The 4 Best Principles of Congregational Governance

December 6, 2021Amy Asin and Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

Questions about governance keep congregational leaders up at night. Over the past 5 years, it has consistently been one of the top categories of questions asked to the URJ Knowledge Network team, generating approximately 10% of all questions we receive. You've asked us:

  1. How big should my board be?
  2. Do I have to fill all of my committee chair positions?
  3. How can we have better conversations at the board level that focus on relevant topics?
  4. How can I find more leaders and people willing to serve?
  5. How can I get people to step down from positions they've held for too long?
  6. Why can't we attract more young people to our board?
  7. Why can't we attract more young people to the congregation? (Yes, part of this answer lies in congregational governance!)

Congregations must change in order to remain vibrant, and successful leaders need to actively create our future rather than react passively to forces and trends. In most congregations, our ability to consider the changes necessary to thrive both now and in the future is hampered by 20 th-century governance practices and strategies still in place. If we work in the old ways, we will not be able to attract new leadership or to confront new challenges.

To help you set the direction for the adaptive changes needed for your 21 st-century congregation to thrive, we studied the latest thinking on nonprofit governance and examined a number of relevant congregational case studies. We then consolidated what we learned into the following set of best principles for congregational governance:

1. GROUND THE ACTIVITY OF YOUR CONGREGATION AND THE DECISION-MAKING OF YOUR LEADERSHIP IN YOUR FOUNDATIONAL STATEMENTS, REINFORCING YOUR COMMUNITY'S SACRED PURPOSE.

Your foundational statements - your mission, vision, and values statements - articulate the purpose and aspirations of your congregation, and they should ground and drive its work. Use them actively in setting priorities, allocating resources, and making policy decisions. They should reflect the sacred purpose of your community and be based in Jewish values.

Foundational statements should be viable for a significant period of time, but given the sweeping changes in our society throughout the last decade, it is appropriate to review them now, if you haven't done so recently.

2. ESTABLISH CLEAR, MISSION-DRIVEN, AND FLEXIBLE ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE, PROCESSES, AND CULTURE TO SUPPORT YOUR CONGREGATION IN ADAPTING TO NEW CHALLENGES.

Form should follow function and the work being done should be aligned with your priorities. Because your priorities may change over time, your bylaws should be more minimalist than they may have been in the past, allowing for more flexibility.

Additionally, the size and structure of your board, executive committee, working groups, and task forces should be defined by the purpose each is trying to achieve. The roles of these groups and the individuals involved should be clear from the outset of any project or discussion. The work of all of these groups - including that of clergy and staff - should be balanced among management and fiduciary oversight, strategic thinking, and generative action. To enhance your work and reflect the tools available in most people's work environments, use technology for video conferencing, document sharing, project management, and the like.

3. CREATE A TRANSPARENT, REFLECTIVE, DIVERSE, AND POSITIVE LEADERSHIP CULTURE, EMPHASIZING SACRED PARTNERSHIP.

Self-reflective, approachable, and adaptive leadership that works in sacred partnership helps congregations thrive. Actively seek diverse views, approach conversations with honest curiosity, and be open to new ideas that might lead to change.

Ensure that your leadership meetings have clear goals and allow for true reflection. Additionally, offer your congregants a clear path to providing feedback to your leadership, as well as transparency into your decision-making processes.

Finally, embrace positivity by adopting a growth mindset and a culture of constructive and respectful disagreement.

4. ENGAGE IN ONGOING LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT.

Leadership in your congregation should be viewed as an enriching Jewish experience - one that has multiple paths and entry points. Invest in constant, deliberate, and forward-thinking leadership development to create a pipeline of leaders who work in sacred partnership. Rotate your leadership as much as possible, and intentionally plan your leadership succession.

The future of congregational life depends on good governance. We need to be able to let go of old assumptions and shift from a control mindset to a growth mindset.

No congregation gets all of these principles right all the time, but we should all be starting the process of moving in a direction to take control of our future - and we at the URJ are ready to work with you to make that happen.

For more about congregational governance, sign up for the URJ Governance course, a self-paced, online course available at any time for any URJ congregational leader. Additionally, join the conversation in The Tent in the Leadership & Governance Group.

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