Thursday, 24 March 2011

Remembering to ask and to remember

We had our monthly Monday Gathering this week. It's a meditative time led by one of the community with words, music and time for reflection. We have a cuppa first and then 45 minutes of 'gathering' and then more drinks and chatting. There were just five of us this week.

But there was a lot of woe - elderly parents being ill and in hospital, a husband already with a disability having fallen, money worries, concerns about friends with mental health problems and concerns about ourselves and how we will cope with all of this. Four of us know each other well and see each other most weeks. One woman only comes to these as she goes to another chapel on Sundays.

She had been quiet - but tends to be so - but in a lull I turned to her and asked, "And how are you?" She replied that her Mum had died a fortnight ago - although she was 90 it was unexpected. Having lost two fathers (birth-father and step-father) over the last few years I had an inkling of what she may be feeling - if she was feeling anything at all. I felt a deep sadness - it doesn't matter how old our parents are when they die they are still our parents and we can't grow another one.

We could so easily have missed this significant event in her life as we were trying to be supportive of the people who had been more up-front about the current challenges that they were facing.

We must always remember to ask - in larger congregations and communities this becomes harder. We must find ways to ensure that the network that is community is effective in including everyone and then respond in a loving way.

We must then continue to remember - I was in grief for a least a year with my fathers. A friend in her fifties, whose husband had died suddenly, told me how she found the second year worse than the first. We don't necessarily need to keep asking but we do need to keep remembering these significant events and try to understand the unique effects that they have on each one of us.

Love is very much an action rather than merely a feeling.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Perfection is not what it seems

I led our service yesterday on the theme of 'late-blooming'. I will be 57 soon and my daughter will be leaving to go to university in September. I have a constantly niggling anxiety about what I will do next so thought that I could do with a bit of encouragement. I suspect that many of us construct services to meet our own needs.

My usual way of constructing services - and I only do a few a year, sometimes only one - is to think about it for ages, get a few ideas and download a few tunes, find a few poems and readings and then on the Sunday morning get up early and stitch it all together. It is a bit hairy but it works for me.

So by the time that I got to the Meeting House I was tired, feeling that I'd done half-a-day's work. My best performance was probably reading out the notices! I then welcomed myself and off I went. I had a few things that I needed to do - to make mention of our district which had a Songs of Praise later in the day that no-one could make. So I read what I had sent to them and had used the last verse of the hymn we'd chosen as words for the chalice lighting. We sung the hymn later. Then I felt compelled to mention the Japanese earthquake and had a very moving reading from John O'Donohue's book on Blessings about the need not to give in to helplessness.

The rest of the service was on the theme. I had periods of being tongue-tied - had I really constructed sentences which were so difficult to say? I missed a hymn out which people reminded me of at the end - so we sung it then. The last hymn that I'd chosen was unsingable so we read it. And I'd got rather a jolly version of Forever Young, the Dylan classic, by Mike Scott and Sharon Shannon, only it was too quiet and people struggled to hear it.

I closed with relief - not the most perfect of services - E for effort - must try harder next time! But the feedback was so lovely - someone said it was the best that she'd heard me do - either it was good or the others were pretty awful. People were moved by the idea that dreams are not restricted to the young and that we can be inspired by those we know and love. We don't necessarily get inspired by the good and the great.

And I was moved that by stumbling through a service on a theme that I was passionate to explore, which had such strong personal references, I could produce something that was perfectly me. And in being perfectly me, it was perfectly us, as people responded to my creation and made it bigger and better.

My way of constructing a service takes me from the general to a specific to the individual to our community - not sure if this is what I am supposed to do or if anyone else does it this way but it suits. I am always drawn back to the question - what does this mean for this community of ours? If it was just about the individual and their spiritual experiences I would feel that I had not completed the circle. Leading services in our own communities is a precious moment of community building - sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Accentuate the positive

We have a new community centre being build in the parish where I live. I went for a visit last week. I have had some involvement in the early days with the business planning and bid making but stepped away when more and more volunteers appeared to help out. But I have kept in the loop and have been invited along to things. Being in this position I know how much work so many people have put into the project - the vast majority have done this for free. And are still doing so.

So when the woman from the Derby and Joan Club started on about not being able to bring their own teas and coffees and having to pay the caterer for a cuppa I saw red - but managed (thankfully) to keep reasonably civil. She also added that the Club had been going for over 50 years - what that meant to her I didn't explore but it seemed to somehow mean that they had more rights than more newly formed groups and people who weren't even born in the village. This new community centre is linked with a new facility for elderly people which will probably see another 100 elderly people living in the village, all potentially new members of the Derby and Joan Club.

I am sure that other members of the Club will be much more impressed with our zero-carbon building with ICT equipment, training facilities, improved library services, a chiropodist and other health professionals, a bar, a cafe and a lovely big social hall and the potential for new members. When you weigh this against the cost of a cuppa it is hard to understand how some people think.

