Questions of purpose

March 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

I heard recently about a religious community which was facing fundamental questions about its purpose.

The tension seemed to be around those who saw the community primarily as a worshipping community which also offered courses and retreats; and those who wanted a course-and-retreat venue run by a group of people who happen to live in a religious community together.

By the sound of it, there were enough folk alive to the issues to enable a careful debate to arise. Communities like this (and others such as self-build groups, housing co-ops and other peer-led groups) require a level of leadership skills, conflict skills and self-awareness/self-management above what is normally taught in our current society.

Fundamental questions about purpose are the reality of life in organisations, networks, and within any community which organises around a central vision. In the best of such organisations, these questions are never definitively answered for all time (‘future-proofed’, to use the jargon). They may be answered for a year ahead, or five years, but by then a more substantial look at ‘Where do we want to be heading’ will be needed.

Answering questions about future mission depends – more than we sometimes care to acknowledge – on the personal preoccupations of the people currently in the organisation. In a contemporary religious community with a membership which changes over the space of a decade or so, this is perhaps more explicit. But in the larger organisations too, in my experience the interests and passions of the current staff play as much a role as the more objective factors identified through, for example, a SWOT analysis.

So long as this subjectivity is acknowledged, it seems a fair compromise. After all, it is the present membership and staff who will be tasked with bringing the mission into fulfilment.

If the organisation depends on attracting new members, however, then the more the organisation is a collection of people doing their own thing, the more complex it will be to engage others into the enterprise. Almost as complex, perhaps, as facing the conflicts arising when members are driven by competing purposes.

As the saying goes: by all means trust in God – but don’t forget to tie up your camel.

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