Monday, May 30, 2011

Raising capacity in a village Assembly

One of the main elements of our framework for action is learning. We have now developed a language that asks what we have learned about such and such a process. This injects a humble posture of learning in all our deliberations. And it directs our attention to social and human progress in terms of generation, acquisition, distribution and application of knowledge. And knowledge is the central process of social existence. It is in this light that we ask ourselves what are we learning about maturation of Local Spiritual Assemblies.

Two realities have existed about Local Assemblies. In some parts of the world the friends involved are quiet comfortable in forming these institutions, in following the various electoral procedures, in calling meetings and electing officers, in scheduling and adhering to fixed schedules of meetings, in writing minutes and keeping archives of correspondence, and generally in conducting all the procedural and administrative aspects of the work. Many may refer to Assemblies in these areas as being strong. But is there a one to one correspondence between spiritual strength and procedural matters? We can reflect to learn what are the characteristics of truly strong institutions.

In other parts of the world where such activities are less common in the greater society, and the populations function on an entirely different rhythm, the Assemblies have different characteristics that are more in tune with these cultures and their common practices. Such Assemblies can then be considered to be strong using entirely different criteria.

Of course all Assemblies can be said to be along a spectrum in terms of their ability to fulfill their destined functions. But whatever the level of strength may be this whole process can be seen as organic and continuously evolving. Paragraph 20 of the letter of the current Five Year Plan then begins to consider the evolution of a newly formed Assembly in a village in a rural cluster.

The study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1 - In a rural cluster made up of villages and perhaps one or two towns, the initial efforts of the friends are confined to a few localities. How can this pattern extended to new villages?

2 - In what ways are the steady development of Local Assemblies tied to the process of growth?

3 - How is capacity building related to the development of Local Spiritual Assemblies?

Baha'u'llah wrote: "Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess... The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. If any man were to meditate on that which the Scriptures, sent down from the heaven of God’s holy Will, have revealed, he would readily recognize that their purpose is that all men shall be regarded as one soul, so that the seal bearing the words ‘The Kingdom shall be God’s’ may be stamped on every heart, and the light of Divine bounty, of grace, and mercy may envelop all mankind." [Baha'u'llah, Lawh-i-Maqsud]

Local Spiritual Assemblies

One of the unique features of the Baha'i Faith is that the organizational structure of Baha'i communities, and a future Baha'i world society and civilization, has been explicitly established by the founder of the Faith, Baha'u'llah. There is a spiritual significance when one person in a town becomes Baha'i. Such a significance is most probably not visible by outward considerations, since after all this is only one person, and given the realities of life he or she may not be able to do very much. By the same token when first a Local Spiritual Assembly is formed in a town, this is of great significance in a spiritual sense, but again sociologically this may not be regarded important, since they are after all only nine people, and given the realities of life they may not be able to impact their society very much. However if we see both of these occurrences as milestones along a path, then a new vision will emerge.

We consider that all people are traveling on a path that takes them closer to their true destination. Man's destiny is to fulfill his purpose in life. Our purpose in life individually is to know our Creator and to worship him. Our collective purpose in life is to build an ever advancing civilization. Both of these purposes are better fulfilled when we recognize the Manifestation of God and cling to His vision. In this sense then we can say that all people are walking towards Baha'u'llah. This is true whether people are conscious of this or not. It is for this reason that both the declaration of the first believer and the formation of the first institution has a mystical significance.

But beyond such a spiritual significance, the societal task of nurturing both the individual and the institution to full maturity is a long road. Many Assemblies were formed, without functioning very much. As the friends in all clusters grow in their understanding of the fundamental verities, their appreciation for the importance of the Assembly will grow. Paragraph 19 of the letter of the 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice then calls to attention the necessity that in this Five Year Plan these nascent institutions take clear and decided steps towards building greater capacity.

Because the vast majority of the clusters that have experienced large scale growth are among the rural parts of the world, attention is first paid to this category of local institutions. With the advent of institute process, the task of raising the capacity of these institutions has taken a clear goal and direction, and that is the extent to which these Assemblies can contribute to the dynamics of growth.

In studying this paragraph the following questions are suggested:

1 - The work of the Counselors is primarily concerned with raising the capacity of the National Spiritual Assemblies and Regional Baha'i Councils. How can Local Spiritual Assemblies benefit from this vision?

