How Can Foundational Statements Make Your Congregation the Best It Can Be?

September 4, 2018Amy Asin

Foundational statements – mission, vision, and values statements – are critical for effective congregational governance. They define our congregation’s purpose and why it exists (mission), what the organization would look like if we were to achieve our purpose (vision), and our community’s deeply held beliefs (values).

In today’s evolving Jewish landscape, foundational statements are critical, grounding us and helping us lead adaptable organizations capable of facing increasing challenges. Here are three ways thoughtful and useful foundational statements can help your congregation be its best.

1. Foundational statements help us focus.

Without foundational statements, congregations revert to extremes. They may be pulled to do more and more by eager volunteers, congregants, and donors, putting a strain on resources and making it difficult to say “no” or to change or end existing initiatives. Conversely, congregations may limit themselves, for example, by viewing a balanced budget as the ultimate measure of success and sustainability. This perspective (and attempts to achieve it) could lead to a downward spiral, as budget-cutting saps energy, degrades quality, and decreases membership.

Furthermore, without foundational statements, congregations have no basis for decision-making, which creates potential for conflict and/or endless rehashing of decisions. Foundational statements that are both realistic and aspirational can help us set goals, make choices, and allocate resources – all in an intentional way that supports excellence. 

Here are two examples.

Leaders at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, OH, reviewed the congregation’s budget to determine whether its spending was in line with its mission. When they found that too much of their financial and human resources were being used to maintain their building, they decided to sell the building and refocus those resources on activities more central to their mission. 

At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA, leaders identified six strategic priorities to help the congregation achieve its vision. Each operational area, including worship and engagement, sets annual goals based on these priorities, enabling all congregational leaders to measure and track success using a shared lens that focuses on what is important to the congregation.

2. Foundational statements distinguish us from other organizations.

Effectively written foundational statements differentiate us from other communal institutions, such as JCCs, PTAs, the gym, and the local coffee shop. At their heart, congregations are covenantal communities with a sacred purpose – a place congregants bring their deepest concerns and greatest joys, relying on our tradition to guide them.

If our foundational statements reduce congregations to places only for making friends or attending programs, we won’t be able to make a case for membership to those who don’t see why they need a sacred covenantal community or the programs we offer – especially at the prices we charge. 

3. Foundational statements shape us as the congregations we want to be.

The mission statement of the hypothetical Congregation Beit Torah in Springfield (described in a previous blog post) says: “Congregation Beit Torah offers a community in which to aspire to tikkun ha-nefesh (repair of the self) and tikkun ha-olam (repair of the world).”

Although most Reform congregations could easily adapt these words as their mission statement, they might shape an entirely different community because of their vision and values. For example, if a congregation’s vision and values focus on connections to the outside community, one could imagine robust relationships with other local faith institutions that increase the congregation’s presence at food banks, homeless shelters, and reading programs. Such a congregation might organize projects to help congregants reflect on local issues, engage in tzedakah, or participate in social action initiatives.

Another congregation whose vision and values focus on helping members wrestle with personal challenges might offer a small-groups program in which groups of congregants regularly come together for meaningful discussions. One group might comprise religious school families grappling with the challenges of parenthood and competing life demands, while others deal with issues facing empty nesters or families with young children. Although not everyone in the congregation will participate in a group, leaders may aim for 60 percent of congregants to attend over a three-year period.

Likewise, a congregation with a deep commitment to Jewish learning might offer educational opportunities for various demographics or social action projects that include learning about the values at the root of the initiative. Sermons would include significant references to Jewish texts and might encourage chevruta (partner) or family learning, and congregants’ learning milestones would be regularly acknowledged. In short, Jewish education would pervade many facets of congregational life.

Of course, these examples are not meant to suggest that nothing else happens in these congregations, but rather that their foundational statements help leaders set priorities and make decisions about resource-allocation, policies, and initiatives.

Congregations that have not reviewed their foundational statements in the last five to 10 years should revisit them, and those with updated statements they don’t use should begin to take them seriously.

To be the best congregations we can be, we must use the ideas found in our foundational statements as guides to focus our resources, simplify our decision-making, and create clear messages.

Future blog posts on this topic will delve into each of the four best principles of governance. Stay tuned for a detailed look at governance structure.

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.

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