Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The nature of services when developing spiritual community

One thing that I have noticed at our Meeting House is that our services are moving away from 'services' and developing into conversations.  There is often no sermon.  The question, 'what does this all mean for our community?' is never far away.  The service then becomes an open conversation within the community about what is valued and our developing spirituality.

I am reminded of being on the Foundation Worship Studies course.  Two issues that I identified as being key - the first was the difference between leading worship in your own community and elsewhere.  The former should be part of the on-going conversation and development.  The tone will be very different.  Although each service has to be stand-alone so that newcomers, or those who have not been for some time, feel included.  The other issue was the need to look at the service as a whole.  Much of our worship training deconstructs the service so that we have sessions on hymns, readings, music, sermons, delivery and children's stories.  Whereas what I value most is a service which seamlessly includes all of these elements and is driven not be the individual elements but by the purpose of the leader and the theme that they have chosen.

It takes some confidence to move away from traditional ways of service delivery to one where the service leader tries to engage in a dynamic and responsive conversation during the service.  Whether this can be done with large congregations is not clear to me (linking back to my previous posting).  It is also not clear to me if the physical constraints of some of our worship spaces actually helps this.  We have pulpits which are many feet off the ground and pews which mean that we spend much of a service looking at someone else's back and others looking at ours.  Or in some instances actually staring straight at people.  In our own chapel whilst it is possible to move out of the pulpit it is difficult as the CD player and loop mic (mike) are in the pulpit.  We have a hand-held mic (mike) and need to explore how we can set up our sound system to be operated from elsewhere.

Our physical space should work with us as a community, not against us.  Funnily enough I may be having some of these conversations in ten days time on Heritage Open Days when history buffs will perhaps be promoting the preservation of physical space rather than the preservation of our culture, which should be dynamic and led by the needs of the faith community.  Which all leads me to reference comments that I have made on one of Adrian Worsfold's recent blog postings about whether we can agree about what ministry is about.

If we take the view that our task is to build spiritual community then there are consequences far and wide about our buildings, our services and activities, our training, the sorts of people who may be employed by communities, the support that is needed and the body of knowledge that we choose to write down and develop.  This seems to me to be a paradigm shift - or would be if it happened - for Unitarianism.

Large congregations

I write from the experience of belonging to a community with perhaps 40 people in it.  There is a core of about 20 of us and then people who are linked in some way - usually attending services or walks when they can but they have busy lives, are too far away or not well enough to attend frequently.  Within this size of community we can see how we could shape and develop community.  But a posting on Facebook has made me wonder if this could be done with say a community of 200+.

The idea of engagement groups is a way of facilitating deeper relationships within large congregations.  Here between 6-10 people agree to meet up as a minimum monthly to develop closer relationships with others - this may be through a shared activity or through spiritual practice or exploration.  However it appears that this is outside of the main worship activity on Sundays.  So is it possible to create community in large communities during Sunday services?  

I would love the opportunity to view congregations where this works to see how it works. I would love even more if this was our own community.

This posting has led me to think about how our own services are developing but have decided to make this the next posting.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The building blocks of community

The building blocks of community are very simple - they are the individual relationships between people rather than the people themselves.

At our lunch after the service yesterday we only had 12 people - others had had to leave. At first I thought, 'What a shame that we are not large in number'. But as time went on I realised how precious this opportunity was.  An opportunity for us to not just speak with each other but also to have quite long conversations, without thinking that we had to get round to speak with many more people.  The general pattern seems that as we eat our savoury course we attempt a large table discussion - with some side discussions which tend to be short-lived - but then when we have pudding and teas/coffees people form into smaller groups and have more intense conversations.

These tend not to be times for debate and difference but for chats and similarities.  I remember hearing on the radio many years ago that the vast majority of communication is chatting - and we do this to bond.  So in our chatting we learn more about each other and strengthen the bonds that tie us together.  To build community we have to increase the opportunities for this.  Perhaps this should be a rule for community development - allow plenty of opportunities to chat.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Open, honest and loving relationship

I was talking with a friend yesterday about how she was looking for a spiritual community.  She had been to one place and really liked it but then one person was quite rude to her and that put her off.  Which is understandable.  I then spoke about our community and my approach.  Unless you are very easy going (and I am not that!) you probably come across people that you don't warm to or you find difficult or they irritate you or they drive you nuts or ...  And others might feel the same about you/me.  