2 - Which type of clusters are experiencing large scale expansion and consloidation?

3 - What has been the story of Local Spiritual Assemblies in your region so far? What has been their strengths and weaknesses?

4 - How can the members of Local Spiritual Assemblies best learn about the dynamics of growth?

5 - Given the interaction between learning and action, if you have been elected to serve on a Local Spiritual Assembly, would this fact increase or reduce your responsibility to personally be involved in serving the core activities in your cluster?

Baha'u'llah wrote: "The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Bahá... They should consider themselves as entering the Court of the presence of God, the Exalted, the Most High, and as beholding Him Who is the Unseen. It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. Thus hath the Lord your God commanded you. Beware lest ye put away that which is clearly revealed in His Tablet. Fear God, O ye that perceive." [Bah'u'llah, Kitab-i-Aqdas, page 30]

Increased capacity of the Regional Councils

In 1997 the Universal House of Justice created a new institution operating in a number of countries of the world known as Regional Baha'i Councils. The original impetus for this development came from large scale expansion and consolidation in India. For countries that are large with diverse regions and varied populations it is not possible any longer for a single National Spiritual Assembly to pay close attention to the spiritual needs of the entire community. This is particularly so because the community is not confined to avowed adherents of the Faith, but a large number of friends, family or neighbors who rightfully enjoy the spiritual programs offered by the Baha'is. The Councils then are executive arms of the National Spiritual Assemblies.

There are currently some 170 such administrative bodies in 45 countries of the world. These Councils are focused on helping the clusters learn how to engage in a systematic learning process. In US and many other countries, these Councils are formed by election, the voters being members of the Local Spiritual Assemblies within a region. The Councils operate a regional branch of the National Fund to ensure that funds are available for support of the core activities in each cluster. They also assist in the flow of information to and from the clusters, ensuring that various clusters in a region can learn from the experience of their sister clusters. Pioneers on the homefront are often deployed and assisted by the Councils. The organizational support for the Councils' secretary enables him or her to communicate regularly with the core teams in each cluster.

During the previous Five Year Plan, 2006 to 2011, each Council in US established an Office for Cluster Advancement. Often one member of the Council who had the greatest experience in the elements of the Plan would serve in this office. Gradually as more and more members gain first hand experience it is possible to broaden this concept. Ideally all the members of the Council are themselves among the most experienced teachers and trainers in the field. Their experience comes from having taught classes for children, or from befriending and animating a group of junior youth, or from hosting devotional meetings in their neighborhood, or from having served as a tutor of study circles. Some may have also served as institute coordinators or on Area Teaching Committees helping with cycles of activity for intensive programs of growth and with articulating their collective learning during various reflection meetings. Such ground level experience is absolutely indispensable in understanding the dynamics of growth.

Therein lies a major difference between Baha'i organization and service and many other organizations, both secular and religious. In the Baha'i conception, organization is not viewed as a hierarchy, and the people occupying certain roles are not considered as having positions. Everyone is a servant of humanity. And all work, including work on various institutions, are carried out with a spirit of service, which can alone elevate it to the level of worship. In paragraph 18 of its Plan, the Universal House of Justice enumerates four mechanisms for supporting learning in the field of action, and affirms that "... only if the Councils themselves are engaged in a process of learning will such mechanisms prove effective". As we build a future world civilization, this principle will guide the social structures that are to emerge.

Study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1 - As the community grows, in addition to the institutions operating at the level of the cluster, which other institutions need to develop increased capacity?
2 - What are the responsibilities of a National Spiritual Assembly in connection with growth of the community?

3 - What are the relationships between a National Spiritual Assembly and the Regional Baha'i Councils?

4 - Other than issues related to the growth, do the Council have responsibilities related to other matters such as justice or protection?

5 - Can you name four mechanisms that will serve to further the pattern of growth unfolding at the cluster level and the learning process associated with it?

6 - Under what conditions would such mechanisms prove effective?

7 - In what ways can regional systems created to support learning in action by an increasing number of participants in neighborhoods and villages unintentionally work against it?

