* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Community and Purpose

There are lots of different kinds of communities that meet different needs for people. We've been exploring what intentional components contribute to meaningful, authentic community. Mutual self-disclosure, active and unconditional love, hospitality, truth-telling, and sincere affirmation work together to meet people's needs. In other words, people need a place where they can:
  • know others deeply and be known deeply by others,
  • love others and be loved by others,
  • serve others and be served by others,
  • hear others and be heard by others,
  • celebrate others and be celebrated by others.
Healthy boundaries, on the part of the community itself and on the part of its members, make the community a safer environment for all of these intentional practices. The last necessary piece we need to acknowledge is purpose. When a community lacks a sense of shared purpose, it's more difficult for people to feel a sense of belonging. 

A purpose can be a restatement of shared values. A community's purpose may be to promote a specific value (or set of values) in the world. In many cases, it would still be helpful to clarify how the community intends to promote those values. A community can value the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but it's even more clear when that community says, "We're going to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person by ending homelessness in our region." That's a clear, audacious purpose that can give people who align with that vision a sense of belonging. 

If someone comes into that community and says, "I care about organic farming," they may not be strongly aligned with the shared purpose of the community. They might not feel like they belong in a community united around a purpose of ending homelessness. This is OK. That individual can decide whether they want to buy into the shared purpose of the community or whether they want to find meaningful, authentic community elsewhere. The community doesn't need to launch an organic farming program. This would potentially compromise the sense of belonging and shared purpose it has already cultivated. Unless organic farming clearly ties in with ending homelessness (and there may be a way that it does), the community can say no to focusing on organic farming. Members of the community already have a clear focus that defines what they want to do in the world.

Some communities have a clear focus that doesn't create greater wholeness in the world. Having a shared purpose still contributes to a sense of belonging for members of those communities. The KKK may not meet the criteria of our five essential ingredients, but their sense of shared values and purpose is undeniable. It's the clarity of the KKK's identity that makes it possible (and just and compassionate) to oppose the organization. Yet, the KKK still exists today because our society doesn't equip people to manage their anxiety and dismantle their irrational fears. When people find groups that legitimize their anxiety and fear, they feel accepted. They feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. They feel a sense of safety in the midst of a world that is hostile to their perspective. Fundamentalist religious groups offer the same thing. They reinforce people's anxieties and fears in order to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. 

This is one reason the conversations about essential ingredients for meaningful, authentic community happened before the conversation about clear shared purpose. If you get a sense of belonging from a community because they seem to be anxious about the same things you're anxious about and they seem to fear the same people you fear, run for the door. A shared purpose that fails to create greater wholeness in the world is not a purpose that will ultimately serve you or anyone else. This is not to say that every organization that claims to create greater wholeness is legitimately beneficial, but a purpose that doesn't clearly lead to greater wholeness is not a worthwhile purpose. 

A community's purpose can only be evaluated if it's clear. I once heard a community leader speak at a fund raiser and say, "This organization has done great things in the past, and it was because of your contributions. I don't know what we're going to do next, but whatever it is, it will be because of your support." Not a very inspiring sense of purpose. This organization may have a set of values that a lot of people agree with, but without a clear statement of shared purpose, all the members of that community can run off in different directions doing what they think will support their shared values. And none of them are likely to be as effective as an organization that unifies people around a clear vision. 

Some communities care a great deal about inclusion. This is a wonderful and praiseworthy value, but it cannot be a community's purpose. A clear purpose is actually a specific kind of healthy boundary for a community. Including everyone isn't possible within the context of a clear purpose, because everyone doesn't hold the same values or passions. At best, a community can be inclusive of every person who aligns with the clear shared purpose of the community. But a single community's purpose cannot accommodate every person who walks in the door with a personal agenda. This winds up creating a sense of belonging for nobody.

