Many women’s groups have some sort of written document that guides their operations and overall sense of being together. While often called a constitution, a better term might be governance document. Constitution refers to the governance document of an entity that stands alone, but most women’s groups are a part of the formal or informal structure of a congregation.
Advantages of having a document like this are:
- As leaders change every several years, valuable guidelines are preserved so that women are not reinventing the organizational wheel when they could be focusing on other elements of group life and mission.
- A document keeps some discussion time to a minimum because it has authority, representing—at least for some point in the group’s life together— a common understanding of the group’s purpose and operations.
- The experience of writing down a group’s operating practices can be a life-giving opportunity to articulate the group’s values. Women’s groups are a vitally important element of any congregational life and are deserving of this kind of care.
One disadvantage of a document like this is that a written document can inhibit the natural gift of change that occurs in the life of any group of people. It is harder to take issue with something that has the weight of a written document, especially if the person taking issue does not have a place of leadership. This is unfortunate as it tends to dampen ideas that can come from new members of the group.
The guidelines below may be helpful in forming a written document for your group, or revising an existing document.
Keep the governance structure brief and general. It should contain the name of the group, the name of the entity to which it relates (the congregation or whatever else), the purpose statement of the group (see below), a description of what entails membership, a description of the leadership structure and how it operates (including how leaders are chosen), and a description of how the governance structure itself is changed. The goal should be that this document would not change year to year but might be altered every five years or so, with a vote of the whole women’s group.
A longer document that can pair with the governance structure is an operational handbook. This may list tasks of various leadership positions, describe annual events of the group for which some year-to-year guidelines are useful, and be a place where operational details such as mailing lists and timelines for tasks are included. Unlike the governance structure, this document may be changed by leaders as the group’s needs change, and these changes can be made without a vote from the entire women’s group.
Important note: The role of your group’s purpose statement should not be underestimated. Only a sentence or two long, it can define your scope and priorities, an invaluable asset in times of stress and difficulty. To write a purpose statement that can carry your group through time, err on the side of making it more general. More specific ideas for carrying out the purpose statement can be adapted annually or every few years to give important focus and perimeters, so that the generality of the purpose statement doesn’t leave the group’s activities too broad and meandering.
Purpose statement: WHY the group exists, in reference to the women in the group, the larger congregation, and the community.
More specific goals: Descriptions of HOW the group will make the purpose statement a reality for a certain time period, such as a year. WHAT activities will support the WHY of the purpose statement. Remember to include new ideas in these more specific goals, especially if you or some woman in your circle is sensing a new direction or a new need.
—Susan J. Jantzen, Mennonite Women co-coordinator 1997-2000, Newton, Kan.