Wednesday, 27 October 2010

How do you define a good community?

I was talking on Sunday about our community and how it feels. I was wondering out loud about how to encapsulate what made it so welcoming and inspiring. This reminded me of when I did an evaluation of a regeneration scheme which was very successful - everyone said that the one factor above all that made it good was Eric the programme manager who had led the project from day one. Given that there was only one Eric I needed to talk to people about what it was about Eric that made him such an effective leader if we were to find similar staff to run schemes. When I had finished I was not certain that I had the essence of Eric - but I was getting close.

And so it is when we try to encapsulate the best of our communities - there are things which we can explain - how people are welcoming and then describing what welcoming actually means: how people are generous - with their time, their money, their resources and their smiles; how people approach difficulties - being committed to resolving conflict without feeling hard-done to at the end of the resolution; being mindful of the needs of others; being committed to making changes if things aren't working well; and I guess some other characteristics. Whilst we can describe all of this, it is how to make it real that is the hard bit.

I feel that there is a spiritual imperative to invest time and energy into my chosen faith community. The choice that I/we make is whether to commit or not to commit - if we decide to commit then we should be prepared to do what it takes.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

What is a community?

I have been away for two weeks with my sister who lives in Australia - we did not grow up together as our connection is through my father who lived with his second family many miles away leaving the UK for good when my sister was 14. We have re-established our family link over the last ten years. I have been to Australia several times and on two occasions stayed with her and this is the second time that she has visited me. This time we had a 12-day tour around the country - almost 24-hours a day with each other and it was all very easy. The biology of our shared genes shows up when we think the same thoughts and like the same food - and our differences reflect our uniqueness, our different genes and our different experiences.

I love having a sister, having grown up with a clutch of brothers (brother, half-brother and step-brothers). My half-brother whose father was my step-father shares no blood with my sister but they consider themselves related. They have never lived together indeed they have only seen each other twice but they connect via Facebook. My sister's mother died several years ago and she is very fond of my mother so is adopting her as a surrogate Mum. When my Dad (step-father) was alive my sister and her daughter visited my Mum and Dad and he behaved like a Dad and a Grandad towards them.

As an aside my daughter has a cousin who is my step-brother's step-son's step-daughter - we can decide ourselves to make relationships meaningful and recognise that love is more important than blood.

So with thoughts in my mind about what a family is, I am reminded and return to the beginning to reflect again on what a community is. Do we have to share a theology? Do we have to share experiences of a Sunday service? Do we need to share personality traits? Or do we just meet in the middle in a bit of a mess - being happy to be within this thing that we call a Unitarian community - moved by the feeling that love is more important than theology.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Who develops community?

This week I have been musing over models for how our local communities run - who gets paid to do what? Whilst we had/have the Ministry for All initiative I suspect that what should go alongside this is some kind of administrative/communication/development support: in essence community development support.

I am thinking that I am going to sketch out what gets done at ours and see what that amounts to in terms of work.

Trying to think of something else to write - but I think that I've said all I want to at the moment - if anyone reading this has any thoughts on this please do let me know.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Reflecting on strong communities

I was thinking whilst driving the car a few days ago that someone reading the posting about how strong communities are might reflect - but this sounds like a social group. So what differentiates a social group from a faith community. I have been musing on this in all the usual places - the bath, bed, the sofa and in the car. Must get out for a bit of fresh air!

I think that there are three major differences between my conception of an emerging and developing faith community and a social network and these differences are

(1) purpose and intent;
(2) the quality of relationship; and
(3) the emerging nature of the group as it opens itself up to new members.

I am now using the word 'emerging' which captures within it concepts of emergence and organic growth. Hold that thought - this will be the subject of another post.

So first - purpose and intent. Each of our communities has a purpose whether overt or covert: spoken or unspoken. For our local community it is being spoken as part of our principles - we are here to support each others' spiritual growth within a loving community. As we have not finished our conversations on this there is no definitive version at present. But this gives a flavour. Spirituality is the core of our purpose and our intent is to do this communally.

Second, we look at quality of relationships within our communities. This is not something that one person can magic but is a commitment from most, if not all, community members to work at the relationships within the community - making each link strong. This goes beyond friendship. It is not about only spending time with the people that you feel comfortable with, that you have things in common with or that you 'click' with. It is a commitment to see beyond ourselves - to cultivate connections with all community members. We can do this through many routes - spending time with each other, finding out what each other likes and dislikes, taking an interest in what the other is interested in, wishing in the depth of our heart for each person to live well, finding true and meaningful love for all within our communities. Of course if we can develop ourselves to be like this with those within our faith community then we will not be able to confine our loving to the space within our community's walls.

