The Crisis of Imams in America Part 2: The Un-Mosqueing of America’s Imams

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This is a crosspost from Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez and originally appeared on Medium

Arabs have a popular proverb that goes as follows:

“If your friend is made of food, don’t eat him completely.”

The proverb refers to the normal human tendency to inadvertently take advantage of people who are willing to make sacrifices for us. The problem is that if we continue to abuse people’s willingness to help, there will be no one left to do so. A similar dynamic exists with Imams in America.

What do Imam’s really do?

One of the questions I’m often asked is this: other than leading prayers and delivering the weekly khutba, what do you guys really do? Of course such questions usually come from people with whom I meet for a counseling session, see at wedding ceremony, or converse with during an interfaith event. The audacity of the question has never prevented me from answering in an insightful manner, despite having to exert extra effort to curb my agitation.

Similar to popular memes on social media that showcase the discrepancy between people’s different perceptions of a given activity or a profession, multiple questions arise as to the function of the Imam. What is the Imam supposed to do? What does the community expect him to do? What does his family want him to do? What would his board like for him to do? And most importantly, what does he really do?

Well, let’s begin with what conventional wisdom suggests. Imams, by definition, are prayer leaders. Thus they lead, or are supposed to lead, the five daily prayers. In addition to that, they have to prepare the Friday sermons (khutbahs) for their congregations every week. Imams are also expected to conduct religious activities — such as halaqas, talks, Qur’an study circles, etc. — on a weekly basis. Many Imams are involved in marriage officiation, since they are the presiding clergy in a community. They counsel couples on marital issues and resolve familial disputes. They are called upon to to organize adult education classes, teach the youth and participate in full-time or weekend schools. They are required to maintain good communication with their communities via email and social media in order to answer doctrinal and legal (fiqhi) questions, as well as issue non-binding juridical opinions on complex issues (i.e. fatwas, or fatawa).

It goes without saying that the standard for good Imams in the multicultural and pluralistic communities we reside in here in the West requires that they furthermore be involved in interfaith dialogue and attend proselytizing (da’wah) events. The most qualified Imams are also involved in sensitivity training for law-enforcement and media personnel, advocate for social justice issues, work with local organizations on homelessness and hunger, and strive to maintain working relations with elected officials.

To make things even more exciting, Imams are expected to partake in the social activities of their community members, such as weddings, Ameen parties, birthday celebrations, graduation ceremonies, picnics, gatherings, etc. After all, what kind of Imam would one be if one is not available for hospital visits and funeral services?

As if to complicate matters more, Imams are often perceived as being the first-stop for media interviews, appear as guests on the news or radio, and issue quotes for newspaper articles. This is ever more pertinent these days when the international scene is so intense and the tide of Islamophobia is overwhelming. Now, I’m not sure how it is with other Imams, but I know I spend a good deal of time on prison ministry, catering to the needs of Muslim inmates in some local prisons, providing them with mentorship and information, and occasionally giving talks at correctional facilities. I also speak on a regular basis at colleges, high schools and universities. I’m frequently invited by teachers to answer their students’ questions and inquiries about Islam.

Of course one would be remiss if one ignores to mention every Imam’s favorite: fundraising! Imams are the chief fundraising agents of their mosques. They have to speak at fundraising banquets, work with community members to donate and participate in all fundraising activities of their centers. This involves a lot more than preparing a speech. It often requires strong personal relations with community members; taking people out for lunches and having them over for dinners; sending emails and making phone calls; definitely lots of prodding, goading and guilt trips; and of course, tons of facebook statuses.

Naturally, the Imam holds the greatest sway over his community members by virtue of his spiritual position. This makes him the most effective recruiter of volunteers. You can have all the committees you want, but if the Imam is not involved in the solicitation and organization of volunteers, it makes it harder to inspire and retain the most important asset our institutions have. More importantly, Imams are involved on a regular basis in the process of organizing volunteers through committee meetings, project management and task execution. Imams spend countless hours every week meeting with committees and overseeing the work of volunteers. Some Imams have assistant staff members, such as youth directors, assistant religious directors, etc. Those fortunate Imams carry the added burden of managing employees, which can be another full-time job.

Now, the irony is that all the aforementioned activities leave out the need for the Imam’s own spiritual rejuvenation and continuous education in order to better provide for the community and his own well-being. Attending conferences and taking educational sabbaticals are completely unheard of in our community. If we assume that, just like all other human beings, the Imam also has family and kids, and requires a modicum of leisure time for his psychological health, you can appreciate how serious this picture is.