Imagine a mosque attempting to be inclusive by serving communion for the sake of a Christian couple that wanted to start attending. That mosque would fail at its purpose of creating Muslim community. It would alienate the majority of its members. It probably would not provide the same caliber of communion experience that a Christian community would provide. It would compromise its clear shared purpose (unless that clear shared purpose was to become a more Christian community). And it would probably fail in its ability to set healthy boundaries. Now, hopefully the community of Muslims that gather at that mosque have a greater shared purpose than simply to gather together and be Muslim. Hopefully, they have a sense of how they want to engage in the larger community to live out their Muslim values in a way that creates greater wholeness. That shared purpose probably does not need to include serving communion, no matter how lovely or insistent that Christian couple may be. Inclusion has its limits, and those limits are set by the clear shared purpose of a community.

Within the boundaries of a clear shared purpose, of course, inclusion can be a powerful value a community holds. True inclusion is a lot of work, though. It often requires a lot of time and energy, and it often means being hyper-conscious of socially accepted metaphors and practices. A group of people recently became offended because the metaphor of walking was used throughout an event. They claimed that this metaphor was a repeated act of verbal violence toward people who use other forms of mobility. This presents a real problem when commonly used phrases or familiar songs (with no intent of excluding anyone from their message) use a metaphor of walking. Being inclusive sometimes means creating new language, and this new language can sound stilted at first. Unless the shared purpose of a community clearly connects with creating new language so that everyone is included in the words used by the community, this call for inclusion can be a hindrance to the community. If an entire community is able to align with the need for new language, however, it can be a powerful unifying and strengthening factor.

Claims of verbal violence and calls for greater inclusion often fail to take a community's purpose into consideration, however. Angrily insisting that a community accommodate one's personal values is not necessarily the most self-differentiated approach. If you want to be part of a community, and you feel in some way ostracized, the very best approach would seem to be connecting the practices of a community to its clearly stated purpose. Even if a community values the inherent worth and dignity of every person, if its clearly stated purpose is to honor the human value of people around them by distributing shoes, it isn't really appropriate to insist they also build houses, even if building houses would also align with the community's values. If that community is failing to distribute shoes effectively, though, or if its distribution seems to repeatedly avoid a certain neighborhood, there's a clear line of connection to follow. When inclusion clearly connects to a community's shared purpose, it's hard to argue with. 

Personally, I find it difficult to be in communities with religious identities. Songs that praise or petition a supernatural are antithetical to my personal beliefs. Public prayers rarely call upon the strength and capability of human beings, but rather ask an external deity to provide things for people. Speeches or sermons often proclaim things like, "It's all part of God's plan," or, "God is in control." I feel like an outsider in the presence of those songs or prayers or speeches. I can choose to be personally offended, or I can look to the clear purpose of the community. If a community's practices are clearly in alignment with its identity and purpose, then I really have nothing to complain about. I simply won't feel a sense of belonging in that community, because my personal identity and values are different from what the community promotes. 

If the community's practices seem not to be aligned with its clearly stated purpose, however, then I have a reason to speak up. It's often the case that a community and its leaders are unconsciously making assumptions that aren't true. If I feel an affinity for the community's purpose and my values and identity align with the community's stated values and identity, it's up to me to point out how the community's unintentionally exclusionary practices can shift to include my perspective while remaining clearly aligned with the community's shared purpose. When a community lacks a clear purpose, it's much easier for me to feel angry, offended, and alienated, especially if community leaders express a value of inclusion or claim to be welcoming to all people. At the same time, I don't believe that I should be made welcome by every community I might visit. Some communities have a purpose I don't share and don't have any interest in sharing. Neither I nor the community need to change. We all just need to be honest about what we are choosing to make our lives about.

Just as all of us need a clear sense of purpose to make our lives meaningful, communities need a clear shared purpose. The clearer and more specific the purpose, the more confident people will be in their sense of belonging. The more confident people are in their sense of belonging, the more easily they will participate in the mutual ingredients that make community healthy, authentic, and meaningful for everyone. The more vague a community's purpose, the more tentative people will be in their sense of belonging, and the more likely they will be to feel anger, hurt, or sadness when the community fails to meet their personal expectations. Lacking a clear purpose that's shared by its members means a community will have greater challenges in creating safe space for people to practice those five essential ingredients. It's better for people to leave with a clear understanding of how their personal identity doesn't mesh with the community's identity, even if this means that a community remains small. A community serves its current and future members best by having a clear purpose that all its members can share.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Basics of Boundaries

A lot of communities are familiar with boundaries. Boundaries are often used to define who is an insider and who is an outsider. Religious communities often use belief as a boundary. (Members of this community believe in X, Y, or Z, and if you don't believe in X, Y, or Z, you can't be a member of this community.) Some communities use behavior as a boundary. (Members of this behavior abstain from alcohol, or pray at certain times of the day, or wear special clothing, and if you don't do these things, you can't be a member of the community.)

