By Kripamoya das
Of course we do. Why would anyone ask such a challenging question? ISKCON is a preaching mission, a worldwide O fellowship of compassionate Vaisnavas, completely dedicated to the topmost welfare work for mankind. We sacrifice our entire lives in order to reach out to others and give them the greatest gift: love of God. At least, this is how we like to see ourselves. So it always comes as a surprise when we are asked the above question by members who do not live in one of our 500 centers.
Some of those members lived in a temple for a few years and are now members of our growing congregational community, and some are congregation members who never lived in a temple. But a growing number of them seem to be dissatisfied about the level of care they expected from a spiritual movement. They had some disappointing experiences, or they say that we failed to guide them properly at a critical point in their life. Some of them say we’ve forgotten about them completely. And some of them are unhappy enough to tell others of their experiences and disappointment. So one section of ISKCON thinks that the Society really cares for people, and another section does not.
Now, let me say one thing very quickly: we can’t please everybody, we know that. And some people like to criticize us whatever we do for them, we know that too. And if we spend all our time caring for all of our many members and all their different needs, but we fail to care for the needs of Srila Prabhupada and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, well, then we’ve failed too. Perhaps the answer lies in creating some sort of balance.
You’ll find so many loving, caring devotees within ISKCON. The sort of people you’d want to turn to if you ever had a problem. Wonderful people who give up hours of their time each week to bring happiness, hope, comfort and reassurance to the lives of others. They are always thinking of the welfare of others and take practical steps to deliver assistance to all who need their help. But quite often they are not known outside their local community, and their contribution needs to be more widely known. Yet despite this, ISKCON leaders acknowledge that something is generally not quite right; that as an organization we could be doing a little better. We may well have those selfless, caring devotees in different places around the world, but what about the structure and policies of ISKCON? Do they reflect the values of an organization that cares for its members? Or an organization that cares more for the success of its message and mission?
What are people saying? How could we be doing better? Well, any society is to be measured interms of its care for its most vulnerable members: the young, the women, the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. Women also need extra consideration because they are physically and emotionally vulnerable. Srila Prabhupada also asked us to measure a society by how it cares for its cows and other defenseless animals. How are we doing? Do we offer any support locally to our members when they become sick or disabled? What about when they become old? If a devotee who has spent many years fund-raising for the movement falls on hard times and needs financial help, do we help? What about a devotee who needs advice on a career or further education after several years spent in the temple; can we offer any assistance? What about help with accommodation? Marriage arrangements? Of course, it would be a very rare branch of ISKCON that promised any member help with career, finance, education, housing or marriage. And even rarer one that actually delivered it.
ISKCON was started to provide spiritual sustenance and guidance to the world. We are meant to be spreading the sankirtan movement, not developing an alternative charitable organization. Yet when members of a religious organization get the biggest problems of their life solved by that organization, they tend to remain members a lot longer. But what of spiritual guidance and knowledge to the world? The world also includes our own members. So how are we doing there?
How do our members rate us? Some regard us very highly, specially those members who can attend a regular class or kirtan. But those who live some distance from a temple, or who are constrained due to work or family commitments, often say that it would be good if ISKCON delivered training and education, and facilities for religious worship closer to where they lived. Many years ago and it was a long time ago now ISKCON’s membership was predominantly made up of young, single, highly committed, fresh converts to Krishna consciousness.
They lived together communally, minimized their needs, and spent their days in the sacrifice of missionary activity. Although no one knows the worldwide ISKCON statistics of the year 2010, we can make a reasonable guess that this sort of devotee now makes up under 20% of our total membership.
Today our movement’s membership is predominantly composed of people of all ages, mostly with careers, and who are in a wide variety of family situations. And let’s not forget that many of our members - who we have invited to become members through our missionary work - do not live in any of the big cities where our temples are. If we’ve invited them to become a part of Srila Prabhupada’s family, then it’s logical to also devise ways that they can be happy and productive members of that family.
It would seem that we still have a lot of work to do! How do other religious organizations care for their members? To get the answer, I visit other groups from time to time to pick up ideas on caring for members. One thing is very clear to me: that once a person has committed to becoming a member of a particular group, that group then tries to help the member remain their member for as long as possible. Since the members have joined after considerable efforts to find them and then persuade them, they are seen as very valuable.
The first important principle is how the teachings of the organization are communicated. While we have the public Srimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-Gita lectures in the temple room, its equally important to deliver the teachings to members where and when they can best take advantage of them, perhaps in the home or in a small group. Most members have doubts and need to have their doubts respected and carefully dealt with. If the member is part of a family - which is not Indian or familiar with certain aspects of the lifestyle - then great care will have to be taken to explain things to other members of the family. Then, in the lives of those families who are new to Krishna consciousness, and those who have been initiated for many years, times arise in the journey of life during which it is very difficult to focus on spiritual practices. One survey I conducted in the U. K. found that daily japa and other spiritual practices became hard at times of great stress such as exams, moving house, a death in the family, loss of a job, or relationship difficulties.
It is important, at these times, for ISKCON leaders to offer more care. One English family I talked with, who had recently become members of the Mormons, said they became attracted not only to the teachings but to the ‘family feel’ and the fact that church members helped each other with child- minding, house-moving, and had sports and other events for the congregation. Another London Jewish man I spoke with offered that his community could help its members with all kinds of professional contacts such as legal, financial, housing, medical and yes, even marriage! It seems that when being a member of a religious community makes their life easier and somewhat materially happier, people actually want to remain members. Not only that, but they invite their friends to become members, too!
As ISKCON continues to grow, the work of our Society’s leaders will be more focused on the life and contributions of members with families and careers, and their very real needs, both spiritual and social. That is the way of all organizations as they grow and the membership patterns change. We do not lose our missionary core through this form of growth; rather we attract the resources and capability to do so much more for Srila Prabhupada’s great mission.
*Kripamoya Dasa is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, born in 1956 in south Wales, where his parents were both in the Royal Air Force. He joined ISKCON in 1970. He is preaching Krishna Consciousness around the world to all kinds of people.