Say what you want to say about job descriptions, but the reality is that most Imams have no choice but to partake in most, if not all, of what was previously mentioned. And despite that, it’s barely appreciated and never considered to be enough! The Imam’s phone doesn’t stop ringing and email notifications never stop buzzing. If the Imam is late in responding, people take it personally, become vexed, and then perturbed. This situation devolves into a quagmire when the Imam fails to balance all of the responsibilities given to him; particularly if he’s not getting any help or supporting staff. Often, he ends up leaving a trail of frustrated people.

Since the Imam is only one person (and cloning is still illegal), an Imam is forced to make the difficult judgment call on where he needs to spend the next hour. If he decides to visit a sick person at the hospital and pray side-by-side with him or her, he will likely miss a prayer at the mosque. If he decides to accept the invitation to speak at a class in the local junior college, he will have to pass over the dinner invitation he received from a donor. If he answers one phone call seeking advice, three will go straight to voicemail. If he decides to please his kids and take them out for dinner, he will have to displease a horde of people who expected him to be somewhere else. We have created an unfortunate state of affairs whereby everyone needs the Imam and, due to the heightened and impossible expectations set for him, everyone is left frustrated with his limited human (and time-spatial) capacity. This often leaves many Imams in a deep state of confusion and anxiety that rips the pleasure from many of the functions they fulfill and, as experience has shown, forces them to eventually step down.

To make matters worse, the gap is far and wide between what masjid leaders assume Imams do, or are supposed to do, and what Imams have to do. Board members who have been legitimately selected by their community members to manage the affairs of their mosques feel entitled — and rightly so — to manage staff members, including Imams. The problem, however, is that the requests boards put to Imams, or expect them to fulfill, are often incongruent with the real needs and realities of the community.

Imams often find themselves sandwiched (or wedged) between the expectations of boards and community members. If you please your board, you get to keep your job; fail to deliver to the people you are accountable to, despite pleasing the community, and you put your own financial security in jeopardy!

This cannot be healthy — not for Imams, not for boards and certainly not for the community. Only a super-human Imam can handle such a supernatural feat. And since we don’t have any super Imams in the community, what ends up happening is that with all the continued pressure, Imams inevitably reach their breaking point. It’s not surprising, given the dismal state of affairs, that most qualified Imams in America are systematically stepping down and leaving the community in shambles. In other words, America’s Imams are being unmosqued when we need them the most!

What is to be done to avert this crisis of Imams in America? How can we retain and empower our Imams? How can we strike a balance between efficiency and accountability? How can we help imams do their jobs while maintaining community oversight?

We will discuss all of that in the next essay, God-willingly.

For part 1 of this series click here:

For more from Imam M. A. Azeez click here for his Facebook page. You can email him at m.azeez@tarbiya.org.

 

GuestsThe Crisis of Imams in America Part 2: The Un-Mosqueing of America’s Imams

The Crisis of Imams in America

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This is a crosspost from Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez and originally appeared on Medium

Since my departure from the SALAM Center a few weeks ago, the chatter has been deafening in the community about the role of the Imam and the expectations the Muslim community should have of him. This new found free time has allowed me to engage in some deep rumination about my experience with SALAM and our community at large. Interestingly, more than 5 of the most well equipped/most well-known Imams in America have left their posts over the past two months alone. Before them, scores of Imams step down almost every month. In fact, the average time an Imam spends with his mosque is usually less than 5 years (which means I was a survivor :-).

Mosque in-fighting is a staple of the American Muslim’s experience It happens everywhere and affects everyone, but no one likes to talk about it publicly because, according to conventional wisdom, “we should not show non-Muslims our dirty laundry”. All of us can tell tales about mosque turmoil as often as we share stories about rowdy cousins and bad restaurants.

I’ve asked myself time and time again: why is it that good, God-fearing people who are very sincere and want to serve the Creator and His people, start fighting and bickering and dragging the community with them to deep turmoil once they enter a masjid environment?

This phenomenon cannot be a result of personal traits, since its so widespread across almost all Muslim communities in America. Unless by some act of God it so happened that all masjid leaders and Imams are crooks! It cannot be a matter of limited finances because the Muslim American community is one of the wealthiest communities, however much we might mismanage them. I doubt the involvement of the FBI, trying to mess up our mosques on purpose, as conspiracy theorists might ramble on about sometimes!

What is it then?

The one thing that is less talked about within the context of our mosque affairs is structure. What is the makeup of our mosque leadership and how are they organized? Let me answer a few other questions first before I get to this one.

How are places of worship organized in America? A few models could be identified:

First, you have the model of a top-down church hierarchy, represented by many Christian groups such as Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mormons, etc. in which “clergy” members report to a clearly defined hierarchy from priest to Arch-bishop to bishop, etc. In this model the chain of command is clear. Clergy members report to their superiors, and while they are still sensitive to the needs of their local communities, they are only held accountable by their superiors (i.e. other clergy).