I used to manage a mental health day service and advised my staff never to ask, 'How are you today?' but to say something like, 'It's lovely to see you' or 'My, you do look well' or 'Let's go and see who else is here'. Setting the scene for an experience at the day service on a positive note was very important. Of course life can be tough but sometimes we need to enjoy what we have and appreciate what people do in our name.

When working with groups on organisational development I often start with - you've got ten minutes to moan about what is wrong, what doesn't work and how awful things are. Then we will discuss what does indeed work and how we can do more of that. We need to focus our time and energy on what works not what doesn't.

In our communities focusing on what works can makes us feel very proud and helps us to appreciate what everyone brings to the table. Perhaps we will have to pay more for our cups of tea but let us focus on what we get in return for that investment. And let us be grateful that we have the means to pay more for our cuppas.

Ann Peart's focus for 2011/12

Some of you will have seen the excellent GA Annual Report Summary (you guessed it, I had a hand in its production!). Ann Peart, the Vice President, has set out what she hopes to do as President from April and says, 'Next year I intend to focus more on our present day groups, and explore aspects of our religious faith which lead us to work together in caring, respectful communities.'

I look forward to increased debate about community and how we can promote it.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Deep Value

A report has just been published called Deep Value: A literature review of the role of
effective relationships in public services. And it does exactly what it says on the tin. Here is a piece from the summary

Effective relationships are not an added extra but are core to the
delivery of effective
services. Increasing the effectiveness of relationships,
therefore, is a lever for improving
quality and performance.
Effective relationships are much more important and complex

than just offering ‘tea and sympathy.’

I guess that many of us could have told them about the personal relationship bit but it is also about competence and professionalism. Whilst we build our communities we recognise that good relationships are key but we also need to recognise the value of competence.

There are many insights to be gained from this publication when it comes to community development, even if we are not sure who is providing a service and who is receiving it - when a community develops itself it is a collaborative venture - it still provides some interesting and relevant conclusions. For example the report says that effective relationships are about

• Understanding – the service provider seeks to understand the needs and circumstances
(economic, personal, emotional, cultural) of the person using services and treats people
with dignity and respect demonstrating that they are ‘on their side.’ In return people
using services acknowledge the pressures on service providers and their need to make
judgements about good use of public funds.

• Collaboration – there is trust, founded in part on demonstrable competence of the
professional, both sides have confidence in each other, both are honest and achieve a
position where agenda setting and decision making are shared.

• Commitment – where both sides demonstrate dynamism and commitment and is
thorough and well prepared for meetings.

• Communication – where the service provider listens and opens new lines of questioning
to draw out relevant deeper issues.

• Empowerment – where relevant, an aim of public services should be to support people
to change thinking and behaviour so as to cope differently with challenges in the future.
This may involve challenge and confrontation but if the other elements of effective
relationships are in place, the result can be powerful for the individual and cost effective
for the public purse.

• Time – having the time is important, but this is not open-ended. With the right skills and
systems in place people can quickly put these elements of effective relationships in

We could rewrite this to

Understanding: Everyone seeks to understand the needs and circumstances (economic, personal, emotional, cultural) of everyone else within their community.

Collaboration: There is trust, founded in part on demonstrable competence of everyone who takes on a role within the community. People have confidence in each other, are honest and achieve a position where agenda setting and decision making are shared.

Commitment: Everyone demonstrates dynamism and commitment and is thorough and well prepared for meetings.

Communication: Everyone listens and opens new lines of questioning to draw out relevant deeper issues.

Empowerment: People are supported to cope with challenges in the present and the future. This may involve challenge and confrontation but if the other elements of effective relationships are in place, the result can be powerful for the whole community.

Time: Having the time is important, but this is not open-ended. With the right skills, the right level of commitment and the right attitudes in place people can quickly put these elements of effective relationships in place.

This is a quick re-write and probably needs a bit more work. However for me it shows how we can use research and best practice and meld it to our own particular circumstances and hopefully help us as we develop our beloved communities.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

World events

We have all been moved and saddened by the earthquake(s) in New Zealand. It is at times like these that we look outside of our immediate circle and feel a connection to the wider world - either through sheer compassion or through some link, some thread which binds us to the people affected. We know that our fellow Unitarians have been affected.

Similarly the unrest in many parts of the Arab world cause us to feel a concern for our fellow human beings. I am in awe of the sacrifices that people will make for freedom and self-determination. I am hugely grateful that my forebears have fought many of these battles for me.

It is in these seemingly dark days that I wonder about my own strength and courage. I realise how small and insignificant I am but I am drawn to ask the question, 'How can I help?' Knowing that there are people, mostly unknown to me, who are doing things - organising ways to donate money, providing aid and assistance on the ground, organising media for expressing support, sending pictures to grab the world's attention ... Sometimes just being there prepared to do things is what is needed.

It reflects that today, as always, there are significant numbers of people who are brave and resourceful, who want to make a positive difference to the world. When people moan about the world today and the people in it I think that they must be living in a different world to me. There are always acts of kindness or courage or principle, often within spitting distance, that should move us if we could but see them.