Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Models of Community: Shared Beliefs, Shared Goals

Organizations bound by shared beliefs and goals offer models of sustainable community-building.

Yesterday I drew a causal connection between the ascendence of the Savior State and the resultant decline in community. As the Central State devolves, we will benefit from examining proven models of re-establishing or strengthening community.

Chief among these models are organizations bound by shared beliefs and goals, and the most common examples of these are houses of worship: churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and meetinghouses (Quakers). For simplicity's sake I will refer to all such houses of worship as churches.

The term "faith-based organization" is generally a synonym for religious faith, and so I use "shared beliefs" to include organizations which are not religious in nature but which draw upon a shared belief system and a shared set of goals. Many environmental groups have these characteristics.

As readers of Survival+ know, I see community and local enterprises as the solutions to the devolution of the Savior State and the hegemony of global corporate cartels and State/bank financial Elites.

As a result, I am keenly interested in all aspects of community organizations and enterprises.

Thus when correspondent Charles D. asked me to address local religious communities, it was a subject I'd been mulling for years.

If I had one request of you it would be that you consider doing a series of entries on local religious communities that generally share your values. I am talking about local congregations, not national religious organizations. My local church, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shephard (NY) takes care of its own and as many others as its parisoners can manage. From what I can tell this is true of some of the local synagogues as well. These folks mean well, care a lot, and put their care into action under challenging circumstances.

Unfortunately, religion on the national scale has largely been hijacked by special interests and politicized to serve their agendas. The U.S. constitution explicitly separates a secular Central State from the tyrannies of religion, while protecting religion from the tyrannies of the State.

Some community groups are founded on and bound by religious faith; others are based on a secular set of values and goals. No one group can do everything for individuals and the broader community, and the "social capital" described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community is a vibrant, dynamic mix of many groups, voluntary associations, circles of friends and professional colleagues, etc.

Just as opaque, centralized, State/central bank-controlled manipulation has distorted the financial ecosystem of the nation, so too has the Savior State laid waste to the ecosystem of community, which in a healthy state is comprised of many layers of loosely networked voluntary, opt-in "intentional" groups and organizations.

In terms of charting out these self-organizing networks, each individual is a "node" that connects (much like a neuron in the brain) to a number of "clusters" of other individuals, i.e. a group, social network, organization, club, etc.

As Putnam observed, the atrophy of community in the U.S. runs much deeper than the decline of civic purpose, pride and engagement; the American people have largely given up on picnics with friends, too.

Membership has atrophied into a simulacrum of membership--a passive annual contribution, most of which goes to support the bloated staff of a national organization which devotes most of its time and energy to collecting funds to support itself. That is a hollow "membership" indeed.

Today I will relate a story of a church that experienced a revival, and tomorrow I will discuss a non-religious community group which thrives on the support of the citizens it serves.

A few years ago, the Presbyterian Church my father had been attending for years was in a perilous state. The membership had dwindled to a handful of elderly people which barely filled a single pew on Sunday. The minister was a highly educated, intellectual gentleman who knew the Bible but did not have an interest in outreach or community building.

As a result, the church was considering transferring ownership to some other group seeking a church building.

My father had been donating time and money to the church for all his years in the congregation, and so he was involved in these various negotiations. The decline of the church troubled him deeply but it seemed unstoppable.

In what can only be classified as a minor miracle (divine intervention to believers, a stroke of luck to others), a group of people in their 30s, mostly parents of young children, began attending the church, and they soon made it known that they'd been seeking a church which could serve their own thriving circle of friendship and faith.

The transformation was magical. A new minister, just as highly educated and knowledgeable, but with young children of his own, was hired, and within a short period of time this "new blood" had infused the leadership of the church with new vitality. Suddenly (or so it seemed to me, a frequent visitor) that the laughter and energy of children had returned to the church grounds, and study groups, work groups, and shared potluck meals came to life.

What had become a rather sad place was now an energized house of worship and sharing. There are practicalities to maintaining any structure and grounds in the real world, and my father had been making do with a dwindling base of donors to keep the place up. The new members, being in their peak earning years, also brought an infusion of donations that were applied to various maintenance issues.

I draw several lessons from this experience. As our society and economy has become ever-more centralized, we have glorified the role of leadership: we worship CEOs now as if they were living gods because the highest goal of our culture is generating outsized profits, and expect our political "leaders" to do what we cannot do for ourselves: make the hard choices and trade-offs. Is it any surprise they fail so completely and miserably?

The rebirth, if you will, of this one small church shows that leadership comes from within the group; a "leader" is not so much leading as organizing the goals set by the group itself. Leadership, as many have noted, is more a function of the group "leading" the leader than being passively led forward by a charismatic figure.

It takes a strong commitment of time, devotion, money and tolerance of others to forge a new community or revitalize an atrophied one. "Community" is not a Hollywood film, with a plot point at 20 minutes and a conflict/crisis resolved by minute 110. It is going to meetings and tolerating the foibles of others, gently suppressing the unworkable in favor of the do-able, and building consensus around clearly stated goals and projects.

Leadership responsibility is assigned and accepted or declined, a support group (subcommittee) is formed to make sure there are enough motivated bodies around to get the job done, and all the details worked out--a time consuming process.

Groups not bound by faith or an equivalent shared value system tend to devolve quickly, as the friction of working with others grinds down the will to continue. Tolerance is a undervalued treasure, and faith provides the "glue," the forebearance and the forgiveness which is needed to work with a spectrum of others.

A Central Savior State "makes things happen" via centralized top-down authority, predatory taxation and the ultimate threat of coercion. Community "social capital" is not coercive, centralized or exploitative. Global corporations share many characteristics with central states; the "taxation with representation" offered by our government is a facsimile of representation, for the representatives are all "owned" by or partnered with financial Elites. The U.S. has in essence become a Corporate State.

Community "social capital" is a different, under-appreciated model for getting things done and building "value."

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