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Posts Tagged ‘Consensus Decision-Making’

Laird Schaub (community and consensus blog) and Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig (www.maikwe.net) are members of neighboring Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, respectively, in Rutledge, Missouri. Laird co-founded Sandhill Farm in 1974 as an egalitarian, income-sharing farming community, and is one of the creators and current administrator of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization committed to nurturing and promoting intentional communities worldwide. He has worked as a group process consultant for 25 years, providing training in consensus facilitation, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Ma’ikwe is author of Passion as Big as a Planet, which explores the connection between the inner and outer dimensions of ecological activism. She is a consensus facilitation trainer, often working together with Laird, directs Ecovillage Education US, and gives workshops on starting communities, leadership, and spiritual activism. She is the mother of a teenage son and expresses her passion for people and planet through helping Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage grow into its vision of a full-scale, ecologically regenerative village and center for research and education.

In our conversation, Laird, Ma’ikwe, and I discuss the consequences of communities lacking a common understanding and agreements around how to handle emotionally-charged conflict. We explore the strengths and weaknesses often exhibited in communities with a shared spiritual orientation, and the challenge of bringing the full range of human modes of knowing into the room—including emotional, kinesthetic, intuitive, and spiritual—in a culture that is heavily biased toward translating all forms of knowledge and experience into clear thinking. Laird talks about his experiences working with communities and the most common causes of group conflict he encounters, such as scapegoating (the contagious belief that “things would be better if only so-and-so would…”) and the tendency of groups to harden themselves around particular narratives. Finally, Laird and Ma’ikwe speak of the advantages Christian teachings offer in establishing healthy relational and communication habits in community, and of the spiritual benefits of consensus process and decision-making, and its congruence with a Christian sacramental worldview—of God in all things.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight.

—Dietrich Bonheoffer

I want to give voice here to a concern that’s been building in my mind. Two interviews that have had a strong impact on me, particularly in how I assess the relative structural health of a community, are my conversations with Lois Arkin on structural conflict, and with Lysbeth Borie on consensus process. Both interviews overlap in terms of content, but they especially converge on a common insight: that ideally, a core community should develop a clear self-understanding of its identity and mission as soon as possible, and develop structures (vision and mission statements, agreements and accountability systems, decision making processes, membership formation and discernment processes, etc.) that allow that self-understanding to grow and flourish, before opening its doors to newcomers.

Unfortunately, unless community founders have made a strong effort to inform themselves, or have extensive experience with groups analogous to an intentional community, they tend to begin with a flurry of idealistic enthusiasm and a boatload of naiveté. Which is to say, many communities don’t do the kind of necessary detail structural work at the beginning, and hence set themselves up for conflict down the road. For instance, most communities begin with sincere, passionate intentions. The buzz of shared chemistry and the excitement of a new, deeply meaningful venture may carry them forward to establish a seemingly-solid foundation. However, if by that time someone suggests that the community develop clear rules, boundaries, definitions, and so on, other members may balk. Too rigid, they say. Or legalistic. Or authoritarian, oppressive, repressive, etc. Besides, we all get along; we can work out our differences as we go, right?

Well, actually…

By the time a group has congealed around the impression that they’re on the same page, fired by the same aspiration, when the honeymoon-period abates and reality sets in and they begin to realize that they may not be as close to kin as they thought, the consequences could get ugly. At that critical threshold, if there aren’t clear, written agreements, if the vision and mission haven’t been spelled out in enough detail to ensure that everyone understands their meaning and implications, if there aren’t shared communication skills and conflict resolution procedures, if there’s no accountability to outside agents, if emotional maturity hasn’t been a primary criteria for selecting new members, then the consequences are likely to get very ugly indeed.

Now, contrast this unhappy picture with how a monastery functions. A Benedictine monastery, for instance, lives by a rule of life that regulates the daily round in some detail, leaving room for a certain autonomy and discernment on the basis of the culture, context, and temperament of a community, but nonetheless legislating a way of life that is extremely regimented and limiting by the standards of the dominant culture. Without this regimentation and limitation, however, the integrity of the charism, or spiritual intent of the community, would dissipate. Without clear limits and boundaries for the self-determining ego to bruise itself against, growth would be stifled. Contemporary sensibilities chafe at this idea, but that’s the point. Chafing against voluntarily chosen limitations for the sake of a way of life formed around higher principles, values, and intentions than impulsive freedom of choice engenders growth and maturity. Again, I do believe that this same basic orientation toward growth and maturity can function in a less formal community that makes decisions by consensus; I just think this option requires a lot more work and clarity of intention at the beginning than many people realize (see Lysbeth Borie).

