindset. They’ve been trained to continue learning and growing and trying to reach their potential. There is a season in one’s career where teaching Sunday School is the best use of a person’s talent. There is also a season where they grow out of it and need to use their time for something more valuable. A doctor is well qualified to teach life science to middle schoolers, but it’s not the best use of their time – they need to be taking care of patients.
When an organization can’t (or refuses) to keep up, conflict occurs. The crisis has been well chronicled.
The landscape we see now is reflective of what is mentioned above. People are losing their attachment to the masjid. Fights are becoming commonplace.
Organizations will always complain that they can’t find dedicated people. There is no shortage of dedicated people. They’re simply finding other outlets.
People are pouring their energy into private institutions, third spaces, and online ventures – not because they don’t want to help the masjid, but because they feel marginalized. This is not something that will happen in the future, it’s already happening. More and more imams are leaving the masjid (in terms of full time occupation) and devoting themselves to other ventures. Talent attracts talent. People with other skills and motivation to help the community are going with them. And just to connect the dots, financial resources are usually the next to follow in this exodus.
We dream of the masjid being a community center, but without someone to lead the community, and without servicing the needs of the community – the institution will break down. It will become a place where you go for Juma and taraweeh. But for anything meaningful outside of the ritual acts of worship, you’ll have to go elsewhere (as many already are).
Masjids and imams breaking up isn’t just a sad love story. The exodus has started. It should be a wake up call. Organizations need to refocus and realign. Take the role of being a representative for the community seriously – see what they need, find the leadership to lead it, and create the support structure to sustain it.
I’m happy that we’re developing organizations and institutions that will serve the community, and providing outlets for people to develop and grow. However, it comes at the trade-off of that happening in the masjid and the masjid no longer being the point of attachment for the hearts of the community.
The checks and balances in our community are out of whack. An administration should not be able to drive out people the community loves. They can only do this when there is apathy in the community. Although, it must be said that even when people care, constitutions and procedures get amended to formally marginalize those who do.
There is no straight answer to the question: Now what?
We need to marginalize the influence of those who want to build jannah on earth through the Masjid and shift to building our akhirah.
In short, we all need to do a better job of serving our communities and supporting those who serve our communities.