The How-To’s of Starting with Why

Inside Leadership

The How-To’s of Starting with Why

Shir Ami board of directors

Several months ago, at a board meeting of my congregation, Shir Ami in Newtown, PA, I posed this question: “Why Shir Ami?” My fellow board members offered responses that were underwhelming: community, my child’s bar mitzvah, life cycle events, and the like.

I realized if we were going to get to the heart of the question – Why does our congregation exist? – I would need to rephrase the question.

My impetus for asking the question in the first place stems from a session I attended at the URJ Scheidt Seminar, in which URJ Vice President for Strengthening Congregations, Amy Asin, brought to life and applied to congregations the concept of “Start with Why,” popularized by Simon Sinek.

I returned home with a new understanding the importance of having a clear why: If we, the board of directors, could not answer to this question articulately, how could we expect to engage our congregants and keep them engaged for many years? How could we ask them to give of their time, energy, or financial resources? Finally, how could we recruit new members if we did not understand our own connections?

I quickly rephrased: Why did you join Shir Ami? Why do you remain a member? What could Shir Ami do better?

Again, silence filled the room at first, but once the questions had sunk in, I could feel the emotion as people began to speak from their hearts. Marker in hand, I jotted down the responses on the blank easel pad, all of which provided an initial answer to the question.

These answers were just the beginning of the process, as the responses I received from our 15 board members were not entirely representative of the larger 650-family congregation. Therefore, following the board meeting, I invited a broader array of congregational stakeholders – committee chairs, volunteers, and professional staff – to a meeting dedicated to finding our collective “why.”

What did we find?

We discovered people want to feel a sense of belonging, they want to be engaged in something larger than themselves and their immediate families, and they are looking for a vehicle for giving back. We found people want to feel connected to and embraced by others. We discovered congregants want to have deep conversations and moments of divine spirituality. Finally, we realized that over the course of their membership, people may connect to different aspects of the congregation’s why.

This exercise was important not only for our congregation, but also for guiding and shaping my presidency. By the time we finished synthesizing all the information we had collected, I realized the board of directors could not make truly informed decisions without listening to the many voices within the congregation. I learned the value of seeking out and asking our many stakeholders and members to share their opinions, and that asking and answering the “big questions” helps keep people engaged, excited, and inspired. I learned, too, that as a congregation, we need to ask questions differently, interact in new ways, and explore non-traditional paths to enrich congregants’ experiences.

We extended this deep, self-reflective assessment into the governance of our congregation by aligning the structure of our board and its role with its purpose. We recently rewrote our constitution and restructured our entire board. We have initiated finite term limits and moved from 40 board members, who comprised an executive and general board, to one congregational board of 15 members.

As a result, our board is more efficient, effective, and strategic. We no longer manage the day-to-day operations of the congregation, leaving that to our staff. Instead, we set policy, develop long-term goals, and challenge ourselves by continually confronting the big questions.

What about our new why statement?

It was not easy to achieve and remains a work in progress. Our congregants will see themselves in it differently – and their connections to it may change over time. What’s more, as the external environment changes, we may need to challenge the why of our congregation again. In the meantime, our current statement guides the discussions and decisions we are making now.

How do you answer the difficult question of “why” your congregation? And how do those answers assist you in making decisions? Start by asking: Why do you belong to your congregation? Why is it important to you to belong? Why is it important to our Reform Movement? Why?

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Sharon K. Benoff is the president of Shir Ami in Newtown, PA. In her first year as president, she led the congregation through a governance restructuring and presided over the hiring of a new senior rabbi and a cantor. She serves on the  URJ North American Board, as a URJ board workshop facilitator, and as the lay partner of the URJ Congregational Innovations team. Sharon owns a travel company and frequently conducts synagogue business from different time zones.

Sharon K. Benoff

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