When I entered monastic formation, I did not participate in the central decision-making body, the Chapter. In fact, because I had only taken temporary vows and left after four-and-a-half years, I never had the opportunity to participate in Chapter, which is reserved only for those who’ve taken permanent vows (a process that takes at least 5 years). In small matters, however, I participated in a weekly group process where I was able to share views and concerns. Still, by and large, the general structure of community life was predetermined, anchored by a codified body of tradition that spanned at least seventeen centuries. In this context, change does happen, but it does so only with careful discernment within the flow of this tradition.

What I experienced in myself and witnessed in many others who entered to be formed as monks during my stay was a fairly predictable pattern: as postulants (those in the first year of formation), we would arrive with varying degrees of enthusiasm and confidence. Typically, however, within our second year—the novitiate—some shift took place in our attitudes, sometimes dramatically. The channel of enthusiasm became gummed up with wads of negativity and a jaundiced eye. In reality, it was mostly our own unintegrated negativity that was bubbling up to the surface under the otherwise gentle, transformative limitations of monastic life; but of course, it never looks that way when you’re in the thick of it. Rather, this is what it tends to look like: the community’s doing this wrong, that wrong, failing at this, mediocre in that, and I know—I know—just how they ought to be doing it. And why don’t they listen to me? How can they do this to me? After all, this is not what I signed up for! The most dramatic illustration of the latter attitude that I’ve witnessed occurred when I went for a walk with a man who had been a diocesan priest for many years. This man had discerned a call to monastic life, had all his ducks in a row—years of counseling and spiritual direction discerning his vocation, extended stays in monasteries—and arrived certain that this monastery was it. No doubt. Two months into his postulancy, on his way out the door, he and I were sitting on a bench together, talking. He shook his head mournfully: “This just isn’t the community I thought it was.” Having seen this phenomenon before, I bit down hard on an irresistible urge to laugh, until I could shake it off freely with my novice director later. After all, the earnest mourner presently in my midst just wouldn’t appreciate the punchline: It never is the community you thought it was. It never matches your wish-dream. And no amount of prior discernment will keep you from having to cross that threshold of disappointment.

Of course, the same punchline holds true in less formal intentional communities. But here’s the rub: imagine if the kind of negativity that tends to arise, that’s actually meant to arise in the process of communal formation, had no defined limits, no boundaries to keep it in check, if the community lacked a clear self-understanding, in writing, that could serve as an anchor and shared point of reference. Imagine (and some of you don’t have to imagine; you can simply remember) such people, chafing at the negativity within themselves that they mistakenly displace onto the community, pouting and pleading and demanding, in often sophisticated-adult-seeming ways, that the community change. Imagine such people participating in the consensus process, even though they’ve been in the community less than a year. Even one such person, lacking the emotional maturity and mentoring to healthily navigate this transition, can easily sink the whole ship.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that a community cannot learn from the critiques of its newer members, or that there may be very real shortcomings in a community that warrant strong challenge, or simply the decision to leave. Rather, what I am suggesting is that real discernment, real commitment, cannot be attained until the threshold of disillusionment is crossed. When this isn’t understood, everyone loses.

So, based on my own experience in community and what I’ve learned thus far on the tour, here’s my advice to aspiring communitarians: before you move in together, or as soon thereafter as possible, hammer out in detail who you are and why, what you expect of one another, the rules and boundaries that will shape the integrity of the community you aspire to be. Choose how you’ll make decisions and get solid training (especially if your choice is consensus). Train as well in conflict resolution processes and make a commitment to resolving conflict a matter of policy. To draw an analogy from the monastic tradition, don’t be afraid to draw up a Rule of Life. The content of the Rule can and will change and adapt over time, but the importance of having as much clarity up front as possible is that it can save you from choosing members who really aren’t on the same page, and from the inevitable and potentially devastating conflict that will surely ensue. Once a core group has established such a “Rule,” then open the door to new members. Choose for emotional maturity. Choose those who, as best as can be mutually discerned, really do share your aspirations and intentions, and are willing to submit to the “Rule” because they genuinely value the creative restraint and responsibilities your way of life asks of them. And once a firm foundation is set, make sure new members have weathered their “terrible twos” (I use this phrase because, in my experience, the initial phase of disillusionment often occurs in the second year) before they’re able to make a permanent commitment or make decisions affecting the vision and mission of the community. Take permanent membership as seriously as you would marriage, and make sure this level of seriousness is communicated to those in the membership process (you can always have gradations of membership, such as associates, interns, temporary members, etc.).

And let me know how it goes.

