Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Letter to an Assembly Member

Dearly loved friend,

I have heard your concerns over the past little while and was encouraged to share with you a little bit of what has been shared with me in the past. I can only hope that you will be able to put it to better use than I have.

Before I begin, let me tell you a little story that happened a few years ago. Some friends and I had the incredible fortune of being able to pioneer in a city that had once had an Assembly as long ago as the late 19th century, and was even one of those fortunate locales in the West to be visited by the Master. Serving there was an incredible experience, and our hope at the time was to be able to help re-establish that lost institution. Well, suffice to say, we had the pleasure of re-forming that Assembly. One of the members had only been a Baha'i a few days (maybe weeks), and shortly after the election, the two of us found ourselves walking on the beach. "What," he asked me, "does it mean to serve on an Assembly?"

I had absolutely no clue, so I said the first thing that came to my mind. "Some people consider it a blessing to serve, and others consider it a bounty not to have to."

Those words have long haunted me, in a Casper the Friendly Ghost sort of way, and I now have the bounty of not having to serve on an institution once again. But please don't get me wrong: it is always a blessing to be able to serve.

As you know, what I say here is only my own personal thoughts and nothing official. While they may be based on the Writings and actual experience, I make no claims as to have successfully avoided all bozo-ness. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. Take or leave what I say.

Now, you have mentioned concerns about a few different things, but I'd like to focus on two: the agenda and consultation.

Ahh, what can be said about the agenda? It's long, I'm sure. Isn't that always the case?

I remember talking with the secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly about this, and I'll never forget his answer. He said that on the first day of his job as secretary, he walked into his office, not really knowing what to do. He sat down and looked around. When he noticed the inbox on his desk he saw a few letters in it. Not knowing what else to do, he picked up the first one, read it, typed a reply and placed it in his outbox. Ten years later he was still doing that. The moral? He said to take it one letter at a time.

But I know, what about all those agenda items that are waiting for attention? How can you categorize them and deal with them in an efficient and timely manner? I'm so glad you asked. You see, businesses have been dealing with this issue for a long time, and they've become pretty good at handling it. So why not look at what they do? How do you think Microsoft, or Coca-Cola deal with this? While some Baha'is may have once been uncomfortable looking at anything that is not in the Writings, we are so lucky to have the recent Ridvan Message in which we are encouraged "to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race..." As long as it doesn't violate the Covenant, what's the problem?

One tool that I've seen used successfully is the "Consent Agenda". The Secretary, the Chairperson, and often the Vice-Chairperson, go through the various items on the regular agenda and decide which ones appear, to them, to have "obvious" solutions. They then list the item, complete with relevent background information and the proposed solution. It is then sent out to the various members well in advance of the meeting. If any of the members have a concern or a question or a significantly better solution, all they do is flag the item. Any items that have flags are put at the end of the regular agenda, even if there is only a single flag on it. The rest are automatically passed.

It was amzaing how quickly our agenda was cleared. We went from three pages to less than half a page in just a few weeks.

Once the "piddly stuff" was out of the way, the real work began. And that brings me to the next point: consultation.

Please, my friend, do not be dis-heartened. There is so much guidance in the Writings about consultation that we do not need to be concerned about it. Oh, but we should never presume that we know what we are doing, either. Remember, the first thing the Hands of the Cause did in their first conclave together was study how to consult. What makes us think that we can learn it in just a few minutes, or a couple of hours? No. I would suggest grabbing a copy of Consultation: A Compilation, as well as John Kolstoe's book, Consultation. These are two marvellous resources that will go a long way to helping us learn a little bit more about this invaluable tool. We don't need to be concerned, but we do need to work on it.

In the meantime, here is a list that I have found useful when getting ready for a consultation:
  1. Identify the topic
  2. Give the background of the case
  3. List some of the spiritual principles
  4. Find relevant guidance in the Writings
Of course, you start with prayer, but I thought that went without saying.

So, a common problem that I have seen in step 1 is to not identify the issue clearly. For example, "Teaching"  is not a topic for consultation; it is a category. "How can we offer further guidance, support, aid and encouragement to Luigi's children's class?" That is more of a topic. No matter what the issue is, whether it is of a teaching nature, or a confidential issue like helping a married couple who may be heading towards a year of waiting, it should be clearly identified. Otherwise everyone may have their own idea of the goal, and that can just get confusing.

Another common problem that I have seen way too often is when the relevant background information is not there. Then everyone has to rely on their memory of the case, and, well, the less said about that the better. This is especially true if the case is an on-going one.

As for steps 3 and 4, well that just seems obvious, now, doesn't it? And yet so often we seem to skip it. Why? How can we consult well if we are not looking at the Writings? This is one of the greatest benefits, in my mind, of the Ruhi books. Those members that I have served with who got their start in the Faith through the Ruhi books just seemed to naturally turn to the Writings, while people like me plodded along on their own. When they got the rest of us to look in the Writings, things moved so much smoother. Go figure.

But then there is a question that should always be asked about any decision. In paragraph 22 of the Ridvan message, we read, "Rather (the Assembly's) strength must be measured, to a large extent, by the vitality of the spiritual and social life of the community it seves - a growing community that welcomes the constructive contributions of both those who are formally enrolled and those who are not." So when a decision is being reached, it seems reasonable to ask, "How will this decision affect the vitality of the spiritual and social life of the community?" If the answer is "In a negative way", then perhaps the decision should be revisited.

Finally, the last thing I want to mention is to have fun. Joy is an important quality of service on any institution, for how else can we feel and express the love we have for all the other members? How else can we expect to consult with the spirit of unity that is required? And if we are not happy, why are we doing the work?

There is so much in the Writings about joy and happiness. When visiting the West, the Master often asked of people three times, "Are you happy?" He was not content asking just once, but generally asked three times.

Why?

I'm sure I don't really know, but I figure it is due to the nature of Persian and Arabic. From what I can tell, when you write in those languages, the only way to stress a point is to repeat it. After all, you can't italicize it, for the script itself is italicized. If you underline it, then the words become new words altogether. And so, you have to repeat.

Besides, when you ask someone if they are happy, they often will say, "Yeah, sure". Ask again, and they say, "Uhm, yes, I think so." Ask a third time and then you get a real answer. Or you just annoy them.

So keep the humour and joy in the work, for if we are not happy, why are we doing what we are doing?

Yeah, I know: for the love of God. But then again, that love should produce joy, so "nyah".

1 comment:

  1. The real work of an Assembly, I believe, is to love the friends in its care. And by "friends" I mean the entire population of its area of jurisdiction. From that love everything flows: working in a learning mode, building capacity, encouraging, accompanying…

    The Assembly is a crucible that generates unity and love, which then radiate outwards to touch the hearts and souls all around.

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