Second, there is the independent church model, represented by many Baptist, Evangelical and other churches. In this model, a Pastor goes into a neighborhood, founds a new church and people start gravitating around him inspired by his message and teachings. A board is formed, and committees are put in place in order to fulfill the vision of this pastor. While this model still bears elements of checks and balances, the pastor is clearly accountable to his congregation and not the board, and a significant majority is required to force him to step down.

The structure that is often implemented in the Muslim community (usually in Sunni institutions) doesn’t fit either of the aforementioned models. In our case, a group of laymen, usually professionals in other fields, come together and establish a mosque. They put together and comprise the board, write bylaws and policies, establish committees and procedures, etc. and then find an Imam to lead prayers, deliver khutba, teach the youth, etc.

Now the Imam that is hired is usually one of two people:

Its either a simple Imam, who may or may not speak English well, who’s usually from overseas with little experience and limited skills, who serves at the pleasure of the board, keeps a low profile and does what he’s told. In this case the Imam keeps his job, the relationship with the board continues to be peaceful, but the community doesn’t grow.

The second type of Imams is one that either grew up or lived a significant number of years in America, is eloquent, well educated, skilled, charismatic, and comes with a vision and an agenda to transform the community. This Imam/activist usually empowers the community to grow and people gravitate around him, but the very factors of his success become the seeds of his doom. Over time the relationship with the board grows sour because of diverging views, he gradually becomes a threat to the board and masjid leadership, and in almost every single case, such Imams quit or are forced by their boards to step down.

This model is not only a failure because it rewards mediocrity and punishes innovation. It is bad news because it creates an environment where the community is not connected spiritually. In political and social settings, it is understandable to talk about the necessity of attachment to institutions and organizations and not people. The same cannot be true in a spiritual setting. People need to see their leaders become a reflection and an embodiment of the teachings they perpetuate. Families need to be connected with their Imams. The Imam needs to be there, side by side with the family, from the very beginning. When one gets married, the Imam is there. When one has his first child, the Imam is there. When the family needs counseling, the Imam is there. When the child joins youth group, the Imam is there. When the family needs a social camp, the Imam is there. When the child grows and heads to college, the Imam is there. When the child becomes an adult and is now looking for a spouse, the Imam is there. This is how a community is built. Without that personal connection with the Imam, you will always have communities that come together for events and activities and not ideas and spirit. The connection cannot be organic without a role model.

Of course there are exceptions to this assessment, but statistically most American mosques fall under one of the two categories.

What is even more interesting is that this latter category of Imams, once they step down from their posts, they mostly try to join other communities and accept an Imam job elsewhere, hoping to still do what they love, continuing to serve their communities and supporting their families. Unfortunately within a few years the cycle repeats itself and most of them end up stepping down again. Instead of joining a new masjid, a select few of these Imams establish their own task specific institutions, such as Quran memorization, Arabic education, youth work, counseling, etc. This causes scores of community members, who are getting nothing from their mosques now that their Imams have left, to gravitate towards those “institutions” seeking services. The newly found institutions feel pressured to offer a variety of spiritual and educational services that mosques failed to offer, and they gradually evolve into a “we-are-not-a-mosque” type of mosque, or as some label them “third spaces”, in which the vast majority of masjid services are being offered, but the institution continues to have a separate identity from a full-blown masjid. Some Imams quit their Imam careers altogether, and pursue lay jobs or academic careers, trying to avoid the pain they experienced within the confinements of dysfunctional masjid structures.

For some reason, very few Imams opt for the establishment of a new mosque under their leadership, following the second Christian model mentioned above. The main reason for this is that the culture of an Imam starting a new mosque doesn’t exist in America, at least among the immigrant community. In addition to that, most successful Imams might not have the educational or the real-life experience that would allow them to manage and lead a successful and financially viable religious institution.

So here’s what our situation looks like:
Millions of Muslims live in America, more than half are probably youth; mosques are failing to offer the needed programs and services; most qualified Imams are being pushed away from serving their people; young American Muslims are being “unmosqued”; ISIS and al-Qaeda are recruiting!

Not a cool/pretty picture is it?

Now what am I suggesting:

First, the notion of praying at the most convenient location needs to change. The Muslim community needs to reward success and punish failure. People cannot pray at locations where services are not offered. They should not support those places financially either. Be selective on where you pray and where you send your kids.