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In this second half of my conversation with Lois Arkin, having introduced the general landscape of ecovillages and the Los Angeles Eco-Village in Part I, we now hone in on lessons she’s learned along the way. Specifically, Lois addresses the issue of structural conflict, reflecting on her own experience in light of the insights of ecovillage and intentional communities author, consultant, workshop leader, and conference presenter, Diana Leafe Christian. The concept of structural conflict points to the fact that, if a community or organization doesn’t adequately address fundamental issues of identity, values, and vision, and how these are to be implemented over time, conflict will most likely ensue, regardless of who’s involved. Given that communities are often founded with an exuberant mixture of idealism and naiveté, drawing on this very practical wisdom from those who have weathered first fervors, successes and failures, can be lifesaving.

In this vein, we spend time talking about membership processes and how these have evolved for the Los Angeles Eco-Village, becoming more narrow and restrictive over time. Earlier, Lois spoke of ecovillages as having porous boundaries, neither closed nor wide-open to the world of which they’re a part. Membership requirements, discernment, formation, education, etc., play an essential role in ensuring that these boundaries, and the integrity of a community’s identity, purpose, and common life, remain healthy. Membership is also an area sure to become highly contentious and problematic for all if these criteria and processes aren’t clear from the beginning.

How does a community clearly impart to new members and communicate to the world its own ethos, while integrating new energies and ideas from without and within? How does this fluid communal organism remain open while retaining its distinctiveness? For a start, through building on solid footing by alleviating structural conflict as soon as possible.

Other resources mentioned in this interview: Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community and Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities by Diana Leafe Christian, and Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making by Tim Hartnett

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Lysbeth Borie of the Alpha Institute has been involved in consensus decision making for over thirty years, including 10 years of daily practice at the Alpha Farm community in Deadwood, Oregon, and has worked as a consensus trainer, both privately and in partnership with her mentor Caroline Estes, since 1988. In our conversation, among other aspects of consensus process, Lysbeth and I explore how consensus process done well enriches the culture of communities, fostering growth, intimacy, and clarity of discernment; how it functions best when approached as a personal and collective transformational practice; the elements that go into healthy consensus process; and the role of consensus in the organic stages of group development.

While this is one of my longer interviews, I believe it’s well worth your time if this topic holds interest for you. What I most appreciate about Lysbeth’s reflections is the sense of consensus process as able to integrate the material, personal, social, and spiritual concerns of a community and use them as the raw material for mutual growth on all of these levels. This raises further questions that might be worth exploring more in depth at a later time. For instance, underlying this process is a worldview relying on a systems or ecological perspective that emphasizes the interrelationship and interdependence of those within the system, as opposed to a hierarchical worldview that implies the necessity for a clear chain of command. This contrast in worldviews in turn affects how we conceive of God and God’s action in the world, determines the forms of institutions that we develop, and the pattern of relations with one another and the planet.

Interestingly, the Rule of Benedict, while tending strongly toward the hierarchical (with the embodiment of Christ’s authority centralized in the person of the abbot), does not neglect the horizontal, or “that of God in all people.” For instance, as outlined in the third chapter of the Rule, the abbot should consult the whole of the community before making important decisions because “the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.” While the brothers in this instance play only a consultative role, there is nonetheless an acknowledgement that no one person, not even the abbot, can presume to have access to the whole truth but must patiently listen for God potentially speaking through each and all.

For me, this raises the further question of whether consensus process can adequately account for differences in levels of maturity and the appropriation of the ‘charism’ or calling of a community. Especially in a monastery or neo-monastic community, where the intent is to form its members according to the wisdom of a centuries-old tradition, there would seem to be a need to integrate both hierarchical and egalitarian approaches, though this ought to look different in our day than it did in Benedict’s sixth century context.

Much food for thought.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise

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John Schwiebert has served as pastor of the Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church of Portland, Oregon, since its inception in 1985, and is a founding member of the 18th Avenue Peace House, an intentional community that serves as the central gathering and worship space for the larger community and congregation.  In our conversation, John and I discuss how the community came to adopt the Quaker process of spiritual discernment, or “sense of the meeting,” after the consensus process they learned from their social activism endeavors failed to provide an adequate means of addressing serious differences among community members. We also talk about the community’s present process of discerning the future and living into the next generation as John prepares to step down from his leadership position. Finally, John offers strong words on the degree of commitment necessary for healthy, enduring communities, likening the decision to join a community to that of entering into marriage.

Metanoia Peace Community

The Metanoia Peace Community took its inspiration from the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, particularly the latter’s approach to intensifying and balancing both the inner (contemplative) and outer (sociopolitical) dimensions of Christian discipleship. In appropriating this model of radical discipleship, members of the Metanoia Peace Community commit to practices of resource sharing, common and individual prayer, peacemaking in the home and through acts of civil disobedience, participation in smaller discipleship groups that meet for mutual support and accountability, and, as a “Reconciling Congregation” within the United Methodist Church, welcoming and advocating on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.  For residents of the 18th Avenue Peace House, these commitments include income sharing and a more intensive sharing of daily life, prayer, and ministry together. In its ministry of hospitality, the Peace House has provided residential hospice care, particularly to persons with AIDS. The Peace House also functions as the hub for Grief Watch, which provides resources, publications, and support through the grieving process, especially for those suffering perinatal loss and the loss of children to murder or suicide.

