How to Develop a 21st Century Governance Structure for Your Congregation

Inside Leadership

How to Develop a 21st Century Governance Structure for Your Congregation

Gears, each marked with various business words: Standards, Policies, Rules, etc.

Our world is rapidly changing, throwing challenges at us that frequently have no known solutions. Congregations are on the front lines of these challenges as they strive to strike a balance between delving into ancient traditions and finding relevance for 21st-century people.

To succeed, all congregations need to focus on developing appropriate governance structures that allow them to be both mission-driven and flexible in how their leaders achieve that mission.

Here are four ways to cultivate a 21st century governance structure in your congregation:

1. Strike a balance among different modes of governance.

Too often, congregational boards get mired in managing day-to-day tasks, micro-managing staff or volunteers, or dealing with insignificant issues. As described in the Harvard Business Review article “The New Work of the Nonprofit Board,” “Nonprofit boards are often little more than a collection of high-powered people engaged in low-level activities.” To be productive, boards should focus on governance rather than on management.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards introduces three modes of effective governance: generative thinking, strategic action, and fiduciary oversight. Congregational boards need to be involved in some combination of all three to meet their congregation’s sacred purpose.

Leaders can engage in generative thinking by questioning the current state, considering new possibilities, and applying critical thinking skills to reflect on challenges on the horizon. This thinking allows boards to consider what is possible. A board may engage in strategic action by weighing the pros and cons of possible approaches they might take to achieve their congregation’s sacred mission. Finally, a board engages in fiduciary oversight by ensuring that revenue and expenses, as well as items such as endowments and real estate, align with the congregation’s mission.

2. Review your board size.

To function well in these three modes of governance, a congregation’s board size is important. Imagine a board of trustees of 50, or even 35, trying to engage in a high-level, generative conversation about the mission and strategy of the congregational work. A growing number of congregations are attempting to downsize their board for this reason. No one number fits all congregations, but if your board’s size is preventing real conversations about mission, vision, and values, it’s likely too big.

3. Use volunteer groups.

Boards can delegate the work of the congregational mission by using constellations of volunteer groups, including standing committees, working groups, and time-bound task forces. However, congregations make two common mistakes in this area of governance: 1) having too many committees, often enshrined in bylaws and 2) having every committee chair sit on the board.

Why is having too many committees a problem?

Committees often have this unwritten rule: they meet monthly and exist in perpetuity, even if the work is no longer necessary. Some committees – such as the executive, personnel, finance, and nominating committees – are always needed to advance the work of the board. But abiding by the principles of flexibility and nimbleness, it’s better to convene groups on an ad-hoc basis for other time-bound work, which is why task forces and working groups can be useful tools.

Task forces convene key stakeholders in a congregation to review strategic and visionary issues such as reimagining congregational education or strategizing about member engagement. Once the work of the task force is complete, it can be disbanded.

Working groups gather volunteers passionate about a specific area of congregational life to complete certain activities, such as delivering meals to congregants. Changing the name from “committee” to “working group” sets a different expectation and clarifies that members don’t need to meet monthly to get their work done.

Why is having all committee chairs on the board a problem?

Often, committee chairs see themselves as representatives of their area of work and not of the whole congregation. This view leads to jockeying for resources and attention, or a sense that a particular discussion isn’t important to certain board members because it doesn’t affect the committees they chair. Board members should serve the whole congregation, and this view can be reinforced by not having a board of committee chairs.

4. Evaluate whether your bylaws limit your ability to adapt.

One of the tools that can either help or hinder a congregation’s work is its bylaws, which enable clear lines of responsibility, authority, and accountability. However, they often contain a level of detail that constricts the work of congregational boards. For example, listing every required committee and its charter may create a roadblock when certain committees become irrelevant but must be maintained because the bylaws mandate their existence. In general, bylaws should be minimalist in nature, allowing maximum flexibility in a rapidly changing environment. 

Aligning with the 21st century isn’t only about governance structure, but also about leveraging technology to make leaders’ work more efficient. Consider using video or conference calls for meetings when feasible, and collaboration platforms such as Yammer or Google Docs for document sharing and editing.

Adapting congregational governance structures to fit the changing needs of our communities is not easy, but neither is it too complicated to achieve. As Moses proclaims to the Israelites in the Book of Deuteronomy, “lo bashamayim hee – [the  answer] is not in the heavens.” The governance structure of a congregation can help determine the success or failure of not only the community’s mission, but also Reform Judaism’s sacred mission: to create a more whole, just, and compassionate world for ourselves and for each other.

Future blog posts on this topic will delve into each of the four best principles of governance. Stay tuned for the next post, which will focus on leadership culture.

For more about congregational governance, join us on October 28th for the URJ Day of Leadership Learning, taking place in 48 locations across North America. Additionally, join the conversation in The Tent in the Leadership and Governance group or by searching for #GovernanceBestPrinciples.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Union for Reform Judaism's director of congregational innovation and sits on the Central Conference of American Rabbis' task force on the experience of women in the rabbinate.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman
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