masjid leadership in the digital age

Masjid Inreach vs. Outreach


This article is the 3rd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

“Why in the world would you still have an Urdu khutbah in Toronto? You’re going to lose the next generation” was my question/argument to an Imam I was having dinner with from Canada.

“We have a large percentage of people who don’t speak English that attend the masjid, someone has to serve them” was the reply.

It was at this moment that the light bulb went off. Attracting the crowd that doesn’t come to the masjid, and serving the people who do come to the masjid aren’t at odds with one another - both are important. This may seem simple and obvious, but it is difficult to implement strategically for most communities.

That strategy depends on where your community is in its growth stage.

A new masjid will focus on outreach by default. It has to put effort into attracting new congregants and establishing a base.

Once established, there needs to be a hand-in-hand strategy of deepening the engagement of existing members, while also doing the outreach to increase the number of members.

That in-reach must be intentional. While it will involve things like weekly classes - these programs are a means, and not the goal. Whoever is tasked with the spiritual leadership, or shepherding, of the community must develop a vision for what that development (tarbiyyyah) process looks like over time and how to achieve it. Success for this must be measured on continued incremental progress, and not numbers. We tend to discount activities that don’t draw a large number of people and label them unsuccessful. These smaller, focused, and longer-term efforts are needed to develop new khateebs, teachers, and community leaders from within the masjid itself.

Outreach efforts will be at a larger scale and involve activities that may be less about ‘learning’. This includes more social events, family get togethers, and family night types of programs. These will favor things like enrichment and relationship building more heavily than learning or academics.

Conflict arises when people aren’t able to differentiate the two. People who are more inclined to formal study or academics will inevitably discount outreach efforts as not serious, or “edutainment.” We belittle them, not realizing that outreach efforts are the funnel that produce the people who end up attending the in-reach programs. Likewise, people who are more involved in activism or interfaith efforts will tend to discount in-reach efforts as ineffective because they don’t see immediate numbers or impact. Those in-reach efforts are the long game that is needed to continue community development.

We need to stop looking at these activities as "either/or", and more of a "both/and".

The modern mistake being made with both in-reach and outreach efforts is the over-reliance on social media. These activities, when done correctly, rely heavily on consistent personal interactions and building of relationships. When the modern masjid is expected to serve as a community center, or hub, people must meet to build community.

Social media is taken as a shortcut to achieve this. Some organizations feel that by live-streaming, podcasting, uploading, and being ever present on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat that they are automatically relevant, and doing their part to be accessible. These are great tools when used to serve a larger vision. They are an ineffective and a waste of effort if they only serve the end goal of “being on social media”.

Being on social media doesn’t automatically mean your impact is multiplied. There must be an actual vision and goal of the work being promoted. The pre-requisite to that is high capacity leadership already in place - meaning not everyone is going to be able to do this. An online presence must be strategic and not a dumping ground. What is the purpose of posting every khutbah? Or live streaming every class?

For many communities, social media is a great tool to do in-reach (NOT outreach) by letting community members stay up to date on local activities. And for a few, this online presence will translate into national or international impact because the work being done is already of such high quality that it attracts that regular audience from other locations.

Recognize what stage your community is in, develop a vision to grow it, and execute strategically on that vision.

See also: Don’t Let The Youth Run Your Social Media


How to Break Through When Community Building At the Masjid Level Stagnates


This article is the 2nd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

John Maxwell’s Law of the Lid states than an organization will never outgrow the capacity of its leadership. If you have low capacity leaders, you’ll be stuck with a low capacity organization (and talented members stuck there will eventually leave). If you have high capacity leaders, you'll have a high capacity organization (and attract talented members).

“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness. If a person’s leadership is strong, the organization’s lid is high. But if it’s not, then the organization is limited. That’s why in times of trouble, organizations naturally look for new leadership. … When a church is floundering, it searches for a new senior pastor. … The relationship between leadership and effectiveness is perhaps most evident in sports where results are immediate and obvious. Within professional sports organizations, the talent not he team is rarely the issue. Just about every team has highly talented players. Leadership is the issue. It starts with a team’s owner and continues with the coaches and some key players. When talented teams don’t win, examine the leadership.” -John Maxwell

It is common to see communities go through an establishment phase with the building of infrastructure and institutions. Once built though, many struggle to attract new congregation members. Maxwell says, "a stagnant church leader stunts the growth of the church."

Sports provides a unique insight into this phenomenon. A head coach of a team can develop young players and take them from a losing record to a deep playoff run. The first time this happens, it is a huge accomplishment. If this happens 2 or 3 times in a row without breaking through to a championship or conference title, then it starts to feel like the team has hit a wall. The coach took the team from bad to good, but someone else with a different skill-set is needed to take the team from good to great. For NBA nerds, look at the Warriors transition from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, and what the Raptors are now attempting after firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey.

Expectations change at different stages of an organizations life-cycle. As the title of the famous Marshall Goldsmith book says - what got you here won’t get you there.

The leadership challenge for the masjid is figuring out how to articulate a vision for the future while also getting new community members engaged with that vision.

At a basic level, this starts with open conversations. Dialogue is required to understand what people are looking for from the institution of the masjid. Yes, the ultimate purpose of a providing a place to pray will never change. When funds are raised under the banner of building a community, however, then a different set of expectations will come. What does community building look like? What does being part of a community feel like in practice? What worked to build the community in the past won't work to build the community of the future.