The work of Baha'is on institutions is characterized with a unique sense of humility and oneness. Baha'u'llah wrote:

"And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate. Those who have quaffed from the ocean of divine utterance and fixed their gaze upon the Realm of Glory should regard themselves as being on the same level as the others and in the same station. Were this matter to be definitely established and conclusively demonstrated through the power and might of God, the world would become as the Abha Paradise. Indeed, man is noble, inasmuch as each one is a repository of the sign of God. Nevertheless, to regard oneself as superior in knowledge, learning or virtue, or to exalt oneself or seek preference, is a grievous transgression. Great is the blessedness of those who are adorned with the ornament of this unity and have been graciously confirmed by God." [Quoted in a letter of the Universal House of Justice, dated 27 March 1978]

Enhancing administraive capacity

In our study of the Five Year Plan of the Baha'i community for 2011 to 2016 we have come to paragraph 17 of the letter of Universal House of Justice dated 28 December 2010. This paragraph begins a new section in this document. A section that deals with enhancing the administrative capacity of all Baha'i institutions to guide the community. This first paragraph of this new chapter then deals with enhancing the capacity of those institutions serving the cluster. There are three institutions serving a cluster, namely the training institute, the Area Teaching Committee, and the Auxiliary Board member who works on both fronts of training and teaching, both individually and collectively. These three institutions have already learned that while each one of them has distinct functions, the best way forward is for them to work very closely with each other. They are collectively referred to as the core team, or troika. The bonds of love and a sense of selfless service permeates their interactions.

As a cluster grows, both numerically and in quality of its relationships, many more people are attracted to the core activities. We move away from a few scattered activities to several pockets of intense focus. On many streets in a neighborhood there will be multiple activities including children, junior youth, youth and adults. And there will be many neighborhoods with their own sense of community building. It is no longer possible for one coordinator to cover the whole cluster. And yet we have to be careful that increased complexity does not isolate the friends from the spiritual side of the activities, does not create layers of workers and managers, does not add hierarchies of people of authority, or procedural red tape. These are concepts that are familiar in other secular organizations and are maladies associated with larger organizations. The Baha'i community is learning how to effectively move from organizational arrangements for smaller communities to that of larger and larger communities. In a few clusters we have several thousand people engaged in this program. As we learn how to guide and remain responsive, how to listen and coordinate, and how to administer the affairs of larger numbers we will learn in practical terms how to tend to the needs of entire populations.

There are lessons to be learned when an organization goes from small and nimble, to large and complex. We see this in all social organizations. Start up companies that succeed well can quickly become large and viscous. Social movements, with or without political agendas, that start with a few young people with aspirations, if they succeed, can soon become larger organizations that are less agile and less responsive. But the cardinal issue here is that the Baha'i community always insists on identifying and applying spiritual principles, and to do so by those people who are actually implementing the program. Doing so for large segments of the population is an unchartered territory, and the experience of the Baha'i community will inform a future World Order in this regard.

The following questione are suggested by the study of this paragraph:

1 - In those advanced clusters that are in the vanguard of learning what elements of the process of growth remain unchanged? And what elements might have to evolve and take on a higher degree of complexity?

2 - Can you names some of the central elements of the process of growth, that will have to remain unchanged?

3 - In some clusters sheer numbers require organizational schemes to take on a higher degree of complexity. What might be the magnitude or scale of these numbers?

4 - Can you describe the necessary organizational schemes if the numbers of those participating in core activities in a given cluster are 1, 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000 respectively?

5 - What is the process by which lessons learned become well proven methods and instruments for the systematic growth?

6 - In advanced clusters dealing with larger numbers the friends are encouraged to be methodical but not rigid, creative but not haphazard, decisive but not hasty, careful but not controlling. In each case can you describe situations, actions or attitudes that can illustrate these qualities?

7 - Unity of thought, consistent action, and dedication to learning will bring about progress, but technique alone will not. Can you explain, using examples as needed, what is the sense in which the concept of technique is used here?

Baha'u'llah wrote that the world is "... at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage". He also declared that "…the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective." And He promised that "Soon will the present day order be rolled up and a new one spread out in its stead." [All quoted in the introduction to the Proclamation of Baha'u'llah]

In the increased capacity in these advanced clusters we see a glimpse of this new Order.