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.