Beautiful Community: Values

New Year's 2013

There are many ways to attempt to keep a community moving toward an idea or purpose, rather than away from it. One way is to write a set of rules that the members of the community should follow, then have the leaders of the community make sure people abide by them.

This is a terrible idea. Honestly, take my word for it. There is nothing worse than an adult feeling like a kid because of a well meant but misguided rule book, and a visionary feeling like a policeman or policewoman. I shudder, even writing about it.

But there has to be something. Doesn't there? Because if there isn't anything that keeps the structure of the community in place, how is it intentional? How is it safe? How is it not completely annoying because everything changes all the time?

This is where a written group of ideals comes in, and it needs to be in place from the beginning. Your written values originate with the core group of people who are starting your community. But how do you come up with these ideals- your values? I suggest you sit down together and have a talking circle. (Use a talking stick if you need to- they're very handy and keep more vocal people from trodding over quieter ones.) Ask questions and listen to the answers around the circle.

  • What things feel like the most important things in the world to you?
  • What things will strip you of the will to live, I mean, the will to remain with your community?
  • How do you dream of living, when you have beautiful dreams about life lived in a different way?
  • What makes your community different from any other?
  • What are your experiences in trying to do things with other people? What have you learned? What are the pitfalls? What would you like to avoid? What would you like to repeat?

Come to the talking circle with the goal of really listening to one another. Write down all the things you think you are best at, as a group. Write down all the things you are worst at. And write down the answers people give to the above questions. Then pass that stick around the circle again and again until you come up with the things that are most important to how you will structure your community.

With what you have at this point, it is not too hard to form a values statement. The purpose of the values statement is that it forms a sort of constitution. It does the work of aligning person to person. It inspires the original feelings and hopes of the community when things get opaque and full of struggle. And when others desire to join your community, you can give them the values statement and ask some simple questions: Do you agree? Can you live by this? The answers to those questions will tell you whether people are a good fit for your community or whether you need to encourage them to live their dreams elsewhere.

Here are a couple of sentences from our values statement, stated in brief (because our statement goes on to explain each sentence.)

We have sentences that describe the beliefs the community is built on:

Each of us is personally responsible before God and also to others in the community to live life in a way that honors Jesus.

And sentences that describe the practices of the community:

We choose to be a community centered around prayer, meditation and worship.

We are a community that practices hospitality.

We are a community that values creativity.

And they go on.  Our values are quite serious because we spend a lot of time with one another in countries around the world, living life together and seeing one another every day. If you have a community of women who love to knit together for those in need, your values might be as simple as: We will be welcoming to newcomers. But maybe you also believe in encouraging local economy, so you write down a value like, We attempt to support our local yarn stores, whenever possible.

Values differ from rules. A rule states: Greet newcomers as soon as they enter the door, or, members must purchase yarn locally. Rules take the thinking out of a value system, and they take ownership away from other members of the community. Rules limit. Values expand. The support of local yarn stores can take many different shapes, (a sale of goods to raise money for those in need, held in the yarn store, which then attracts customers and interest) just as our practice of hospitality can take many different shapes, and these things are not limited to rules when they are expressed as values.

This is a rather silly example, but say our community, because the core members feel strongly about being hospitable, had a rule like Greet newcomers as soon as they enter the door. How would that honor someone perceptive enough to notice people who seem shy, as though they would rather sneak into a circle and be there for a while before talking to anyone?

This is why values trump rules. Rules are for elementary school. In a dynamic, communicative, thriving community, each person will feel that she has something to offer and a statement of values helps her to sort out, for herself, what her offering will be. The health of your community can only be as strong as your understanding of your values.