Our relationships also create the entity that is our community - the body, heart, mind and soul. It is where we attempt to lose our egos and just become ... become that which we are meant to be. Our communities are more than the sum of the parts because they are based on the 'spaces in-between' the parts - they are based on the relationships. I was listening to a TV programme about swing bands and someone was talking about the Duke Ellington Band and how they had been together for some thirty plus years and the person was describing the knowingness between musicians based on the years of playing together.

I was reminded of a time when a relative newcomer volunteered to co-ordinate a music hall night which involved getting tickets done, tickets sold, getting people to volunteer to participate (sing, play an instrument or read a poem), getting music sorted, getting a pianist, and overseeing everything else. Someone had the idea of a fish and chip supper which an old-timer helped with as he knew a local chippy and another newish person was on mushy pea duty. Our co-ordinator was very anxious as she had not experienced the meeting house community in action as a body - this is not to say that some very hard work and well thought out planning didn't occur - but it is to say that people worked as a self-organising group, bringing what they were to co-create a wonderful evening. Our co-ordinator was surprised and delighted at how the thing had come together. As with the Duke Ellington Band it does take time to create a knowing community.

And third - the emerging nature of the group as it opens itself up to new members. My view is that communities have to be comfortable and confident in themselves before they open themselves up to large numbers of new people. There may be people who find us and are keen to get involved - so we will be welcoming and invite people to join us - but we want our communities to be the best that they can be so that new people come, get involved and stay. At what point do we feel that we are ready for new people? I purposefully use the word 'feel' in this question because I think it is about feeling rather than thinking. I think that its when we start to feel that being a loving and caring community is coming naturally - that we are at ease with ourselves - that we can give our time and attention to new people because the community itself thrives without a lot of extra effort. It is when we are an attractive, enticing and warm place to be - where people can feel the joy as they walk through the door.

This can be difficult if there are only three people in a congregation but these things can be done - but before advertising what you are, become want you truly want to be.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Healthy communities

Whilst I am off at a bit of a tangent - there are more community development models coming - it occurred to me that it is not just about how strong a community is but also how healthy. So what do we mean by healthy communities or organisations? If we think about ourselves then does health just mean the absence of illness - sometimes illness is a sign of health - for example being sick when you've eaten a dose of salmonella is the best thing to do; or being depressed when a loved one is very ill or has died is a healthy response to pain and loss. So health is not about the absence of symptoms.

There is something about the strength of our immune systems, something about how strong our organs and bones are and something about emotional robustness amongst other things. Anne Odin Heller in her book, Churchworks: A Well-body Book for Congregations writes of congregations as bodies with these analogies

• Brain: Core documents of your congregation
• Breath and Spirit: Animating congregational life
• Circulatory System: Nourishing healthy congregations
• Ears: Fostering good communications
• Eyes: Developing a congregational future
• Feet: Public relations and evangelism
• Hands: Social action and spiritual growth
• Heart: Creating and nurturing ministry
• Liver: Dealing with congregational conflict
• Reproductive Systems: Membership development
• Skeleton: Congregational structures
• Skin, Hair, Teeth and Nails: Better, more attractive buildings
• Stomach: Financial nourishment and stewardship

This is an interesting take on how congregations and communities run and how healthy they are.

However I think that perhaps the section on the brain might refer to leadership rather than to congregational documents and there is no overall view - the holistic view of the 'body'. There also needs to be something about the body in movement, for life requires movement and therefore change. I also think that each local faith community has choices to make - there is not just one good way to be, different circumstances and different people require different approaches. Having said all this I like this book and find it useful when thinking about congregational structures etc.

From the New South Wales Government website (where else?!) comes these

The five characteristics of emotionally healthy organisations

1. Validation of emotions
2. Appropriate emotional authenticity
3. Healthy & appropriate boundaries
4. Absence of organisational taboos
5. Culture supportive of constructive conflict

These appear to be more holistic in nature and something that we could perhaps work with as faith communities.

There are more theoretical approaches for envisaging healthy communities and organisations which I will write about next time.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How strong are our communities?

How do you measure how strong (not how large) our faith communities are? Humour me - I know that people think that there are some things which aren't measurable but I think most things can be evidenced if not measured even if that is taking a photo or asking a simple question or often by just observing.

I have been moved to think about this when eavesdropping on some conversations and reflecting on what has happened - I will only reflect on 2010 but these sorts of things have been going on for years.

