Friday, January 16, 2009

Interests of my House of Justice: something I might have missed

First, I'll look at the modest proposal in the 2007 Annual Report of the US National Spiritual Assembly:

1. Emphasize vision at the local level.

The friends need constant reinforcement of the great spiritual processes at the heart of Baha'u'llah's revelation—"souls must be transformed, new models of life thereby consolidated." They must be inspired to relate the seminal teachings of our Faith to the great problems of society. And they must be given a freer hand to act. Analysis, planning, and strategic focus are essentials to growth, and there is no doubt about the importance of acquiring such skills. But they are matters of the intellect, and are secondary to matters of the heart in inspiring commitment and initiative.

People will make sacrifices for a great purpose that they will not make for activities. A focus on activities at the expense of vision will yield a community that is rule-bound and prone to conflict, where a culture of learning and innovation are nearly impossible, where individuals are treated as "insiders" or "outsiders" according to perceptions of their obedience to direction, and where expression of legitimate concerns is viewed as uninformed or disloyal.

A sense of vision and purpose, complemented by a practical strategy for accomplishment, inspires unity, self-organization, initiative, and innovation. We see each of these elements in the "framework for action" of the Five Year Plan, and we are wholeheartedly confident that support of their full expression will inspire a wave of teaching that will bring dramatic results.

2. Encourage the participation of Local Spiritual Assemblies through emphasis of the full range of guidance on the role of Assemblies in the Five Year Plan.

3. Support a wider range of initiatives with the core activities at the hub.

Experimental approaches to media proclamation, fireside campaigns, innovative responses to seekers' needs and preferences fit easily within the "framework for action" and would stimulate the release of a great storehouse of energy among the friends. The core activities of systematic engagement with the Word of God, communal devotions, and the spiritual education of children and junior youth will always remain the foundation of Baha'i community vitality and will only be strengthened by the complementary activities of the friends.

4. Encourage understanding among the friends and institutional members of the complementary function of centralized Baha'i schools and neighborhood classes.

The community must learn that both are needed and both should be multiplied. The friends must also learn to appreciate the complementary relationship between Ruhi Book 3 and the Core Curriculum. Ruhi Book 3 provides 15 lessons for children ages five and six. The Core Curriculum extends the Baha'i education of children for seven years providing systematic education on topics including the Central Figures, the Covenant, Baha'i history and social teachings, dealing with peers, and learning to teach the Baha'i Faith. These two approaches must be harmonized to gain the full benefits of our efforts.

5. Engage in a deeper examination of the factors contributing to current growth.

In our experience at regional and cluster meetings, it is routinely assumed for purposes of analysis that all enrollments in any given cluster can be attributed directly and only to the core activities. Further investigation almost always yields a far more complex picture that includes proclamations, firesides, striking innovations in approach, and other types of activity that go unacknowledged.

The Native American Baha'i Institute (NABI) is a good example of the benefits of broadening the scope of our work. The National Spiritual Assembly and its agencies have worked closely with NABI for many years, and some Counselors have called the cluster that is home to NABI the most advanced cluster in the United States. The core activities are thriving on the Navajo reservation with high levels of non-Baha'i participation. They serve as the foundation of a variety of services and teaching activities that are designed to meet the specific needs of the resident populations. Special gatherings, social and economic development projects, social services, teaching projects, and other activities complement the core activities to sustain the advancement of growth in that cluster. These must all be taken into consideration to get an accurate picture of the NABI formula for growth.

6. Encourage evaluation of our implementation of the institute training process.

To date, the achievement of 6,000 tutors in the United States has not yielded growth in enrollments, nor is the growth of the core activities themselves commensurate with the number of Baha'is who have completed courses (for example, only seven percent of those who have completed Book 1 have started devotional gatherings).

We are firm in our belief that tutor accompaniment is an important part of the solution to improving the Ruhi Institute program's effectiveness, but perhaps other ingredients are also necessary. Careful assessments could be instructive to our understanding of the dynamics of the courses' effectiveness with Baha'is and with seekers, and would, of course, be sent to the Universal House of Justice for its consideration.

7. Encourage cluster initiative.

8. Promote unity and mitigate conflict about the process of growth.

The FACT (Faith Communities Today) Study on the dynamics of growth and decline in American congregations, in which 742 Local Spiritual Assemblies participated, noted that conflict on teaching methods and roles are primary impediments to the growth of faith communities. We fear that the widespread feelings of confusion and dislocation among Spiritual Assemblies are significant factors impeding our growth at this time. This year, withdrawals (369) from Baha'i membership have risen 30 percent. Our Office of Community Administration reported that this unfortunate increase in withdrawals is partly attributable to the growth of conflict in the community.

In its conclusion, the report mentions a letter from the House of Justice dated 19 May 1994. In that letter I found this:

"A new burst of energy would accrue to the operation of the Three Year Plan if the friends, both individually and collectively, could feel a greater sense of freedom to engage in a wide range of activities originating with themselves. Even if you are doing nothing deliberately to discourage such freedom, their accumulated impression of institutional disapproval, however derived, and their fear of criticism are, to a considerable extent, inhibiting their exercise of initiative."

I'll come back to that later.

Next: The 19 April 2007 letter from the House of Justice, in response to the annual report

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