Second, qualified Imams in America should never allow themselves to serve under unfair and inequitable conditions. Start your Qur’an halaqa in the basement of your own house, and when it grows big enough go ahead and venture out to establish a new community.

Third, Imams needs to study a lot more than Islamic sciences. If you want to make a difference in the American Muslim life, you need to have clear understanding of management, public relations, civics, finances, and other needed fields of knowledge that will help you become the leader of your community and manage its affairs.

Fourth, Imams need to consider another element beside the stability of leadership structure and that is financial sustainability. One can never worry about building a masjid or starting an institution or establishing a new community without worrying about its financial stability. More time needs to go into creative finances and sources of funding than goes into construction. Conventional fundraising is no longer sufficient.

Fifth, it is obvious the Imam cannot do everything. Find people who can help. Invite them to volunteer for key positions, operations, finances, youth, etc. under your direction. If there’s anyone who has the power to inspire people to serve it is you! And once you get your finances in order, invest in people and hire the best element out there and institutionalize your center.

Omar UsmanThe Crisis of Imams in America

Why Getting Volunteers For The Masjid is a Vision Problem

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Guest Post by Siraaj Muhammad

Volunteers tend to flock to quality initiatives that have been established and successful, and the role the volunteer plays is clear (and desired). And likely overlaps with “their” cause or interests – for some, that’s a soup kitchen, for others, it’s spreading religious knowledge, and still others, it’s youth programs.

Part of the problem is that masjid boards (that I’ve seen anyway, can’t speak for all) don’t directly engage community members. They don’t know them, and so they don’t know their strengths, and they don’t have a vision of something bigger beyond infrastructure expansion, so they don’t see the potential value of someone in a project later down the pipeline.

Then you add in there the comfort and familiarity of aligning or working with people of the same ethnicity and complicate that with gender politics, and you have all sorts of Unmosqued running around the interwebs talking about disenfranchisement. While those problems exist, a big big big big big big problem underlying all of that is business and project leadership / management incompetence, starting with vision and going into expansion nirvana.

As an example, women’s prayer halls are complained about often. If you came from a country where women weren’t allowed in the masjid, you built something in the 80s or 90s with a token space and thought you were being overaccommodating. You don’t know what you’re doing, you build an institution, and 20 years later when the community is established, people retroactively complain about sexism because their progressive professor filled their head with nonsense about male / female power dynamics.

But 20 – 30 years ago, your stakeholders were a limited set of community members and the women were nowhere near educated as they are now, nor were they demanding such spaces (whether for cultural reasons, “I’m not that religious and I don’t care reasons”, or whatever), and you, the unconscious incompetent, did what you could, and these were the seeds of our first communities. They weren’t perfect, but they got the job done. Fast forward to today, the immigrant blueprint for community building hasn’t really changed overly much.

Before we can solve these problems, I think it’s more important to first define what the role of the masjid should be in a community – large, small, and so on. Then you can define what’s needed, who’s needed, and then some. It’s like our problem with the imam, we want him to be everything to everyone at minimum wage with no health care fii sabeelillah. That was fine and dandy when you’re bootstrapping your startup masjid in 1983, but we need an American Muslim Community Blueprint 2.0 – what services should a masjid provide? How does it accommodate it’s men, women, and children? How does it reliably fund itself without endless marathon donations? What models exist in other 501c3 communities that have worked and how do we adapt that to our needs?

Lots to be done, but I’m more for obliterating the tweaks and hacks to the status quo, and more in favor of sweeping re-architecture of the masjid community blueprint and socializing it with new communities.

GuestsWhy Getting Volunteers For The Masjid is a Vision Problem

If Someone Handed You $5 Million, What Would You Build For the Community? Not What You Think.

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Someone posed this question to me recently (seriously, not hypothetically). Let’s say there’s a benefactor who has given you a blank check to build something of use for the community – what would you build?

The thinking was why not build a better version of the Bayyinah or Qalam Campus, or a super amazing youth center?

This question presupposes that by simply having the funds, you can shortcut the headache and have an amazing facility. It’s true – you will have an amazing facility, but that might be it.

I’m fortunate, alhamdulillah, to have had an insider’s view (from an administrative capacity) of the launch of both institutions as they transitioned to full time campuses. As I reflected on the question, I realized one of the most important lessons about the process. As cliche as it sounds – it’s the journey, not the destination.

Those programs succeeded in large part on sweat equity. Hustling and grinding. Traveling to dozens (if not over a hundred) Islamic centers and teaching courses, making connections, developing students, and establishing relationships. People see the finished product and think that with some money it can be recreated. The truth is, the final product is a culmination of years of hard work. It’s that work and those relationships which enable the success of establishing something. I’m fairly positive if you hit rewind, and handed those institutions $5 million about 8 years ago – they would have a fantastic facility and full-time staff. But this money is not able to buy results. It is not able to buy credibility. It is not able to buy a reputation.

You can build a fancy youth center, but unless there is a community that they feel a part of, the structure will not make a difference. The greatest masjid stories are those that started out with 5 guys praying juma in the living room of a 2 bedroom apartment. Not the stories of empty multi-million dollar facilities.

In many ways, how you get there is more important than where you go. Once you arrive, it’s quickly on to the next thing. You have to have traction to make that jump.

We can all dream about what kind of institutions we’d build if we had unlimited capital, but the reality is “build it and they will come” is a proven failure. Show people you care, serve them, and whatever you need built will happen by the grace and blessing of Allah (swt).

Omar UsmanIf Someone Handed You $5 Million, What Would You Build For the Community? Not What You Think.

4 Free Resources Your Masjid Website Needs

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JazakAllahu khayr to Mark Harrod for compiling this list to share with the MuslimSI audience.

1) Lifetime Website Hosting

Dreamhost offers 501(c)3 non-profits like masjids and Islamic organizations free lifetime hosting (usually $3 to $9 per month) and a complimentary domain name. Here are instructions:

http://wiki.dreamhost.com/Non-profit_Discount

2) Donation Management Software

Giftworks offers 501(c)3 non-profits a free Windows-based software that can help a masjid manage donations, volunteers, and communicate better with donors:

http://www.techsoup.org/giftworks

3) Vertical Response

Vertical Response gives email marketing that is free for non profits up to 10,000 emails per month:
http://www.verticalresponse.com/non-profit/pricing

4) Free Masjid Website

With an option of 20 templates to choose from, Ummah Designs offers to implement one of its websites for any masjid in the US or Canada:

http://ummah-design.com/100-websites-for-100-masjids-for-free.aspx

Omar Usman4 Free Resources Your Masjid Website Needs

10 Ways To Fix Your Terrible Masjid Website

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Most masjid websites are terrible. This is how you make them better.

1. Story

No one cares that your organization was started in 1973 and services 500 families from XYZ counties. It also doesn’t really matter how big your Sunday school is, or how you have a “vibrant” youth presence.

Tell the story of your community. Talk about how back in 1982, 5 uncles got together and needed a place to pray Juma so they used some guy’s living room. Chronicle how that slowly grew into the congregation you have now. Tell the stories about the people who have come through your masjid – Imams who helped work with the kids, how a random brother or sister one time donated $10k to keep the masjid from being shut down.

Communities must create a sense of belonging. Draw people in with the history and story of your community.

2. Have important information

In no particular order, the following bits of information should be easily accessible:

  • Directions. Actual directions. Anyone can look up your address on Google Maps. Your website should tell us “The GPS will get you to the Exxon gas station, but we’re actually on the 2nd floor of the brown building behind the gas station.”
  • Updated iqamah times.
  • Updated juma times (what time khutbah starts, what time salah is).
  • Who the Khateeb is every Friday (why is this so hard? Asking a masjid to put this on their website is like asking a 5 year old not to leave toys on the floor).
  • Office/visitation hours.

3. Photographs.

This is not an excuse to further publicize those 7-year-away expansion plan blueprints and architectural mock-ups. Put actual photographs of your facility. A few smiling people might help as well.

4. Social Media Integration / Contact

Don’t have it for the sake of having it. Don’t have a Facebook page if no one responds to messages. Don’t tell people to follow you on Twitter if your last update was 900 days ago and no one checks it.

Create a way for people to contact you easily with questions. You don’t need to leave a phone number – no one is going to call you anyways. Have an email that you actually check and respond in a timely manner.

5. Imam Info

Who is your imam? Let us know a little bit about him. Also introduce us to the rest of the staff. Who are they, what do they do?

6. Multimedia

Have some audio or video recordings from programs that take place at your masjid if possible.

7. Donate

Have a link to let people donate money to your masjid. Yes, some people actually want to give without having their arm twisted – make it easy for them.

8. Email List

Let people sign up for an email list to get announcements. Make sure to actually post announcements on your site – they’re much more effective here than on the microphone after Juma.

9. Give the people what they want

If your masjid regularly handles funerals – have the pertinent information there.

If no one registers their kids for Sunday school on the website, then take the forms down.

Information about upcoming classes and programs? Put it on there (and keep it current).

Don’t use your website to pontificate about sister’s activities and youth programs – especially if you don’t really have any. Even if you do, don’t post a pretentious write up about them.

This is not rocket science.

10. Get rid of everything else. 

Seriously. If something on your site does not fulfill a need, get rid of it.

If you’d like a minimal out of the box solution to having a masjid newsletter for weekly announcements, managing your email list, and putting a donate button on your website – email me at omar (at) 1ayah.com for a quote.

Omar Usman10 Ways To Fix Your Terrible Masjid Website

The Unconscious Incompetent Board Member

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There are 4 stages to learning in any field:

1) Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know what you don’t know.

This is the equivalent of someone that wakes up one day and says, “I love eating biryani, therefore I should open up a Pakistani restaurant.” This person needs a heavy dose of reality. They don’t know anything about food, cooking, much less running a business or retailing.

2) Conscious Incompetence

Painfully aware of what you don’t know.

This person loves biryani so they decide to dabble in it. They ask their mom how to cook it and quickly realize they don’t even know how to make rice or how to work an oven. The concept of a restaurant is painfully far away.

3) Conscious Competence

Able to do it, but need practice.

This person already knows how to cook, and they’ve worked in a restaurant so they know what is required to make it run. Putting in a little bit of time, and some targeted study they should be able to open and run their own restaurant.

4) Unconscious Competence

You can do it in your sleep.

This person is a master biryani chef, has successfully opened 3 gourmet biryani houses, and now has a multi-million dollar biryani food truck that he drives around for fun. He’s made every mistake you can make and knows his stuff inside-out.

Everyone goes through this journey. You shouldn’t feel guilty for being at stage 1 of something – we’ve all been there. We all are there. No one can be a stage 4 expert in everything.

The true trap is being at stage 1, but thinking you are in stage 3 or 4. This is because you have no idea what else is out here.

Think of a person who does not know Arabic, cannot recite Surah Fatihah properly, has never studied Islam formally beyond a Sunday School level, does not even know what “usūl al-fiqh” means (much less that it is an entire academic subject of study) – but wants an entire community to follow his ‘educated fatwa’ about moon-sighting. Or his opinion on how to conduct an Islamic funeral. Or any host of other issues.

The trap comes because many of those who volunteer their time are successful. Yes, you read that right. They are at stage 4 of their respective professions – medicine, IT, retail businesses, and so on. This creates a trap where a person feels they have the necessary skills to serve a community administratively not realizing that they don’t know what they don’t know. They will agree that there should be a board training program for example, but feel that they don’t need it – just the incompetent people around them.

A person serving the masjid needs baseline levels of knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah. How much tafsīr and sīrah study have they done? How can someone be expected to uphold a constitution or masjid charter that has written into it “follow precepts of the Quran and Sunnah”?

How about strategic planning? Conflict resolution? Management? Operations management? Facilities maintenance? Bookkeeping, payroll, accounting? Event planning? Fundraising? Project management? Construction? Educational administration?

The idea is not to say that we need board members to be in stage 4 of all these arenas – they’re all independent areas of study. But we do need people to at least graduate to stage 2. This way a board member doesn’t need to be an expert on those things – but more importantly, they know when they hit the point that an expert does need to be brought in, and who that expert is.

Omar UsmanThe Unconscious Incompetent Board Member

Why Do So Many Masajid Have Problems with Sustainable Funding?

Guest post by Dr. Jerry Hionis

 

To be expeditious and answer the above question immediately: many masājid have funding problems because they present themselves as a charity case instead of a worthwhile investment. What proceeds, insha’Allah, is a greater explanation of this statement.

 

Most are aware that there is a crisis within the Muslim community — and in many other religious communities as well — when in comes to the financial stability of the masjid. We have all heard the crazy stories of (or even experienced) “hostage fundraising” during Ramadhan or seen the decay of a once beautiful masjid due to neglect. In truth, the question of how a masjid functions financially has two sides: (i) how are funds collected; and, (ii) how are funds spent? I cannot honestly approach the latter question because it is way too case specific and I would hate to pigeon whole the entire community based upon the bad practices by a subset, however large it may be, of masājid. Therefore, we can analyze this problem by pursuing the former question: how does a masjid collect funds?

Before we examine this problem, it first needs to be understood what the masjid, at least to the economist, is exactly. The field of economics classifies goods and services into four categories — private, club, common and public — in regards to two essential characteristics: excludability and rivalry. Excludability refers to whether or not the access to consume a specific good is restricted, usually through some explicit or implicit cost, while rivalry is defined when the consumption of a good by one person decreases the quantity that can be consumed by others. The below table illustrates these four types of goods in respect to excludability and rivalry.

Rivalrous Non-Rivalrous
Excludable Private

 

Club
Non-Excludable Common

 

Public

A private good is the standard type of product that we interact with: if I want to eat a candy bar, for example, a price needs paid to obtain it for consumption and if I am eating the candy bar, no one else can eat it at the same time. A club good also requires a cost for access to consumption but unlike its private counterpart, it is also non-rivalrous; that is, multiple people can consume the good at the same time where one can consume the good without decreasing the consumption possibilities of another. A private golf course or a beach requiring a purchased “beach badge” are classic examples of club goods. Private and club goods are not too problematic because their excludable nature leads to the creation of a market and an associated (equilibrium) price.

Fundamental distribution problems become present when excludability is not present. A good is labeled common when its access is open to all (i.e., not associated cost/price) yet one’s consumption does negatively affect another’s. This leads to what is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”: free and open access to a finite good will lead to an unsustainable supply and its eventual exhaustion. Overfishing and overhunting are the most often example brought up to explain this problem. The natural solution to this problem is to turn common good into club or private one by issuing consumption rights (such as fishing and hunting licenses) and, hence, creating a market.

Such a solution, unfortunately, does not always apply to the case of public goods where anyone has access and can partake in the consumption of while not decreasing the possible consumption of another; i.e., the theory of mathematics or national defense. Public goods are problematic for economists because it leads to the infamous “Free-Rider Problem”: one can obtain benefit from a public good without incurring any of the cost to produce it. In other words, the wealthier and/or those who value the good the most will contribute to its funding while others will essentially “free ride”.

While many solutions have been posited to help convert public goods into private or club ones (the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves auction mechanism is one of the more popular), most are based upon limiting the access and benefit of a public good by instituting a value-reveling mechanism. This is where the masjid, being an unrestricted house of worship, becomes a special type of public good. Because praying and attending special services like jum’ah and tarāwīh prayers are open to any and all (assuming they are Muslim, of course), methods such as mandatory masjid membership or door fees are eliminated. Masājid, being left with few options, apply the three easiest to implement: the after-jum’ah donation box, the incessant reminder to donate and the delaying of communal services until a specific level of donations are met. All three are meant to inflict upon the masjid attender with the same social cost as your average street beggar: shame. Shame does have its place and is an acceptable mode of eliciting behavior, but it does not seem to be working very well and we can do better.

How many times have we stepped into a masjid — even one that we consider to be “my masjid” or “my community” — and feel as if we are guests in someone else’s house (and know, that “someone else” I am referring to is not Allah s.w.t)? How times have we heard the age-old complaints about that shadowy figure known as the “Masjid Board” or the “REAL leader of the Masjid Board”? How many times have we seen that every decision needs to be OK-ed by a few select “Masjid Elites”? This infantization is a direct result of the community taking the backseat and expecting someone else to deal with the masjid. This is not to say masājid are devoid of the existential bureaucratic problems of transparency, aggressive personalities and control. Of course these problems exist. Masjid organization and governance is run by humans and will always be subject to flaws both great and small. All that being said, let us be clear and honest: if we expect a small handful of individuals to pay for the masjid, then we should not be shocked when a small handful of individuals are making the decisions.

My recommendation then is for masājid to change their strategy away from panhandling and toward suppliers of an indispensible resource to the community. To help illustrate this idea, I offer an anecdotal story from my upbringing. Being the product of two Greek Americans (one an immigrant and the other the child of immigrants), I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. For better or for worse, we were there all the time: school, Sunday school, Greek Orthodox Youth Association (GOYA) meetings, Art programs/competitions, Greek dancing lessons and, believe it or not, basketball teams and tournaments . . . oh yeah, and church services. It became part of our identity. For much of its history, the majority of congregation members at my family’s church were blue-collar immigrants: pizza shop and diner owners, painters, carpenters, plumbers, masons and so on. True, there were a few doctors, accountants, lawyers and engineers and many donated money to the church . . . but both those with greater and fewer means offered other services, including their time. Church needed to be repainted? Done. Church needed new carpets or tile? Done. Church needed food? Done. Church needed electrical or HVAC work? Done. This community support did more than maintain the daily upkeep to the church. It helped increase a sort of job or investor recognition. Congregation members did not feel as if they were attending a church that was owned or financed by a handful of individuals. Everyone who donated and volunteered their services felt the a sort of ownership of the church/community.