K has been out walking with V and her new dog. K takes her daughter too - people getting to know each other know and share their love of animals. For our monthly walks we have had four since January ending up at people's houses where the inhabitant has catered for many hungry walkers - inviting people into their personal space and having their homes on show. A newish member B had a significant birthday and a surprise party to which we were invited - she was thrilled. Another B, J and others bring in plants, flowers and vegetables for people - I have something growing in my garden which has come from someone else's. D sends flowers and cards to people for their birthdays and special occasions from us all - but she and her husband pay for these. I have occasionally been surprised when we've been thanked for some flowers when I have been unaware that we have sent any. Three women have decided to take off to distant shores and are having a great time planning this together - two of the women are relative newcomers.

We share genuine friendship and this is made real by the many little kindnesses and the connections within the bigger whole. The network which is our community is strong at each link. Can you manufacture this? Can you encourage this? One way surely is to spend time together - our monthly lunches and monthly walks (plus harder walks for the fit ones including our minister) are times when individual friendships are forged and they take on a life outside of the larger community.

So I think that the strength of communities can be measured although I suspect we would not want to do it. But we could measure how many times people text, phone, write, email each other. How many cups of tea are shared with a fellow traveller? How many birthday cards and greetings we get from each other? How many holidays are shared? We could measure it but perhaps just evidencing it with conversation, photos and blogs is enough.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Community Development Models

Because community development covers a whole range of ideas it is difficult to get a handle on some of the models but I will mention a few over the next few postings.

The first is one that I used when talking with my community about how to develop a sense of belonging to develop a sense of community.

The diagram come from a PhD thesis by Alastair Iain McIntosh which looks at liberation theology and community empowerment in land reform. But it speaks to me of community development in many arenas.

This diagram gives us plenty to think about and echoes much of what has been written about growth for example about agreeing our identity as a faith community, by discussing and living common values and by actively participating in social action, within and without.

But perhaps we don't talk so much about grounding and about place. Alastair writes this about place, it is "the synthesis of nature and culture, a very human, warm, sense of the context of belonging". There is so much written about the physical enviroment and how it impacts on human behaviour. We understand how people when forced to live away from home feel rootless and dispossessed. And many of us spend many hours cleaning, repairing and renovating our spaces because that's what we do, rather than perhaps more purposefully because this space matters as it is where our spiritual life as a community is grounded.

When I am alone in our Meeting House I usually slip into the chapel, if just for a moment, to express my love for and gratitude to the building. Whilst I believe that our lives as they are lived in their entirety are spiritual and we do not only have spiritual experiences in sacred buildings, there is something reassuring to have a beloved space which is shared with my own beloved community.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Difficult people

Yesterday I had a lovely moment. This was not with any Unitarians but with people on a board that I chair. Should I have written this in my governance blog? Perhaps but it seems more appropriate here because of what it reinforces for in me. I have to go back to give my lovely moment a context.

I was drafted into this board by the vice-chair some four years ago - her words were along the lines of, 'we need a bomb under us and I think that you could be that bomb'. I quickly grasped that they were not focused on everything that they needed to be focused on and set about upsetting things by setting out what I thought needed to be done - more meetings, more understanding of what was happening, with better reporting etc etc. We had no staff just a managing agent for a property that we owned and some admin and finance support from the local council.

At some point the chair in his late 70s decided he couldn't cope any longer so my friend became chair and I was elevated to vice-chair. I could see that one man on the board was not happy. I have had cordial relationships with this man but he has been a real conservative balking at many of the changes and not accepting majority board decisions. Earlier this year I was catapulted into the position of chair as my friend's husband was dying. This really cheered up this chap - the last phone call I had with him was to let him know about our AGM - he does email very sporadically despite being a local councillor - I was being helpful and I got a mouthful about him being unhappy with a number of things.

I spoke with the vice-chair who is focused on the developments and does not want anyone to stand in the way of these. I then wrote several angry letters and kept the last one - thinking that I would send it to this man if his negative attitude continued. At the AGM he turned up late, made a contribution of sorts and left after the meeting before lunch when we were schmoozing with potential local partners.

Yesterday was our first full board meeting after the AGM and I was ready. I was thinking how I would handle him if he started to kick-off about unnecessary changes. And lo and behold - he finally became engaged with the new changes. This didn't happen at the beginning of the meeting but as we ploughed through a mountain of business I think he finally saw what we were trying to do - to improve things for the local town and for people within it.

During the meeting we discussed getting some information about the history of the building - I thought to myself, all in cliches, 'in for a penny, in for a pound' and 'into the lion's den' as I suggested that I would be prepared to come round to his house to talk about this. Which he agreed to.

