Facing Leadership Challenges
Tools for Healthy Communities
How can we build healthy communities in the Church, groups that share a common vision and work together in harmony to achieve it? How can we overcome the temptation to align ourselves against one another and do battle over the issues until one side “wins?” If the Church is a community characterized by love, which Jesus surely intended it to be, how can we learn to live and work together in harmony towards a common end?
One source of inspiration and guidance might be our monastic communities. Every monastic community—including The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the order in which I am a Brother—lives by a Rule of Life. A Rule is not simply a list of rules, but rather a description of the community’s values and identity. When a person joins a monastic community, he or she agrees to live by its Rule, promising to uphold these shared values. The monastic life is thus an intentional life, with a clear purpose and goal, which shapes the way its members live together. In offering a clear articulation of the group’s shared identity, the monastic Rule might be a helpful model for parish communities looking to shape their own shared life through writing a covenant, mission statement, or other document.
One of the most important qualities of a monastic Rule is that it is both descriptive and prescriptive. It describes the way the community intends to live, explaining how decisions are made, how responsibility is shared, how new members are incorporated, and so on. It is also prescriptive: if the community strays from these practices or loses its focus, the Rule gently but firmly calls us back to our original intention. In our community, a chapter of the Rule is read aloud to the Brothers each day to recall us to our shared commitment.
The SSJE Rule especially helps us live together by naming directly the challenges our community faces. It calls us “to accept with compassion and humility” the particular frailties of each Brother.[i] It asks us “to honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters” and to recognize that “only God knows them as they truly are.”[ii] It recognizes that “tensions and friction are inevitably woven into fabric of everyday life,” but assures us that “they are not to be regarded as signs of failure, [since] Christ uses them for our conversion as we grow in mutual forbearance and learn to let go of the pride that drives us to control and reform [others] on our own terms.”[iii] The Rule outlines what is expected of the community’s leaders, and of each of its members. It enjoins us to give our support to decisions made by the community, even when they don’t reflect the choice we would have preferred.[iv] It teaches us to mend the fabric of community life when it is torn by discord or strife.[v] When we live in community, we recognize our need to forgive and to be forgiven daily. The Rule teaches us to support and to pray for one another, making such forgiveness possible.
From my own experience, I believe that other communities in the Church—congregations, vestries, committees, prayer groups, youth groups, and the like—could benefit from a shared “Rule” or “covenant.” Imagine a document that would describe the purpose and identity of your group and outline the ways in which it hopes to achieve its purpose. Can you specify how you want to interact with one another, what values you want to uphold, what regulations you will all agree to observe? Such a document might outline your mission, describe how decisions will be made, and keep before the group your shared ideals. In monastic communities, all these elements are contained in the Rule of Life. Whatever shape your document takes, the covenant should be unique to your group and its needs—as individual as your community and your concerns.
Making and keeping covenants is woven through the history our life with God. As part of the covenant God made with the people of Israel, God gave the Law to guide them and to set out the values by which they should live in relationship to God and with one another. When it was used for this purpose, it proved a very helpful guide. But when it was abused—used to justify some and condemn others—it became an instrument of division and oppression. The law itself was not the end; it was a means to an end. In the same way, a Rule or covenant itself is not the end, but a means to an end. When it is used rightly, it can help us live together in harmony, cooperation, and with a clear sense of shared purpose. It can be an instrument of unity and of health, helping us stay focused on our mission and binding us together in love.
1. Would your group benefit from writing a covenant document? Invite your group to do a self-evaluation by answering these questions:
- What’s going well?
- What concerns us?
- What would we like to see as we move forward?
You might find it useful to have someone take notes during the discussion. What are the common words and points of contention? The language that arises in this conversation might point the way to shared concerns or joys that could be incorporated into a covenant, should you decide that one would be useful for your group.
2. If your group knows you’d like to draft a covenant, begin by selecting the questions you want to discuss together. For example:
- What is our purpose? What do we hope to be and to do?
- What are the values we want to embody as a group?
- How will we work together to achieve our purpose, while also embodying these values?
- How will we handle disagreements or conflict in the group?
- How will we support and encourage one another?
- What will we agree to do together in each meeting, seasonally, and yearly?
Give time for reflection, perhaps at home. Ask each member of the group to contribute answers and look for common themes. See if you can summarize the most important points in a mission statement or a simple Rule of Life. The goal is to create something helpful, a document that will guide the group and keep it focused on its purpose and its values.
3. Jesus could hardly have picked a more diversified group as his disciples. We know from this example, as well as from our own experiences, that the most life-giving communities are often not the most homogenous, but the most diverse. Unity does not require uniformity.
If your group is experiencing strife or conflict, you might find it meaningful to reflect on your diversity as a group. Identify together what each member contributes to your common life and work by writing down the unique gifts and perspectives of each member. Look for the root of the differences that divide you. Articulate together how your diversity is a strength rather than a liability.
Note: The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a religious order for men in the Episcopal/Anglican Church, can be found on the community’s website, www.ssje.org.
[i] The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2007): 11.
[ii] SSJE Rule, 54.
[iii] SSJE Rule, 11.
[iv] SSJE Rule, 26.
[v] SSJE Rule, 87.
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a religious order for men in the Episcopal Church. He is an experienced teacher and spiritual director, who currently serves as the community’s Novice Guardian, working with the new men who join the community. For more information about SSJE, visit the Society’s website at www.ssje.org.
- “Covenants in Congregational Life,” Thomas Brackett, Vestry Papers, January 2011
- “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm” by Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century, November 12, 1980, pp. 1094-1099.
- The Society of Saint John the Evangelist resources for writing your own Rule of Life include the “Living Intentionally: Creating a Rule of Life” a free downloadable workbook and “A Framework for Freedom,” a 7-week self-guided video course. You can also read or listen to the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. All are available at http://ssje.org/ssje/category/rule-of-life/
- The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA
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