When I first arrived at the Peace House, it was a bit of a culture shock: from Tacoma Catholic Worker in the midst of the inner city to a beautiful, spacious house in a relatively affluent Portland neighborhood. Nevertheless, in hearing stories (off-tape) about the community’s history—particularly risks taken financially and in their commitments as war tax resisters and peace activists—and the array of ministries that spin from its creative center, I was impressed. I geared my list of questions in the hope of eliciting some of those stories and John’s reflections on their significance, but in the actual interview he responded with quite different material. That’s not a bad thing, but if I was savvier, I would have tried to probe deeper into what he did offer than continue with the questions I’d preselected. For instance, John shared his thoughts on servant-leadership and his own role as leader within the community. But because this left me more confused than enlightened in regard to how his leadership interfaced with the community’s consensus process, I chose to leave that material out. In any case, the two topics that I found most engaging in this conversation were his reflections on commitment and spiritual discernment, the latter being the perfect segue for my next interview, which will focus exclusively on consensus process in community.

Metanoia Peace Community has built a strong foundation with its witness to Christian community and its dynamic ministries, but it’s also clearly a community with an uncertain future. As its original members age and its leader steps aside, it will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on what follows, since this is universally a sensitive pivot point in the life of any community.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise

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Nora with Daughters Bridget and Maggie

Nora Leider has been a resident of the Tacoma Catholic Worker community for the past six years, involved in a variety of the community’s activities, including helping guests transitioning from homelessness to develop strategies toward greater relational and financial independence, advocating for fair, affordable housing and mixed income communities in downtown Tacoma, and managing the community’s organic garden. Continuing on the theme of family in community, Nora and I discuss her journey of becoming wife and mother within the context of discerning and becoming a core community member. She describes the lessons she’s learned along the way in negotiating boundaries and establishing balance between community and family life, and the importance for her of living in a faith community that combines addressing immediate needs with working for systemic change. Nora also shares how the consensus process has led her to a deeper trust and openness toward others’ intentions, perspectives, and insights, and offers an encouraging word for young families discerning a call to life in community.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine

The Tacoma Catholic Worker grew out of a movement of houses of hospitality initiated by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York City in the 1930s. Combining the practice of welcoming the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the marginalized as Christ (Matt. 25:31-46) with a social vision embracing anarchist and pacifist principles, the Catholic Worker movement has since taken on many and varied expressions, with over 180 Catholic Worker communities in the United States at present.

Founded in 1989 with the initial intention of opening their doors to provide emergency shelter for the neighborhood’s homeless, the Tacoma Catholic Worker community soon found itself overwhelmed by the sheer number of slumbering people about the house each night. Reflecting on this experience and recognizing that Tacoma already had facilities for emergency shelter, the community decided that offering transitional housing for those seeking to get off the streets was a more effective, needed service that they could more manageably offer. Many singles, families, and women recently released from prison have all found help and home in the ensuing years.

Today the community is comprised of eight houses, with approximately fifteen permanent members, plus children, alongside temporary guests, residents, and interns.  In addition to transitional housing, Tacoma Catholic Worker hosts weekly open houses including liturgy and a communal meal, shares the yield of their organic garden, offers showers and phone services, and engages in local advocacy on issues that affect the neighborhood’s poor and marginalized residents.  Tacoma Catholic Worker is also a center of activity for Disarm Now Plowshares, organizing nonviolent actions in protest of the nearby Trident submarine base in Bangor, which houses more than 2,000 nuclear warheads, the largest single stockpile in the United States.

What I appreciate about Nora’s reflections is that, while her story may not be as dramatic as that of Craig Greenfield’s—nothing approaching taking small children in tow from Cambodian slums to one of the most destitute neighborhoods in the Western world—she manages to capture in a simple, accessible way the value of community for families and children, and for finding meaningful engagement with the people, the challenges, the hopes, fears, and dreams embodied in an inner city neighborhood. Like Servants Vancouver, the Tacoma Catholic Worker witnesses in a deliberate way to the possibility of breaking down the stratifications—economic, relational, and otherwise—inherent in so much of modern urban culture.  As communities of faith, each witness to the possibility of an intensification of following Christ, especially as he is to be found in one another and in the ‘least’ among us. As a young mother, Nora can insist that this work and witness is enriched by and enriching for children.

For more on the history of the challenge of Catholic Worker communities to accommodate families, see Dan McKanan, “Chapter 6: Inventing the Catholic Worker Family,” in The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), 146-180.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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