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As the president-elect of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California, I wanted to augment my basic understanding of synagogue finances and budgets before the beginning of my term on July 1.
I signed up for one of the URJ’s Congregational Finances Courses with the intention of preparing myself for my new role. What I did not expect to find from an online finance course was sacred partnership.
Peninsula Temple Sholom is a 63-year-old multi-generational congregation with close to 700 families. We are blessed with wonderful clergy, talented professional staff, and dedicated lay leaders. We are also fortunate to have financially savvy and knowledgeable staff and lay leaders to ensure, and be proper stewards of, the financial health of our congregation.
One of these leaders is our chief community officer, Karen Wisialowski. Last October, she emailed some of our officers saying she signed up for the URJ Congregational Finances 103 course and encouraged others to join her. I was delighted to hear about the course and signed up immediately. I emailed Karen half-jokingly saying maybe we could study together and her husband could make us soup (he makes a mean bowl of soup!). Karen was equally interested in studying together so we compared calendars and scheduled weekly sessions to take us through each module. While our sessions did not include any soup, they turned out to be incredibly fruitful on many levels.
To be honest, I was a little worried that I would hold Karen back. She has an MBA and a strong background in finance and is responsible for much of the financial work and budgeting for our congregation. I do not have a background in finance or an MBA, but I do have some basic finance knowledge and have served on other (secular) boards.
Turns out I had nothing to fear. The material was values-based and high quality, which gave Karen and me an opportunity to learn more about each other and strengthen our sacred partnership. One of the first exercises in the course asked us to identify a key value that we embrace as leaders. Karen and I responded individually to the question and then shared our responses. Then we took it a step further and reflected on how we would have answered the question for each other based on our perceptions and experiences of one another. That was especially enlightening and interesting, and it deepened our connection with each other.
The content also fostered conversation and better understanding of our current financial processes and exposed us to new ways of looking at these processes. The section in the course that focuses on financial transparency fostered a lot of useful conversation. The course advocated that financial information should not only be disclosed, but also made easily accessible, as transparency engenders trust. Karen and I scratched the surface of questions to ponder and discuss further:
The course also helped me realize that while secular boards have similar fiduciary responsibilities, there really is a level of the sacred in synagogue leadership that differentiates it from my prior experiences serving on other, non-religious boards. While many financial processes – such as balancing budgets and conducting audits – are similar, others have a unique element of the sacred. The process to create a budget, for example, is intentionally more values-based and has the ever-present foundation of our sacred texts and traditions from which we draw insight and perspective.
Overall, the URJ Congregational Finances 103 course was very approachable and well organized. It also provided a variety of ways to engage with the material – reading, video interviews with experts, links to other resources, and opportunities to respond to questions and share information with other congregational leaders taking the course. I enjoyed the first course so much that I’m now enrolled in the URJ Congregational Finances 101 course, and plan to take the URJ Congregational Finances 102 course as well.
The URJ Congregational Finances Courses are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the URJ resources and offerings available to member congregations. I will be encouraging both our staff and lay leaders to take advantage of such courses in the future. Not only do they educate us, encourage us to evaluate our current processes, and inspire us to consider new ways of thinking, but, most important, they provide us with yet another opportunity to develop sacred partnership, even in the unlikely realm of an online finance course.
To learn more about congregational finances, sign up for the URJ Congregational Finances Courses or attend our informational webinar on May 15th, 8pm ET. These three online courses are intended to broaden the foundational understanding of congregational finances. In summer 2018, in addition to the general cycle of these courses, a special cycle especially for congregational professionals will be offered.