Who Is Your Governator?

Posted on: January 28th, 2010 by Hayim Herring

Congregational governance-what do you think of when you hear this phrase? Does the image of endless committee meetings come to mind? What about board meetings that result in squabbling? Is it clear when staff should take the lead on an issue and volunteers should? You want a true partnership between volunteers and staff, but the goal of sharing governance responsibilities seems elusive.

I’ll be writing about the issue of governance for the next several weeks, so I’ll begin with a general definition. Governance is the term that encompasses how staff members and volunteers conduct the work of the congregation with one another, with the congregation and with the broader community in a way that fulfills their legal, ethical and spiritual responsibilities.

Some congregational leaders-both professional and lay-characterize governance as the “business” side of the organization. They have an explicit or implicit understanding that staff members should steer clear of governance issues. That is a guaranteed recipe for dysfunction. The other side of the coin is when clergy members arrogate too much power for themselves, with the leadership’s tacit agreement, and undermine the governance structures in the congregation. That scenario usually ends in destruction. So if you have one person who is perceived to be the congregational “governator,” you have a problem!

High-achieving, dynamic, healthy congregations emerge from a partnership between staff and lay leaders in how they govern the congregation. And the congregational board is at the heart of that relationship. Based on my observations and experience, I will even go one step further: vital institutions are always characterized by effective board leadership, and organizations with weak board leadership will muddle through at best. My impression is that most congregational boards are just adequate. That is not to say that talented individuals don’t serve on synagogue boards-they definitely do! But, as a board, the sum of parts is less than the whole and over time, the mediocre quality of boards drives out the excellence that a board is capable of achieving.

 So take a look at your own community and assess which organizations or congregations seem to be doing relatively well. What do you know about their board leadership? How do staff and volunteers work together? Is governance transparent or is there a perception that only a few privileged individuals are involved in decision-making?

 I also want to invite you to ask your own questions about governance-what will help you raise the level of congregational governance? There’s much riding on these issues, especially in this turbulent time for organizations.


Rabbi Hayim Herring

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