Building a Resilient Congregation

Posted July 17, 2011 in Blog, Religious. Tagged: , , , , ,

Sarah Byrnes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

As the economic crisis stretches on, religious congregations are playing a vital role in helping people cope. For many, Resilience Circles (also called Common Security Clubs) are a way to help members confront and address their economic insecurities.

Recently, a group of Resilience Circle leaders has been discussing the idea of a “theology for community resilience.” How do the resources of our faith traditions support and empower our communities during this time of economic and ecological challenge? How can we help church members overcome their fears of deep and systemic change? Does a theological message—especially in our increasingly pluralistic and multicultural society—add something unique to the work of creating a new economy?

For the Rev. Cecilia Kingman in Washington state, the answer is clear: “Religion is the only institution that creates new stories, and a new theology,” she says. “All of the old stories are failing us, and we need new stories. We need a new vision for an entirely new kind of economy.”

Resilience Circles, unlike individualistic financial literacy or “self-help” approaches, confront economic insecurity by reviving human connections and focusing on the abundance of what we have together. In the mold of a small group ministry or covenant group, they are small groups of 10 – 20 people that gather for learning, mutual aid, and social action. The Resilience Circle Network provides a free and open-source curriculum for seven sessions, after which groups self-facilitate and choose their own activities.

Some religious leaders point out that the “new” type of revitalized communities Resilience Circles support might not be so new after all.

The Rev. Branwen Cook, who participates a Common Security Club in Roslindale, MA, recalls that “the earliest followers of Jesus ‘had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’” (see Acts 2:44-45). “Joining together to create a structure in which we can all benefit is to join in the action of the resurrected Christ. As we share recipes, the cost of childcare, plumbing expertise, and the work of making a vegetable garden on the church lawn, we are taking steps toward having ‘all things in common,’ a part of true discipleship.”

Often, even congregants who know each other have trouble discussing their economic situation; they feel it is either embarrassingly good or shamefully bad. At the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., Mike Little tells us that “Money is truly the last taboo at our churches. It’s easier for us to talk about absolutely anything else: sex, politics, you name it.” Circles are a place to break through this isolation and get real with each other.

Both mutual aid and social action help participants regain a sense of power over their lives. We discover not only a new sense of abundance in the mutual aid offerings, but also an invigorated sense of the possibilities for real world action. Rebuilding community and creating local resilience take on new urgency and importance. “The Common Security Club has allowed us to get on the path of creating alternatives rather than just complaining about limited options,” says Woullard Lett, a circle leader at his congregation in Manchester, NH.

The exchanging of “gifts and needs” is a key activity at the heart of the curriculum, designed to help folks slowly stretch their “mutual aid muscles.” Participants name things they can offer and share, from child care to inexpensive recipe tips to guitar lessons to a 20-foot ladder. And, they open up to receiving such gifts from one another.

“People at first resist simply receiving—they think they can’t show up to a potluck empty-handed,” Jared Gardner in Portland, OR says. “We tell them it’s okay—it’s okay to receive if you need help.”

IPS Senior Scholar Chuck Collins and Resilience Circle leaders Jared Gardner and Woullard Lett will present information and stories about this approach at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Charlotte, NC.  You can join them—click here for more info and to RSVP on Facebook.

Photo by Wally Gobetz.