Without this open dialogue and connection, organizations will become progressively insular and lose their vitality. Bridging the generational divide (as outlined in the previous post) will mean changing approach on how things may have traditionally been done. Ultimately, it boils down to adaptability.

Is our organizational structure flexible enough to bypass some of the bureaucratic red tape that has accumulated over time? Are project specific ad hoc groups more successful than standing committees? Are we willing to experiment and find out via trial and error? How do we involve people in ways that fit their personal interests and skills?

When things have been done a certain way for a long time, or the same group of people have been in leadership for a long time, a particular culture embeds itself. Maintaining status quo will often take precedence over engaging newcomers. It becomes harder for people to get involved and thus develop relationships with community members.

Leadership will always say they want to grow, but the actions indicate wanting to keep things the way they are. This is natural, as sometimes there is a loss of intimacy in community relationships. People will be nostalgic for the good old days when it was a small group of families praying in an apartment. That's natural. Keeping an organization alive and thriving requires a shift in mindset to stewardship for the future.

Growth requires accepting a new phase in the life of a community. The vision must progress from a small group of leaders to being distributed amongst a larger group of members. This engages people, increases diversity, and introduces new talents to the organization. That increase in leadership capacity, in turn, raises the lid on what the institution can achieve.

The process for doing this is not clear cut. It starts with dialogue - actually listening to what people want. Once that is identified, the organizational structure that exists must be rethought in a manner that will enable more engagement. In some cases this means existing leadership may have to accept that they helped make the masjid good, but someone else may be needed to make it great. Find a way to usher them in and help the community reach a new stage of growth.

The next post in this series will discuss how a masjid should focus its inreach and outreach efforts in the social media age. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don’t miss any updates. 

People Don't Like Their Local Masjid Anymore Because of The iPhone


This article is the 1st in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

Who is the masjid president? Who is chairman of the board? How many board members? How do we stagger terms? What about a board of trustees, or executive committee? Should we hire an imam? This is what we tend to focus on in our communities.

While these questions may be important, they ignore a much more important one. How does the structure help or hurt the vision and mission of the masjid?

Many communities were established with specific objectives in mind. The physical structure was established as a place to build community through Friday prayer, Sunday school, and other activities. This vision is reflected even in the physical layouts of purpose-built Islamic centers.

The combination of these vital activities and close physical proximity were the ingredients of community building. Through this, people developed an affinity for their "local masjid". The local masjid was the platform through which all community events happened and bonds were built.

Governance structures to protect this model were introduced. Constitutions were carefully crafted to ensure no outside party could come in and take over or disrupt the local community that had been built.

Instead, the iPhone has now done that job. It was a major domino in a series of events that resulted in the socially networked age we live in - with all of its positive and negative consequences.

Over the past few years, we have seen things change dramatically. More specifically, our expectations of what the masjid provides the community have changed.

With this, our religious experiences are no longer connected to the physical community. We can connect ourselves to seemingly any community in the world. If the local masjid is not catering to our needs, we can find viable alternatives online.

At a deeper level, the technology empowered people to be active participants - to have their voices be heard. Prior to this, if there was friction in the local masjid, you had to tough it out and fight it. This is the attitude we see with elders. They lionize the idea of toughing it out and fighting no matter what. This makes sense, because they had no other option.

Now, however, we have options - and new expectations.

If we're free to participate in online communities, why does the local community shut us out?

I'm free to pursue education, activism, or other projects with people I'm digitally connected to. Why am I not able to do the same in the local masjid?

I'm connected now to new causes and issues affecting Muslims around the globe. Why is my local Muslim community oblivious to them?

The intersection of these points is where we see a generational divide. The "irrelevant uncles" versus the "inexperienced youth". The masjid is an ideal and unique forum for multi-generational interaction that essentially gets wasted due to this conflict.

And when conflict happens, people double down and get defensive. For the youth, that means leaving the local community and going to other communities (whether online or offline) where they can freely participate and contribute meaningfully. For the elders, it means doubling down on preserving the institutions they built.

Preservation mode is a death knell. Preservation is not the purpose of a masjid or of building a community. Preservation mode does not allow an organization to adapt and react to the changes happening in society (and it's changing ever more rapidly than before).

Commitment to the local community has been replaced with a commitment to purpose.

This premise creates a completely different set of questions the masjid must focus on than the ones at the top of this post.

How can the masjid create a community in which diverse points of view are expressed without fear of reprisal? What work is the masjid doing to improve society, the community, and the individual lives of congregation members? How does the masjid foster the building of relationships? How does the masjid balance the needs of the local community while still being connected to national and global causes? How can individual congregation members be empowered to contribute meaningfully?

When the focus is on achieving these goals, then the structure can be corrected. What kind of physical space should be designed to enable these outcomes? What is the best governance structure to enable these outcomes?

These things must be changed. When people come to volunteer, but are stuck in a framework of preservation, they are made to feel as if they have no voice. The elders, although saying they welcome change and involvement, are signaling (whether intentionally or not) that they want to continue things the way they are.

Major changes are needed quickly. Preserving the 'way things are' at this stage will render the local masjid completely irrelevant.

The next post in this series will explore strategies communities can use to adapt to this new landscape. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don't miss any updates.