We are looking to buy a new property - in a previous existence this property had been a pub that his grandmother ran over 100 years ago. At the end he came up to me and apologised for not pulling his weight before because he had been so busy with the General Election. Now that this was over he would be devoting more time to the organisation. He said that he was very excited about the new developments. We have this man on board - this was my lovely moment. There will continue to be debate and perhaps some conflict but we are now all looking in the same direction.

Despite the letter still waiting to be posted (which I will root out and destroy) I believe that developing real personal relationships is the only way to do things. So I think when developing our local spiritual communities this is how we have to do things. We have to believe in the power of the group. We have to believe that everyone can be engaged with change - sometimes it takes time but being open to developing that relationship and trying to find the human being under all the difficulties has to be our first approach.

So when I read things which suggest that to get new people in we might have to get rid of existing people I am filled with dismay and disappointment. We should be bigger than this. Community development (or group develoment as with a board) is about trying to create right relationships with all. There may be a point when we have to give up but I think that if we do it right then people vote with their own feet when they find themselves unable to adapt to new circumstances - but this should be a long way down the line.

And just as it is suggested that we develop new ways of doing things to suit newcomers we need to be mindful of developing new things for the old stagers who may want something different perhaps reflecting how things used to be.

One of our hymns goes, 'All are welcome here' - we should perhaps have brackets after this with (including those people who are awkward, cantankerous and resistant to change).

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Growth and/ or development

Do growth and development mean the same thing? A brief surf of the Internet suggests that they don't. Here's one phrase that I found: Growth is related to increase in quantity of what we already have whereas development means both quantitative and qualitative improvement. That's the basic difference.

Within the UK Unitarian community there is talk of growth and the need to grow or die - growth is spoken about in terms of numbers and to a lesser extent in terms of our communities growing together. The EC has produced quite a lot of material in order to help congregations to grow which can be found here. This may or may not be helpful given the situation that your community finds itself in.

If we look at the more broader term of development then what is it that you want to develop? This will be unique to your community - who is a part of that, what they bring and where they want to be going. You have to develop trusting relationships and think about how to do things a little differently - easing yourselves into a new way of being.

In our local community we wanted to develop a loving community which supported its current members in their spiritual seeking and spiritual development. To focus on the quality of relationships within the community and to shape the community and its activities so that it enabled people to be authentic in their spirituality, enabling them to give as well as take and enabling them to be part of the co-creation of the community. The focus has not just been within the community but that was where we started.

For all communities it is about starting where you are - if what you do does not serve you well it is unlikely to serve anyone else well. But there is always something that you do that pleases you - what is that and how can you develop that more?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Back to community

I have strayed a little so now back to community development - well to the community bit.

Communities are communities because there share something. It is often about sharing geographic space as with a local neighbourhood but it may also be a sense of shared experience (as with people who have a certain disability) or a shared approach to life (as with faith communities).

We can be torn apart by focusing on those things that we don't share - by our differences. And we can be put back together again by focusing on those things that we do share.

One of the things that we did at our local Meeting House was to agree on some values - the ones that we hoped that we shared. First what do we mean by a value? I see values as describing words - like adjectives and adverbs. It's not who we are or what we do but how we are and how we do things. It is our principles which define the 'what' and the values which describe the 'how'.

We came up with six values

** Welcoming
** Friendly
** Open
** Respecting
** Caring
** Comfortable

We hope that all we do is done in the spirit of these values and do ask new people if their experience reflects our values. Values are for testing and reminding us of our commitments to each other and to the wider world.

Perhaps if you are stuck and want to move forwards but feel perhaps like an un-community, it would be worth taking time to focus on the very real and very valuable things that you share together. Then as mentioned in the Solutions Focused posting you build on those good things that you share to develop your community.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Web presence

Most Unitarian communities now have a website - if you don't then you must.

Locally many of our new people come through our website. If you don't have a website then you won't have this opportunity to attract people - this is not about selling ourselves but about letting people know that we exist. I, like many people, would have been a Unitarian many years before I did if I had heard about Unitarianism earlier.

Getting a website is easy now as the DUWIT (Design of Unitarian Websites & IT) team have set up an easy website process.

Having a web presence (a website) shows the world that you are there - it is an important message - to be open to the world.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Solutions focused

Much of organisational development work takes on a deficit tackling approach - it asks people to think of the problems that they and the organisation experience and then seeks ways to overcome those problems. The difficulty with this approach is that you focus a lot of energy on what doesn't work and forget to look at what does.

A solutions focused approach suggests that we

* Don’t fix what isn’t broken
* Find what works, and do more of it.
* Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do something else.

Taken from the Solutions Focus website.