So is there an imperative to make an effort within our communities to find connection and to get on with one another?  I believe that there is.  We are called to be bigger than we thought we were and to find a connection however slight with everybody.  How do we do this?  We have to spend time with those that we find difficult and we have to listen and we have to speak.  We have to find common ground and we have to feel a sense of equality - that we are two people with the same rights and responsibilities deserving of respect.

This is not to say that we don't judge or at least have an opinion.  Some people have some quite significant personality flaws - they may be mean, they may be lazy or they may be rude.  But normally people aren't like this all of the time.  When faced with people that we find difficult we ask ourselves many things depending on our own personality.  We may ask, 'Am I like this person?' or we may think, 'They remind me of my Dad' or 'Do they like me?' or 'Might it be best if I just avoided them?' or 'Did I do something to make them act that way?'  Sometimes these questions can lead to answers that make us feel uncomfortable about ourselves - either our own sort-comings or memories of difficult relationships in the past.  It may be instructive to stick with these feelings.

We may also think about the person themselves and consider what has led to them being as they are.  This is not about finding excuses but about trying to understand.  Whilst harmonious relationships can bring much joy, disharmonious relationships can bring much understanding and insight.  And, it is hoped, they bring change.  We can commit to changing ourselves and we can believe that the way we approach others can change the way that they behave albeit just when they are with us.

One sign of a healthy community is not that there is no conflict but that conflict is resolved in a healthy way.  That conflict may be about views or approaches or about personalities.  We can avoid these or we can work with them.  When we sing, 'All are welcome here,' we should mean this and be committed to being in open, honest and loving relationship with all: a tall order but a worthy aspiration.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Holding each other in grief

When in community we are relating to people who we know but perhaps don't know that well.  We may know several people well but it is difficult to know everyone.  We had a discussion at the end of July about our social welfare work as individuals and as a community.  We were looking outside of our own community.  I commented that we also needed to look within - we needed to ask, 'What do we do for each other?'

Perhaps the first thing we have to ensure is that we are a community where people can be honest about how they are feeling and where the giving and receiving of help and support are part of our way of being.  This can take many forms - from a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a reassuring hug, or something more active around problems solving.  For example a lift in a car, changing times of meetings to accommodate people, helping out with children and dependent relatives, visiting in times of need, providing food and giving a bit of advice where other help may be available.  

Within our communities we should be offering active friendship - I purposefully use the term friendship because I think that it is about equal relationships, where we each give and receive.  We do not want to be setting up informal systems or even see informal system evolving where there are a group of people who always give and a group of people who always receive.  Those who give have to get their mind around the fact that they too may need help and learn how to ask for it and receive it gracefully and gratefully - from personal experience I can attest how difficult this can be.  In my case it was an internal dialogue about the meaning of strength - but this is part of another discussion.

My main concern in this posting is about grief.  Grief comes about after loss, often a bereavement but not necessarily.  We all respond differently to grief and what was thought to be a process following clear stages is now seen as highly idiosyncratic to the person and to the circumstances, both about the loss and about what else is going on in life at the time.  Some people are remarkably resilient and manage well and some do not manage at all: most I suspect sit somewhere in between.  My own reaction to the loss of two fathers in one year and two good friends was of a closing down, an inability to think effectively and a real struggle just to get on with life.  This was very marked for at least six months.

In my opinion our bodies are wise, often despite our best intentions.  They create the right conditions to heal.  Closing down is a way to protect ourselves from further hurt, to save energy for actual healing and a time to readjust to our new life - life without that person (or job or house or child living with us - whatever the loss is).  There may be reminders around us which trigger an emotional response - for me when I see a silver Mercedes I think of my Dad and fill up.  Without knowing this you might be a little surprised at my reaction to a car! 

Within our communities there may be lots of people in various states of grief.  One friend told me it took her seven years to get over the death of her mother.  To support people in healing we have to be present - be with people, talk about the hurt and the pain, recognise their real and deeply felt experience of loss and not expect an immediate return to normal service. We as communities have to create a safe, secure and comfortable place for people to lick their wounds and regain their strength and purpose.  But we also have to be joyous and fun and engaged with the world - a reminder that life goes on.