Especially for people whose entire social circle is comprised of a single community, these rules and restrictions are a means of controlling people. Stepping out of bounds can mean being ostracized or disowned. This sort of boundary is harmful when shame, rejection, and condemnation are used as enforcement. The message from many religious communities is that certain people are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy because they don't fit within the community boundaries. In many cases, boundaries become walls, shutting people out of community, imprisoning people in relationships, or preventing safe self-disclosure, honesty, and affirmation.

Healthy communities, on the other hand, set boundaries based on what behaviors align with the shared values of the community. A healthy community doesn't need to distinguish between insider and outsider, because the community's commonly held guiding principles and shared purpose are clearly defined. Rather than controlling people's behavior, healthy boundaries are collaboratively defined practices that reflect the community's values.

For instance, if a community has decided to practice mutual affirmation, self-disclosure, hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty, they may agree that some behaviors reinforce those values and some behaviors run counter to those values. Let's say, for instance, that a community recognizes that gossiping about someone isn't congruent with those five characteristics, but that it reflects those values to speak honestly, directly, and respectfully to a person when there's conflict. The boundary for the community, then, is that communication within the community reflects the community's shared values.

If Alex goes to Bethany to complain about something Charlotte said, that doesn't mean Alex should get kicked out of the community or shamed. It does mean that Bethany has an opportunity to help Alex make a course correction and realign with communication that reflects the high aspirations of the community. Bethany could do this in a variety of ways. She could guide Alex toward speaking directly, honestly, and respectfully with Charlotte -- or even offer to go with Alex if the conversation seems challenging. She could also help Alex empathize with Charlotte. Remaining detached from Alex's anxiety might be challenging for Bethany, and she may be tempted to take sides or spread further gossip about Charlotte (or Alex). Having clear boundaries in the community and giving everyone responsibility for upholding those boundaries will hopefully make it clear to Bethany how she can respond more intentionally.

This is an important point, because many communities have specialized people who are boundary enforcers. If you have a problem with someone, you go to the boundary enforcer and file a complaint, the boundary enforcer looks into the situation and decides if a boundary has been crossed, and then (ideally) a system of justice is activated to provide just consequences. This system lets most people off the hook for enforcing community boundaries. In a large society, this has some benefits. Our national justice system is severely flawed, but it's at least an improvement on vigilante justice or the escalations of retributive violence that happen in some cultures. In smaller communities, though, people can collaborate to create community boundaries that reflect their shared values, and everyone can be equally responsible for enforcing those boundaries by their own intentional behavior. Bethany doesn't need to go running to a community elder to inform on Alex. She's capable of being intentional in her own behavior when Alex's anxiety gets activated.

Each community has to determine for itself what level of boundary-crossing warrants greater attention. There are times when people may be resistant to correction when they are acting in violation of a community's shared boundaries. People can engage in conflict when they are anxious; fear prompts defiance in some folks. It's important for a community to know how it will respond to this kind of anxiety or fear in a way that aligns with its guiding principles and values. Community members should know ahead of time what the consequences are for persistent boundary-crossing, and as many members as possible should be empowered to hold one another accountable to the community's shared values and guiding principles.

Boundaries can also help provide a sense of safety in a community. Background checks for people working with children is a boundary. Clear lines of financial accountability may be another community boundary. Sometimes these sorts of boundaries are rooted in fear and anxiety about people. The same boundaries could flow from a community's intentional identity, however. The difference is not necessarily the boundaries themselves, but the foundation on which the boundaries are built. Well-defined community values and shared vision undergird healthy boundaries.

