Shaping Communities

"Coordinating a community's practices through good governance
helps to make its way of life, clear, visible and viable."

— Larry L. Rasmussen

The shaping of communities is the practice by which we agree to be reliable personally and organizationally. This practice takes on life through roles and rituals, laws and agreements - indeed, through the whole assortment of shared commitments and institutional arrangements that order common life. In one sense, then, shaping communities is not just a single practice of its own. It is the practice that provides the choreography for all the other practices of a community or society.

Constituting a Way of Life
Life is sometimes a mess. In order for it to flourish, we have to decide how we assemble, how we divide life's basic goods, and how we will record our history. In order for communities to flourish, they must be ordered, cared for, led. The practice of governance is the soil in which all the practices of a community are rooted and nourished.

When have you experienced a community that was poorly governed? What changes in ordering, caring, and leadership were called for? When have you experienced healthy community? In what ways did this community create a space for your gifts and talents?

The Community of Jesus
Christians look to Jesus as an example of leadership, and the Bible provides models for life-giving governance. Jesus constituted his community around power turned upside down. What message does Jesus' style of egalitarian discipleship suggest about models for leadership?

Both Jesus and the first Christians embraced Judaism's sense of a covenant relationship with the one God. What covenantal understandings were present in the early church? What Jewish practices did the early church eventually decide to give up? What tensions attended the faith community as it made its decisions?

How did the "new world order" of the early church change when Christianity gained status as the universal imperial faith? At what point in a community's development does stability win out over flexibility?

The Church as Alternative Community
In what ways does your faith community reflect the alternative community of the early church? In whose hands does effective power reside? What kind is it? How is it used, and to what ends? Who benefits and who pays? Who frames the issues and directs the kind of attention they get? How does information flow?

At best, leaders are choreographers to help people identify the challenges they face and untangle the issues. What leaders do you know who are able to clarify the purpose, values and goals of a group?

Setting the Table of Community
The perennial Christian strategy is to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories. We can adapt and create governance and leadership practices, then, by answering basic questions: What shape ought the gathering take? Who breaks the bread -- all or some? Who tells the stories? Whom do our practices welcome to the table? How do we show in our life together that social distinctions based on race, class, and gender don't count here?

Are guests sometimes called to be hosts? Do we encourage each participant to find gifts for meeting the hungers of the world? Does the organization of general community life encourage leadership to emerge from the foot of the table?

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Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

— I Corinthians 12:4-7

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them... But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves."

— Luke 22:24-27

© 2006-2011 The Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith