The Growing Shift between Mosques and Imams

His dedication has served him well

Guest post by Mobeen Vaid

As Omar Usman recently chronicled, the phenomenon of popular community leaders electing to step down from prominent posts has become a common affair as of late. Though resignations by said individuals are generally worded in polite and delicate terms, the aftermath tends to give way to more critical discussion that takes aim at the problems of our communities and the need for reform. And make no mistake, losing talented individuals, especially those that have served their communities admirably, should serve as cause for concern. But the real reform, if indeed we intend to propose one, along with the concomitant process by which it will take place has to be anchored in a full analysis of the factors at play, and though many have been – and continue to be – debated and discussed, it is my hope in this brief article to add color to that conversation.

It is my contention that these discussions tend to situate themselves in a sort of false binary of Imam vs. the board. This, perhaps more than anything else, is where the problem starts. Over the past decade or so, a common refrain from mosque attendees was its lack of effective governance. If only our mosques could learn from the efficiencies of Fortune 500 companies, things would be different, they said. The truism was in fact acted out on (and continues to be a staple of mosque criticism), as corporatized mosques are fast becoming the new norm. Executive Committees, Boards of Trustees, Directors, and Advisors, Endowment Chairs, the all-too-frequent ‘Founders Committees’ and related positions are now common in larger communities.

The unintended result of the aforementioned structural changes has been a redefinition of the Imam’s role. Whereas in less mature governance models community leaders and/or solitary board members had the ability to operate the community as their own fiefdoms, the restructured model attenuated the role of a solitary individual/leader in the governance of the community. This is not to say that they lost all influence over community governance, but that the governance model was now one that had to be negotiated against a structure in which they were no longer the CEO.

And in reality, this is how corporations work. Individuals are often stuck in jobs they don’t like, forced to fight through bureaucracies that appear unseemly, but may in fact be necessary. Very rarely do individuals have carte blanche authority to make strategic decisions that affect the entire company in a vacuum. Groups need to be persuaded, studies have to be done, and at times, peoples efforts to shift the company in a healthy direction fail. Such is life.

In my view, this is where mosque alternatives lose their luster, at least on purely governance grounds (though they certainly hold merit on others). Although initial efforts will likely demonstrate more pronounced cohesion given the paucity of participants and prevalence of like-minded collaborators, over time they will invariably run into the same governance challenges that mosques face, particularly if they mature in any serious way.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the socio-cultural realities of employee turnover in America. In 2013 turnover among the nation’s private employers (all non-government employees) was 44 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even model companies such as Google suffer from an average employee retention of little more than a year – this, despite the litany of perks offered to its employees. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that people quit jobs, and it was naturally a matter of time before employee retention challenges began to make their way into professions that previously experienced greater stability, such as Imams. Even communities that planned strategically, invested in the religious pedagogy of promising youth that returned to serve as assistant or full imams, and have paid reasonable wages to said leaders have ultimately seen those people leave. This is not unique to the Muslim Community as churches face challenges all the time as it relates to their staff, and turnover can be the result of any number of things. Personality conflicts are not uncommon, employees may feel burnout, or that they simply need a change in their lives. People sometimes get depressed, hit a place of spiritual crisis, experience family problems, or tire of tasks they previously enjoyed. Stuff happens.

People who work at mosques are not exempt from any of these problems, and although it is easy to romanticize stability, sometimes people, and communities, need change.

In addition, as Omar rightly mentioned, leaders raised in the US are well aware of alternatives that they can avail themselves of. The task of community leader, especially in comparison to domestic and/or international celebrity scholar, can seem mundane. The former attends to a fairly consistent group of attendees and has the burden of being judged against that criteria, whereas the latter speaks at conferences, fundraisers, and universities. The former is a thankless task; the latter, excessively flattering. And yet the former is what sustains, what motivates and changes lives at a deeply personal level. There is no doubt a need for both, but one would be remiss if not to mention the essential contribution that local leaders play in performing work that lacks the glamour of the stage.

Being tasked with being the stead of a community of hundreds or thousands is no small responsibility, and we should both appreciate the jobs that our community leaders are presented with and work to assist them to make that job more satisfying. But we should also reform our collective ideas about what those jobs are as well as what we want our communities to be. Are corporatized communities the ideal way forward? What is the balance? Can mosques maintain their serenity when constructed as little more than rec centers with musallahs? Understanding that turnover is inevitable, how do we account for that in our community planning? I present these as questions for consideration.

The above is not exhaustive and it is my hope that it animates an active conversation being played out throughout our communities today. It is worth at least mentioning here that such conversations can have the unintended effect of fomenting availability heuristic, wherein individuals assume the situation to be far worse than it is. Alhamdulillah, our communities still enjoy a level of participation that is proportionately greater than many other faiths in modern America. Though the bad apples tend to get the lions share of attention, we have many vibrant communities that have found a way to make it work. Perhaps, if I can be so bold as to make a suggestion, the path to remediation can begin with us studying those communities and working to help our own local communities gain their own vibrancy.

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