Why Leaders Shouldn't Aspire to Run Congregations Like Businesses

October 14, 2016Amy Asin

When I was a kid, people complimented the way I threw a baseball. Thanks to my uncles, I could zing one in there pretty well. “You throw like a boy,” people would say. “I throw the right way,” I’d reply. There were plenty of boys out there who didn’t know how to throw a baseball. 

I often think back to those days when I sit with congregational leaders and hear them say they want their congregation to run like a business. “You want the congregation to run the right way,” I say back. 

There are three fundamental problems with congregational leaders wanting to run their communities like businesses: 

1. Running a congregation like a business doesn’t necessarily mean running it well.

Lots of businesses out there are poorly run. In the United States, 25,227 businesses filed for bankruptcy in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2016. Let’s try not to operate the way they do! 

2. A congregation’s ultimate objective is sacred and different from a typical business’s goal.

Unlike a regular business, the mission of a congregation is sacred. People bring their entire selves to congregational life and bare their souls in congregations every day. We celebrate births and sit together in mourning. While a congregation has budgets, organizational charts, processes and procedures, congregational leaders must utilize these “business tools” in a unique way. 

Business goals such as generating profits or balancing budgets are only secondary to a congregation’s ultimate objectives: creating Jewish communities that heal people and repair the world. Everything we do must be measured against these sacred, mission-driven objectives first – and only then do the objectives of financial sustainability and excellent practice come in. When a rabbi gets a call to go to the hospital, unit costs are not on her mind, nor should they be. The sacred purpose of the work drives action, and it must also drive decision-making. Otherwise, the fastest way to balance a budget is to close the congregation.

Practically, this means that when we look to cut budgets or invest dollars, we must ask the question: How will this impact our ability to achieve our mission now and in the long-term? My favorite example of this issue is congregations that see their early childhood programs as profit centers. The only questions they ask their early childhood director are, “How many children are enrolled, and how much are you contributing to operations?” These are good business questions, but they don’t take into consideration the fundamental truth that families enrolled in early childhood programs are the future of the congregation and of the Jewish people. While cutting dollars from the program’s budget or expecting it to generate more cash might seem like good business practice in the short-run, it could be detrimental to the future of the congregation. 

3. Congregations are more complex organizations than businesses.

Congregations cannot simply be managed like businesses because they are a special case of community-based organizations. This means that unlike the United Way, your local food bank, or Jewish Family Services, the users of the organization are the same people who fund and lead it. This creates multi-layered relationships that are extremely complex to manage. 

The rabbi who officiated at your wedding and children’s b’nai mitzvah or the cantor whose voice is seared into your heart is also the one who sits next to you at your Shabbat table. The educator who took you by the arm when you cried about your child’s health issues is also negotiating his contract with you. The executive director, who compassionately offered you dues relief without asking a single question, is also the one who disagrees with you at a board meeting. 

This is true for lay leaders, as well – we pray next to each other in pews, kvell together when our children sing in choir, and argue about critical issues facing the congregation or solicit each other for donations. To be able to separate one layer of these relationships from another is almost impossible, yet we are subjected to them every day. 


The unique goals of a congregation and the complex relationships among its members mean that special consideration needs to be given to the way it is operated, beyond the practices of a standard business. At the Union for Reform Judaism, we provide various leadership development opportunities, designed to inspire sacred action among leaders and help them manage their sacred communities. We are currently developing a program for congregational leaders who hold a financial portfolio, which will launch in early 2017. This initiative will help financial leaders learn not only standard financial matters, but also what it means to lead in a mission-driven, sacred community.

Just as throwing a ball “like a boy” isn’t equivalent to throwing it “the right way,” even our most sophisticated business leaders are forced to shift their perspectives and approaches in order to run a congregation “the right way.”

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