4 Ways to Establish a Healthy Leadership Culture in Your Congregation

December 4, 2018Rabbi Janet Offel

Whenever someone utters the words “synagogue governance,” our minds usually go to issues of bylaws, the structure and content of board meetings, and the assemblage of committees. When discussing this topic, we often overlook the importance of a healthy leadership culture.

Congregations thrive when leaders embrace sacred partnership, represent the diverse spectrum of the community, nurture new ideas and experimentation, and promote an inquisitive, positive organizational mindset.

The URJ has identified four cultural habits that inspire healthy leadership and promote good governance.

1. Cultivate sacred partnership.

Healthy leadership culture begins with an awareness and acknowledgement that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and that everyone in congregational leadership – lay leaders, clergy, and professional staff – values and trusts each other. The relationships among congregational leaders are unique. They are sacred partnerships, built and nurtured through mutual respect, trust, honesty, listening and communication, transparency, confidentiality, flexibility and reflection. Cultivating sacred partnerships takes time and care, but it is a cornerstone for building a healthy, vibrant congregational culture. The URJ Sacred Partnership Resource offers a guided exploration of this concept to congregational  leaders.

2. Acknowledge diverse opinions within a culture of constructive and respectful disagreement.

As April Baskin and Amy Asin note, “Creating inclusive spaces and respecting your members on the margin isn’t a nicety, like installing a coffee machine in the foyer. It’s a necessity.” Encouraging diversity means embracing a multiplicity of people (and their opinions) while maintaining a culture of constructive and respectful disagreement. Soliciting diverse opinions isn’t something that “stands in the way of getting things done,” but rather is imperative to nurturing your congregation’s creativity and growth.

Yes, diverse opinions can and often do lead to disagreements. If your congregation needs assistance to learn how to argue appropriately and usefully, consider exploring The 9Adar Project, an initiative of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, intended to increase our communal ability to cultivate constructive conflicts and manage disagreements in a healthy manner.

3. Encourage new ideas and experimentation.

New ideas that lead to change must be nurtured and encouraged. Often, though, new ideas can create a fear of failure. As Rabbi Esther Lederman notes, “Labeling a new initiative an ‘experiment’ or ‘pilot’ can lessen resistance to trying something new.” Congregations that are willing to embrace the possibility of failure in their experiments are more apt to encourage new ideas. An openness to embracing change is vital for congregations to remain relevant and thrive into the future. Encouraging new ideas and experimentation opens the door to such transformational change.

4. Promote a “growth mindset” and culture of abundance.

Stanford University psychology professor and researcher Dr. Carole Dweck contrasts a “growth mindset” with a “fixed mindset.” A growth mindset assumes that intelligence and abilities are not predetermined, but can be developed based upon a person’s efforts, attitude, and environment. The work of Dweck and others has shown that it is possible for the mindsets of individuals of any age to change from fixed to growth, leading to increased motivation and achievement.

In congregations, a growth mindset promotes moving forward with vibrancy and confidence, particularly in today’s world in which change occurs both rapidly and constantly. Leaders who exhibit a growth mindset refrain from finding fault with a particular person or with each other when challenges arise. Rather, they positively and collaboratively work toward shared goals for the community.

Promoting a growth mindset is related to embracing a culture of abundance and to the importance of focusing on the richness of resources within the congregation, instead of concentrating only on what is lacking. Every congregation faces challenges. Encouraging a culture of abundance will help your leaders find the pools of plenty in your congregation and build upon strengths rather focus only on deficits and deficiencies. For example, in a culture of abundance, leaders might look at selling an aging, too-large building in favor of creating a smaller, nimbler footprint in the community. Freeing up resources in this way can provide opportunities for greater flexibility, ingenuity, and financial capacity to meet changing needs, while sustaining a congregational community into the future.

A healthy synagogue governance culture embraces and nourishes leaders who are self-reflective, transparent, and open to feedback; it encourages a diversity of opinions and new ideas, providing key components for moving forward together in sacred community. L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, as our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us in times of great change, so, too, in this time of great change may we continue to pass it forward to generations yet to come.

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 development.

For more about congregational governance, join the conversation in The Tent in the Leadership and Governance group or by searching for #GovernanceBestPrinciples

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