Across the United States masajid (mosques) have expanded in physical size, improved mass communication via websites and social media accounts, begun to offer live-streaming for Friday khutbas (sermons) online, and have improved women’s prayer areas. But in recent times, many imams have left their posts, leaving communities and trend followers to speculate and ask, “Why?” Was it the imam’s ego or a salary dispute or are they just becoming too impatient?
No, this wave of resignations is a symptom of a greater problem: while incoming imams treat their position as a profession by becoming increasingly qualified, the masjid board has not taken the same strides in becoming trained in non-profit management. Those who run the masjid and supervise the imams’ affairs are still volunteers with, generally speaking, no expertise on how to manage non-profit organizations. As a result, the operational structure of the masjid is not equipped to manage the imam, the other employees, or to draft and execute long-term plans with a vision for the changing needs of the community. Masjid reform must take place to not only bring stability by retaining their imams but by also allowing for future growth, and attracting Muslims of all backgrounds and ages.
To analyze the surge in recent Imam’s resignations from masajid large and small, it is important to understand the dynamics between the masjid board, the imam, and the community.
A typical board is elected for a specified number of years, where elected members take on various responsibilities: Chairperson, President, Financial Officer, Secretary, and so on. The staff of the masjid goes on to include the imam, sometimes multiple imams or religious directors, administrative staff, and other support employees. At the end of the day, all of the above staff report to the board.
Boards usually manage the day-to-day affairs of the masjid. These duties and responsibilities are noble and to be commended. The question to be asked remains: If a community is made up of hundreds or even thousands of congregants, what is the guarantee that the most qualified people are elected to manage the masjid? Those five, ten or fifteen that are chosen to represent their masjid, are they equipped to understand all of the needs and nuances of their constituents? Are they trained in management or in human resources so as to interface with the imam and the other staff in the most effective manner?
The masjid is, by definition, a non-profit organization, and rarely do the doctors, engineers, and business people who are voted onto the board have backgrounds in non-profit management. While these volunteers are to be commended for their countless hours of dedication and sacrifice, it is time the community recognizes that the non-profit organization that we call the masjid cannot thrive on the limited expertise of individuals from random professions. These realms are completely different. A multitude of certifications and degrees are offered in various aspects of non-profit management, so individuals with the above expertise should serve on the board.
Allah the Most Merciful tells us in the Qur’an in the second half of the ayah (verse) below: “…And ask those who have knowledge, if you do not know.”
The same level of expectations in terms of expertise is also necessary for the Imam. An Imam should have a grasp of the Arabic language, have certified training as a religious scholar which includes understanding the complex sciences of tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), hadith (narration), and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). In addition, many imams have supplementary degrees in social sciences, history, Middle-Eastern studies, etc. The ability to connect with the community and to understand its needs are crucial in supporting the diverse make-up of the masjid’s constituents.
The demands upon the Imam are very high. Supporting the community in times of distress such as providing counseling on marriage, divorce, domestic violence, death, drug use, suicide, etc. are just a few of the Imam’s responsibilities. The imam also shares in the celebrations of the community, conducting weddings and attending aqeeqahs (birth celebrations) and ameens. In addition, the imam represents not only the masjid, but the greater Muslim community at political events, interfaith circles, and in social justice arenas.
The imam sacrifices his time with his own family with the intention of serving the community and pleasing Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He). This is not a position of wealth or glamour.
The Board, The Community, The Imam: An Unbalanced Equation
The dynamics between the board, the masjid’s constituents, and the imam has many nuances. Let us explore these relationships:
The Community-Board Relationship
Often times the board is an ear to the constituents’ wants, needs, and likes/dislikes. This is a healthy relationship that helps to ensure that the board is indeed representing their community. One of the pitfalls, however, is when the ear is filled with opinions from friends or acquaintances of a few board members that become magnified as a major issue. “Where was the imam at this time?” or “Why was the prayer time changed?” or “I didn’t like the khutba.” Imagine if only friends or acquaintances get the ear of the board, and they happen to be those with complaints that do not reflect the overall effectiveness of the imam. The result would be a skewed impression of how well the Imam performs.
Do other community members know when and how to contact the board if they have a concern or a word of praise? What about when there is a conflict with the imam? Is there a mediation process involving professional mediators or a group from the community? Does the community know about problems before the imam feels compelled to resign? Regrettably, the answers to these questions are often “no.”
The Board-Imam Relationship
The Board, and most often the Chairperson or President, in particular, is the imam’s boss. In some masajid, imams as employees are given formal, written evaluations. How are these evaluations made? Are there general surveys sent out to the community after prayer or via email? Who evaluates the board? No one does. The community at large does not know the details of individual board member actions. Written evaluations are a one-way, subjective process, in which, out of all the employees of the masjid, only the already over-burdened imam is scrutinized.
The board has by-laws that protect the masjid and the board itself, but who is there to protect the imam? If there is a conflict between the board and the imam, who is there to defend or represent him? A meeting with the board can turn into a five-on-one intimidating process, with the Imam being the “one.” And psychologically speaking, it is natural for any group of individuals working together to develop “group thinking” where it is difficult to understand any reasoning other than that of the group, or in this case, the board. As a religious director or imam, who is already burdened with the problems of the community, and of society at large, he has the added responsibility of being his own lawyer when negotiating for his rights at the masjid.
A position at the masjid, as previously mentioned, is not one that people enter into for glory. Thus there needs to be an inherent level of trust in the imam, especially after years of proven performance. When hours at the masjid are being questioned, it is a sign of an inherent problem – a lack of trust and/or of an understanding of what it means to be an imam. Expecting the imam to spend his over 60-hour work week at the masjid is not practical. As one great imam and scholar stated, “A five minute reminder can take five hours of preparation.” Aside from off-masjid activities, countless hours of preparation for speeches and khutbas (Friday sermons) are spent at home. In addition, fielding phone calls, and tending to crises of the community at individuals’ homes or at the hospital are also time spent away from the masjid.
The Imam – Community Relationship
The imam deals with various constituents either through private counseling sessions, or through general contact at the masjid. Although the imam has a close relationship with the community, most of its constituents never contact the board about their satisfaction with the imam. Instead, most feedback regarding the imam comes from only a handful of individuals with complaints about the minutia of masjid affairs. As a result, what true knowledge does the board have of the community’s satisfaction with the imam?
There is a disconnect between the immense relationships that the imam has within the community he serves and the board’s perception of the imam’s performance. As a result of this disparity, the board is readily willing to exert their power in enforcing their micromanaging demands without being mindful of the ensuing effect their unreasonable pressure will have on the imam. Despite the imam’s love for the community, he finds himself having to choose between continuing his post at the masjid and saving his own sanity and that of his family. In addition, the board may be shocked by a resignation, yet no consideration was given to the fact that imams are human and there is only so much difficulty in dealing with the board that the imam can handle before becoming soured to the system.
And that’s the point: one can endure temporary problems, differences of opinion and conflicts arising from within the masjid. However, when the religious director or imam understands that the system will never change, that is, the system of having a new, volunteer boss every one to two years who has no experience in non-profit management, who is going to come down with their own style of management, with their own opinions about what the imam should be doing, it is difficult to sit tight and think, “one day this may change.”
I encourage a healthy discussion between community members, masjid officials and our religious leaders to come to a practical solution. May Allah (swt) guide us all and make the masjid a place welcome for all, including the imams.