The 4 Best Principles of Congregational Governance

By Amy Asin

Throughout the years, the URJ has learned that questions about congregational governance keep congregational leaders up at night. In fact, for the past four 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 received. 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!)

We heard you, and as a result, the URJ is in the process of developing a set of new resources and learning opportunities for leaders who want to change the way they govern their congregations. These will include the URJ Day of Leadership Learning, taking place in multiple locations across North America on October 28th, as well as printed material, online tools, and more.

Your inquiries prompted our work, but they weren’t the only reason we’re investing in helping you make changes to governance.

According to conventional wisdom, congregations will look different in 10-15 years. If this is the case, we need leadership that can come together to actively create our future. Otherwise, we will be reacting passively to forces and trends, and are less likely to be successful.

In most congregations, our ability to consider the changes necessary to thrive both now and in the future is hampered by 20th-century governance practices still in place – including communities’ purpose, structure and process, culture, and leadership development strategies. We aren’t able to attract new leadership or confront new challenges because we are working in old ways.

To help you set the direction for the adaptive changes needed for your 21st-century congregation to thrive, we reflected on trends in nonprofit governance and on congregational case studies. We consolidated our learning into the following set of best principles for congregational governance – and upcoming blog posts on this topic will delve more deeply into each of these principles:

1. Ground the activity of your congregation and the decisionmaking 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, missiondriven, 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 mindset of abundance 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 in congregations. 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.

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 the first principle: grounding work in foundational statements.

Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President and Director of Strengthening Congregations. She is a past president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA, and a former board member of URJ Camp Newman. Asin holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and spent 15 years consulting to Fortune 500 businesses with Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

Cross-posted on URJ Inside Leadership Blog