Why Can’t We Just Run This Place Like a Corporation?

by John Lewsen, June 29, 2023

On the surface, this might sound like a reasonable question, but the simple answer is, we are not a corporation.

The broader answer is more nuanced and is therefore worth unpacking. This topic was selected for the opening session of the URJ Scheidt seminar for new Congregational Presidents that I had the privilege of attending last month. It was also the topic I spoke about at the recent installation service of our new Solel Board.

Here are some key differences between sacred communities and corporations that we explored:

  1. Leadership
    • A corporation’s leadership frequently does not interact directly with their customers.
    • At Solel, the lay leaders and elected board are all fellow congregants and members. One of the advantages of a congregation of our size, it is possible to get to know or at least recognize virtually all our members. In synagogues, unlike a corporation, the Board shares a sacred leadership partnership with our Rabbis and educators.
  2. Resources
    • A corporation’s resources and staffing are based on its ability to attract investors or build capital. This determines its access to technology, its business model — and its investments. The size of a corporation can grow or be downsized rapidly according to changing opportunities, business conditions and other market drivers.
    • A religious congregation’s financial resources are largely funded by membership contributions, and these generally don’t change much from year to year. This means that in getting things done we need and depend on volunteers. In essence, our volunteers are therefore not only essential, but they also form part of the fabric, richness, and shared values of our community.
  3. Processes
    • Leading Corporations usually have well-documented, policies and procedures, that are understood, and often sustained or accessed through sophisticated technology.
    • In a synagogue, processes are often fluid, based on who does what, minhags, and institutional memory. These are often less formal, and they are often not documented.
  4. Measures of Success
    • The success of a corporation is measured by such factors as market share, growth, analyst expectations, and how this all translates into long-term shareholder value.
    • Our success as a synagogue is dependent on attracting membership, retention, engagement, and relevance – which in turn are driven by such factors as shifting demographics, the need for spiritual meaning and expression, our brand of Jewish identity and values, lifetime learning, community and belonging. We are also there for the full range of life cycle events, starting with birth and ending with burial.

Corporations and synagogues are very different entities, and I am sure readers could add to this list as we continue to learn from each other’s models and best practices. What is important is that faith-based organizations should not be considered a disadvantage. We play a vital role in the community, and we often take, and apply, the best of the tools and learnings from other entity types. We also get to enjoy the mission-driven intimacy of being part of a community that provides us with the opportunity for lifetime learning and the shared values of Kavanah and being part of a sacred congregation.


Filed under: President's Message

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