(Michael Hart, Chair, The LJS)

Getting started

Plan the transition from the previous Chair, if possible making it a gradual process. The role will vary between different congregations, depending upon size, whether there are any paid staff, how buoyant the community currently is ….. These will affect your initial priorities. There is no right approach for all congregations. Above all, your task is to set the culture and style of operation that you want to see throughout the congregation’s activities, in line with the principles of Liberal Judaism.

You are not alone!

The role of Chair can seem overwhelming at times but you don’t need to do everything yourself:

  • If you have a Rabbi or other paid staff, work closely with them from the start. (If not, make sure that you use the support available from LJ.) A good professional relationship is essential, even if the Rabbi and employees are also your friends. If you have the opportunity to be involved in any appointments, this is likely to be the biggest contribution that you make to the development of the congregation, so it’s worth setting aside plenty of time and getting it right.
  • Share tasks with other members of your Council or congregation. It’s important to share responsibilities, even if they do things differently from you! You want high standards but also need at times to remember that you are leading a team of volunteers.
  • Keep in contact with Chairs of other LJ congregations who may be able to give advice and support. There’s a Chairs Network which operates by email so make sure you are part of this. Also make contact with relevant LJ staff, attend LJ Council meetings and sign up for seminars run by LJ. They will all provide informal opportunities for receiving and sharing good ideas.

Keeping the show on the road

Whatever the size of your community, you are likely to have some things in common:

  1. Having a plan   Each community needs some kind of plan setting out its priorities. It need not be complex; the plan is really a list showing what you want to achieve and where you will allocate the main efforts of the leadership of the congregation. If a plan does not already exist, formulating the congregation’s priorities can be a good opportunity for consultation with your members.
  2. Making changes   You may want to make changes when you take over as Chair. It’s usually fine to make a few small alterations early on but probably best not to make any major changes till you have settled in properly and discussed your proposals with others. (Think how you’ll feel if the next Chair changes everything that you introduce!)
  3. Chairing meetings   Think carefully about your style for running meetings. Some Chairs talk too much; others let discussions meander on without reaching decisions. It’s worth planning the agenda carefully, working out whether each item really needs to be included, whether each of them is for decision or discussion or information, how you are going to finish the meeting within the allocated time. Don’t be afraid to seek other sources of advice about how to chair meetings effectively and to invite feedback from others attending the meetings. A good tip is to try to always start and finish meetings with something positive.
  4. Getting the best out of your team    Delegate tasks (different from dumping things on others…..), show interest in progress, support others when things go wrong, give genuine thanks for achievements and do it publicly through your newsletter or other communications, at services, meetings and other activities. Change round responsibilities periodically to maintain fresh enthusiasm and develop succession planning.
  5. Communicating with your community   Make sure that you tell your members about the issues that the leadership of the community are addressing. This may be both through your written or electronic communications and through face to face opportunities.  These also provide an opportunity to invite feedback…..sometimes you might even discover new volunteers or future leadership through such responses. When there is a difficult issue in the community, decide if it is best to say something; often people will fill the void if you say nothing and this can be unhelpful. Overall, show that you are open and really welcome people’s views, even if you know that some members may try to dominate the discussion……
  6. 6.    Deciding on your own priorities for involvement    You can’t (and shouldn’t) try to do everything or be at every synagogue service/meeting/event. It will be important periodically to step back and decide where your involvement is most needed, based on your own skills and the current successes and gaps in the life of the congregation. It may be difficult, but also important for your own well-being, sometimes to say ‘no’. Also think about whether you want to be informed about everything going on in the congregation; this may depend upon the size of the community but it may make the role more manageable if you prioritise the information that you really need to receive.

Remember above all that, for the most part, you are leading a team of volunteers who are giving up their time for the benefit of the congregation. You expect high standards of them but you are also dependent upon their continued commitment, whatever their strengths and, occasionally, their idiosyncrasies…..

And finally…

It’s never too early to start thinking about who will succeed you as Chair. Whatever your constitution may say, after a while it will be time for a new Chair to take over and bring their individual contribution to the role. Think about who might be possible successors, help to plan the transition by giving them responsibilities whilst you are the Chair and, above all, support them when they take over. No carping from the side-lines if they do things a bit differently!