Therefore, to quote Lenin, What is to be done? Below are three action points that I believe are a good foundation to help create sustainable funding for any masjid, big or small:

 

  1. Increase the value of the community’s investment: What is your community getting out of the masjid? Does the masjid offer five-daily prayers, jum’ah, tarāwīh, part-time Qur’an memorization and beginner’s Arabic classes? That’s great . . . but so does almost every other masjid that you are competing (in a halal way, of course) against. With the every increasing secularization of our youth and mounting pressures to apostate, the masjid should be an important component to each member’s life. The masjid should be the first place one goes to in looking for a solution to one’s spiritual, cultural and worldly problems. Again, my parents constantly donated both money and time to their church because they saw it as an irreplaceable need in their children’s lives. Some recommended classes and activities are:
    1. Youth directors and programs that are both relevant and up-to-date: We complain about the disinterest of the youth, but what are we really doing to stop it? The lack of consistency, dedication and, in general, imagination by many communities over these types of programs is picked up by the youth. If you are not interested and excited, neither will they. The most effective programs have people — whether paid (preferred) or volunteering — who are specifically dedicated to this mission. If we want our children to be friends with and one day marry Muslims, then they have to want to be around them!
    2. Social activities — for both the youth and adults: Does the community really know each other? I can attest that as social as one can be, it is almost impossible to know who everyone in the masjid is . . . especially when social activity is frowned upon. Without going so far as to start requiring nametags, it is great to have programs dedicated for the direct purpose of the community getting to know others outside of their immediate families and ethnic enclaves.
    3. Business “meet-and-greets” for entrepreneurs within the congregation: Religious circles are one of the greatest assets to a new entrepreneur. This is not meant to be a way for the masjid to discover whom they can pressure into securing free services from (Side note: while donating one’s service is recommended, masājid should always offer to pay first. Period. End of story.). Instead, these programs can help create both professional and social networks that extend the community outside of jum’ah prayers.
    4. Convert inclusion programs beyond giving shahadah: With an increasing number of people embracing Islam, masājid should be increasing their efforts to interact with new converts. An inclusive and diverse congregation should be the aim of every masjid.
    5. Social Services: There comes a time when everyone needs help: domestic abuse, divorce, marital issues, financial woes, spiritual crises and so on. These problems should not be left for the Imam to deal with alone. Again, empathy, networking and understanding who is in your community are the essential components needed for a functional Ummah.

 

  1. Create an organized stewardship program: I know it can be hard to believe but people tend to lean towards organization. Random fundraising is interpreted as unimportant and tends to fall on deaf ears. Consistent fundraising is interpreted as annoying and a signal that people are wasting money. Instead, set up a couple times across the (Gregorian) calendar where everyone knows there will be a fundraising drive; for example, the end of August and the beginning of January. No, this does not mean Ramadhan. Ramadhan fundraising should be the surplus a masjid puts away for special projects and expansions. These bi-yearly fundraising drives should be to sustain the basic expenses of the masjid. In addition, make donating to the masjid easy by creating monthly or yearly stewardship/donation pledges. Given that most wish not to be hassled consistently about such donations, direct withdraw is the preferred method. Never forget the old adage: “out of sight, out of mind”. The less one is bothered about such transactions, the less they are willing to stop paying.

 

  1. Embrace the Internet: Since most do not carry cash on them as frequently as before, the donation box outside of the musallā is ineffective. We have so many IT professionals and tech savvy youth in our congregations yet the majority of masjid websites are atrocious and look like they were created (and last updated) before the new millennium. Therefore, use the Internet to one’s advantage. This is a great way to get the youth involved! Forms, copies in triplicate, filing and all other manner of paperwork are viewed as being the work of Shaytan. Online sign-ups and email confirmation make the experience of donating easier and, hence, more enjoyable. This is the key: donating, especially to the masjid, should be an enjoyable experience!

 

The above steps are not easy to implement. But while there is a temptation to write these off as being too “costly”, remember that there is room for everyone in the community to participate. I personally have heard some brothers and sisters claim they are too busy to volunteer to do X, Y or Z at the masjid but are willing to write a check. I also know that there are brothers and sisters who would love to be active but feel impotent about their role because they have little to give financially. Instead of just blanketed asking for someone to create/head a specific program or project, try reaching out to individuals and ask what they would like to do for the masjid. I truly believe people would be surprised what others are willing to offer if only given the chance.

In conclusion, the only way to create a sustainable revenue source for the masjid is to present it as a sound investment to the congregation so as to elicit a consistent line of funding. The big checks and special fundraising drives are great for special projects like building the “new masjid”, but such project and investment decisions should be made with the future depreciation and general upkeep costs in mind. This is where sustainable funding becomes essential. Utility bills, loan/interest payments, Imam and administration salaries and benefits, organizational/education budgets, janitorial services and general masjid upkeep costs should not be the subject of last minute aggressive fundraising. Insha’Allah, we can do better.

 

 

Omar UsmanWhy Do So Many Masajid Have Problems with Sustainable Funding?

Shifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode

1328372_57165107

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…?