One of the questions I am frequently asked, especially by millennials who are in search of like-minded others who wish to gather and support each other in their personal and spiritual growth, is, “How do we find and/or create such a community?” While “finding” one may not be so easy, the process is quite simple—do an online search, interview any that seem appealing, and then check out a few gatherings to feel (not see) if you belong. Not that different from finding an attorney or physician, therapist, school for your child, etc. Creating one, on the other hand, requires a lot more.
Now in the old paradigm, while it took effort and resources, the path to creation was pretty much a straight line. A small group of leaders would feel a need; organize; create a charter for a synagogue/chapter of an organization; develop a mission statement; try to attract members; and then, once they had been established for a period of time and had the critical mass to do so, “hire” professional leadership to “run the show”. The model was one of “sellers and buyers.” There were a lot of buyers back then as belonging to an identified community felt like an essential element of being a good citizen, or in my world, a good Jew. That began to shift in the 1970’s and 80’s as was well-documented in Robert Putnam’s, Bowling Alone. In his now famous example, Putnam cited that more people than ever were enjoying bowling; yet, at the same time, the number of bowling leagues were far fewer. Nevertheless, I would argue, the need for community is a human one and did not disappear altogether in the 20th century; rather, it paused to adjust to the new, post-modern paradigm.
What I would like to suggest is that in the post-modern world we need a new model—that of co-owners and equal participants, instead of sellers and buyers. The following is a basic “How To” for the post-modern community which eschews any sense of permanent hierarchy.
1. Create a list and convene all potential stakeholders either in large or small group settings, Zoom or Skype, one on one conversations, or all of the above. Try to be as inclusive as possible, not merely relying on the people we all know will say “yes” to our request; see this as an opportunity to reach out to the periphery as well as those who have not yet identified or participated with the community. In other words, cast a wide net. [For those unable to attend any of the gatherings actual or virtual, an on-line survey could be used to elicit the same information.]
2. Begin by eliciting from them their gifts, concerns, interests, needs, capacity, etc. This is a “conversation” in which you do more listening than speaking. After all, God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.
3. Collate ALL the information gathered and invite or reconvene the entire group in a Town Hall setting. Share all that was learned. Make certain that EVERYONE was heard in the original conversations. Questions like, “Did we capture it all? Anything missing?” are a good way to both confirm what was originally shared as well as elicit more information.
4. Based on the “data” collected, make a group decision as to whether or not a communal entity needs to be created or recreated/redefined to adequately fulfill what was learned in those conversations.
5. Each person present needs to commit to being accountable for some aspect(s) of the community. This is the ideal. Commitments could be volunteer hours, expertise, participation, providing space, financial support, leading or hosting some program/project, moral support, all or any of the above. If someone is unable to make a commitment at this point in time that is okay; however, it has to be verbally acknowledged (i.e. “I am interested but unable to commit right now” or “I don’t think this is for me, at least not right now.”) No one should be made to feel like a pariah or the enemy for an inability or unwillingness to commit. An authentic “no” is always better than an inauthentic “yes” and besides, it leaves the door open for the future.
6. The principle here is the community belongs to everyone—not just to the leaders, volunteers, or professionals. It is OUR community, reflecting who we are and what we value. No one ought to be the beneficiary without being a contributor, at least in some way. Obviously, there are moments in time when individuals need to step out to focus on other priorities, needs, or life emergencies. There has to be a fluid, no-guilt process for doing so. If we are not lovingly supported even when we need to step away, then it is not truly community.
7. Once the shape of the community is determined, the question as to whether or not professional leadership is needed and for exactly what is the next agenda item. If there is a “yes” then the appropriate professional needs to be engaged. CAUTION: There is a tendency, once a professional is in place, to switch the mentality of “Whose community is it?” The post-modern community does not belong to the professional or the Board of Directors; it belongs to all of us.
There you have it. Our default way of approaching life is hierarchy. After all, we begin life as infants being cared for by adults who have all the power. I remember many years ago one of my sons being defiant regarding something I told him he had to do. He turned bright red and shouted, “You are NOT the boss of me!” Biting my lip to contain the laughter, I replied, “That may be true, but right now, you are going to do what I say.” In the post-modern community, we learn that sharing or rotating power is the best way to full inclusion. An inclusive society, where everyone’s voice is heard and cherished (even the ones who may annoy us) is the surest way to a world in which everyone thrives.