Healthy individuals have boundaries, too. And individual boundaries may not be identical to community boundaries. One person may choose to be vegetarian, while the community as a whole doesn't make such a choice. It's the responsibility of the individual to clearly state their boundaries, and it's the responsibility of the community to respect the boundaries of individuals. Emile has the responsibility to say, "I won't eat the chicken casserole Devon brought to the potluck, because I don't eat meat." No one has to apologize for the presence of a chicken casserole, because vegetarianism isn't a shared value of the community. Likewise, no one in the community gets to force Emile to eat the chicken casserole, or shame or pressure Emile (or Devon). Radical hospitality may prompt someone to take action to make sure Emile has something to eat, but this can be a loving act that respects the boundaries of those present.

Sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs, and sometimes personal boundaries are inconvenient for a community. Healthy community can recognize these realities and remain respectful of the boundaries that individuals set, as long as the community's shared values and guiding principles aren't compromised. Say a community decides that its shared values are non-theistic -- that as a community they will not promote supernaturalism through any of their common practices. If Gerry prefers to pray before a meal, it's fine for Gerry to pray. It isn't fine for Gerry to insist that everyone else pray. If Gerry wants to listen to overtly theistic music, that's fine. Gerry just doesn't get to require everyone to sing theistic music together.

The same would be true for a theistic community that determines its shared values to include affirming and promoting affection or gratitude toward a supernatural. If this is a shared value of the community, Fabian's personal boundary of refusing to pray doesn't get to define the practices of the entire community. The community's boundaries also don't mean that Fabian can be forced to pray, however. Fabian can choose not to sing the community's theistic songs, but if the community's shared values include gratitude toward a supernatural, Fabian should expect them to sing praises to that supernatural as a community practice.

For some communities, the challenging part is defining these boundaries clearly so that individuals will know whether their personal boundaries will be in conflict with the community's practices. If a community expects everyone to do something, it's best to be honest and direct about that expectation. Too often, communities claim to welcome everyone and fail to provide a clear indication of what they're welcoming everyone into. It doesn't matter to me if a Christian community acts like they welcome me; if they're going to expect me to participate in blatantly Christian activities, I'm not going to feel welcome. I'm not going to feel like a respected, valued, accepted part of a community that expects me to act in opposition to my own personal beliefs. When a community is clear about its boundaries and practices, and an individual is clear about their personal boundaries and practices, people can easily see whether they are a good fit for the community. Hopefully, a community's shared values and guiding principles are directly reflected in their boundaries and practices.
I mentioned that sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs. As long as those personal boundaries aren't in conflict with the community's boundaries, it's still best to be loving and respectful of those personal boundaries that may be misguided. As a person grows in their ability to practice mutual self-disclosure and honesty, and as a person participates in giving and receiving sincere affirmation and active, unconditional love, their beliefs -- and therefore their boundaries -- may change. People first need to feel safe in community before they can engage in the challenging work of defining personal guiding principles and casting vision in their lives. Respect for their personal boundaries, and clear community boundaries, can help provide that sense of safety.

All of this conversation about boundaries is within the context of a community that is practicing the essential five ingredients we've already explored: mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, mutual active and unconditional love, mutual honesty, and mutual affirmation. Some people may need a lot of help from their community to learn how to establish healthy personal boundaries. Boundaries can also be abused to preserve a community at the expense of the individual, or to create power-over structures rather than power-with systems. This is one reason community boundaries should be collaboratively created by the members of a community, with a clear connection to the shared values and guiding principles of the community. With these elements in place, a community can incorporate one more vital piece to creating greater wholeness in the world: a well-defined shared purpose or vision.

There are several books and web resources that carry this conversation about boundaries deeper, but one of the best is still Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Even though this is touted as a Christian book, Cloud's observations are valid beyond the sphere of Christianity, and his recommendations are easily interpreted into a sound Humanist framework for relationships. He's also released a number of spin-offs that may be helpful to people looking for guidance on setting healthy boundaries in specific relationships.