How to Find the Joy in Congregational Board Service

Inside Leadership

How to Find the Joy in Congregational Board Service

Shot from behind a group of people who have their arms around one another as if in fellowship during some sort of meeting

“I can’t find anyone to serve on the board – I’m desperate for board members”

“My board is disengaged. I knock, and no one is home. They can’t make decisions. They raise no money. Board meetings are a chore for all of us.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of these comments. A disengaged board is more than just a missed opportunity; it’s a serious obstacle to a robust congregation.

This imbalance, this lack of engagement – we can’t accept it. Boards are not some necessary evil, an appendage to the “real” work in your congregation. It’s time to look at all this in a very different way.

Imagine the leadership of your congregation rowing in the same boat. If you have ever seen a crew race, it’s quite beautiful to watch – and a great congregation should have that feeling. The governing body and those in management positions work in partnership – a board that provides stewardship and oversight, and clergy, staff, or volunteers that manage the day to day operations. Everyone rows in the same direction.

And in this boat, imagine you have co-captains – the congregational president and the lead manager. They are co-captains or, better still, partners.

In each congregation, this partnership will look different, but regardless of the congregation’s size, everyone buckles up and settles in to lead the planning of the journey. It’s a partnership – a sacred partnership – because everyone on board understands the mission and the precious cargo aboard.

Alas, far too few congregations operate in this way, and there is sometimes distance and tension between lay leaders and clergy/staff. Lay leaders are not always seen as experts and thus not sought out for the expertise they bring from their professional and personal lives. Conversely, lay leaders don’t always trust the institutional knowledge that clergy and staff have after years of serving the congregational community.

It’s critical that we change these dynamics to ensure that Reform congregations are indeed working in sacred partnership. This will rebrand board service as the joy and privilege that it is, reminding folks that lay leadership is a pivotal piece of the Jewish experience and positioning our congregations to confront the challenges they currently face.

If a congregational president can properly present this framing to a potential board prospect, consider how different the request is. You’re asking that individual to be a leader with you – to be a thought partner, to engage in sacred partnership, and to take part in important, sacred work that will enrich his or her Jewish journey.

When considered in this light, board service is a real privilege and can be a true joy.

I am a woman with a mission: to help leaders recognize this partnership and understand its value. I am a champion for nonprofit leaders, a consultant of more than a dozen years, and a person who has played every position on the nonprofit field. Through that work, I have learned that a deep investment in informing, engaging, and enriching your board will ignite board members to be the kind of ambassadors your congregation needs.

On October 28, I will lead the URJ Day of Leadership Learning: Finding the Joy in Board Service, and it is my mission to make this very case to participating congregations throughout North America.

So will I have all the answers?

Consider this story, which Rabbi Rachel Herzman at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., once told in my Introduction to Judaism class: A child once asked her rabbi, “What is the meaning of life? I must have the answer!” The rabbi replied, “But it’s such a wonderful question. Why would you want to exchange it for an answer?”

In other words, no; I won’t have all the answers. What fun would that be? As a Jew and an experienced consultant, though, I know that the power lies in asking the right questions. Wearing those two hats (actually, one kippah and one hat), we will pose lots of them, and answer as many of them as we can – together.

You will leave our day together with real and actionable strategies to recruit, build, and nurture your board. You will leave our day enriched by learning with me, learning from fellow leaders in your congregation, and learning from the larger community of congregations that will be participating in our multiple host sites across North America.

I hope you will join me on October 28.

The URJ Day of Leadership Learning: Finding the Joy in Board Service will take place on October 28th in 40+ locations across North America. It is intended for executive committee members, professional staff, and clergy (or their equivalents) from congregations of all sizes. See a full list of locations. Follow and use the hashtag #URJJoyfulBoards for event updates and conversations.

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Joan Garry is a nationally-recognized nonprofit expert and a woman with a mission: She is committed to  playing her part in building a strong nonprofit sector, serving as an advocate and champion for the success of its paid and unpaid leaders. Her blog, podcast, book, and membership site for board and staff leadership of small nonprofits reach millions each year. She has the #1 nonprofit podcast on iTunes, Nonprofits Are Messy. She also serves as a consulting producer and online judge on NBC’s show, Give. For more information on Joan, visit her website,

Joan Garry

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