Which sounds easy enough but what does that mean in practice? For example you are really worried about the number of people coming to services - it is dwindling. What to do - should you do more posters and fliers, should you put a bright poster on you external notice board, should you put an advert in the paper? None of these things - at least not in the first instance.

First think about when you do get a few more people - it may be at baby-naming ceremonies, for harvest or at Christmas. Think about why those events work - and then ask can we do more? So they might work because people invite friends and family to special events - so

** have a few more special events. Do not overstretch yourselves - special events cannot happen all the time or they are no longer special.
** invite people to your usual services. Perhaps you could extend your ideas on whom to ask along. Do you talk about your faith to others? I was chatting to my reflexologist and kept mentioning (probably most weeks as we discussed spirituality quite a bit) our services and one that I was planning. She decided to give us a try and now she, her daughter and her mother are active members.
** invite another congregation to share a service either another Unitarian one nearby or with another faith community - there may be friends and family of people in the other Unitarian congregation who live nearby who could be invited or you may find people in another local congregation who have never been to you and having been once may come again;
** most importantly think what works for you and do more of that - you identify the problem and then ask when does this problem not happen? Focus on those exceptions and do more to make those exceptions happen more frequently.

It is also useful to ask yourself what skills and interests there are in the community. At our local meeting house we had lots of people who liked to walk so we started a monthly walking group - which has now been going for nearly three years. Other people (family and friends) will come along to walks when you can talk with them and find out what they may be looking for in a faith community and you might get some pointers about what would attract them.

I hope that this posting shows that developing your faith community is about focusing on what you can do - alone or with help - and not about focusing on the problems. It is also about doing what works for you rather than following a list of actions which do not necessarily relate to what works well for you and yours. And always keep smiling! What we have is precious.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

A starting point?

From the outset I think that we all have to start from where we are – the communities that we cherish are all very different, with different strengths and different visions. We are different sizes and at different stages. Some have full-time ministers, one or two may have other paid people e.g. lay leaders, some have a part-time minister, some have support from a district worker and some are wholly run by community members. Some communities are vibrant and eagerly look for development, some appear less energised and perhaps less keen to develop different ways of being.

Whatever you experience in your local community there are some decisions that you have to make if you are committed to working with others to develop your faith community. If this were a workplace you may have away-days with a paid consultant to find out how people think and feel and work on discovering a way to move forward. This can happen for local faith communities but it is more often over a cuppa after a service during conversations that we get a feeling for how people are thinking and feeling. It is a much less formal approach, more subtle and takes longer.

Sometimes communities are up for significant change and sometimes you get the feeling that the time for change may be a year or two off. So what do you do then? You build relationships – you have the vision in your mind about how you think things should be and seek out others who think like you – you gauge how others feel and you find ways to build up the internal relationships within your community.

I also think that if you can you ensure that people who come along to services or walks or craft groups take some responsibility for something – be it bringing the biscuits, washing up or leading a service. People are more committed to something if they have invested and continue to invest their personal time and effort into it.

But most importantly you need to focus on what you do well. Don’t linger on what doesn’t work unless if you don’t tackle it you will be in trouble. Focus on what you do well and do more of that – it is easier and you are more likely to experience success.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Community or congregation?

Some may have seen this before as I put it into the last Associate Newsletter. I have also let others see it. It is important that the language that we use to describe our spiritual communities reflects what they truly are and to do this we need to reflect on our language and use it mindfully.

In faith or religious organisations we may refer to a congregation which literally means to herd or to flock together. This suggests that those people being referred to are those who ‘herd together’ at a service. The word community means (from its Latin root) ‘sharing in common’ and from its Greek it means ‘fellowship’. This suggests a broader definition and includes people who may not be there at services but sharing something else in common and suggests a meaningful link between individuals rather than just sharing a worship space.

This blog is about community development rather than just congregation development. A faith community may hold a congregation within in it but it may also contain broader connections outside of the congregation and want to develop the connections within - that is between community members. The members of the General Assembly (of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches) are also a community and therefore open to being developed.

Essentially the development of spiritual communities is about the development of individual relationships where the reason for developing these relationships is the desire to enhance spiritual connectedness.

Developing Spiritual Community - what this blog is about

This blog has started from my desire to see the development of Unitarian communities in the UK. Many of the approaches that have been suggested recently take a marketing approach where Unitarianism is a product and if we only marketed it differently we would 'sell' more of it. The model adopted in this blog is one which sees local Unitarian communities as just that - communities - which most community members are committed to developing.

I shall look at a number of community development ideas and approaches from other disciplines to help people see beyond ideas such as the distribution of leaflets and market analysis which are currently being offered as a way forward. I hope that this will be of help to some.