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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Do assemblies learn?

Posted by Sen on April 3, 2008

The Spiritual Assemblies that administer affairs in Bahai communities suffer from growing pains: and the members themselves are the nerve that feels it the most. If the problem is disunity, is there a point at which it is better for some members to resign? Or should the assembly be maintained, and meet, come what may – even if the problems in the meeting seep out and undermine the good work and good feeling in the community?

On the one hand, we have quotes such as this:

“The assemblies of the North American continent, constituting the base for the gigantic operations destined to warm and illuminate, under American Bahá’í auspices, the five continents of the globe, must, at no time and under no circumstances, be allowed to diminish in number or decline in strength and in influence. The movement of pioneers, whether settlers or itinerant teachers, which in fields so distant from this base, has exhibited so marvelous a vitality, must, within the limits of the homeland itself, be neither interrupted nor suffer a decline. The groups and isolated centers so painstakingly formed and established must, conjointly with this highly commendable and essential duty, be maintained, fostered and if possible multiplied. “ (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 75)

This is not the same as saying that every individual assembly must be held, come what may. It seems to me to be saying that the institutional foundation in the country must be maintained, it should not be sacrificed by sending out too many pioneers.

In a situation where the number of active Bahais in the country is pretty much constant, or even declining, there will certainly be communities that shrink and assemblies that will be lost. They will mainly be in more rural areas affected by the drift to the cities, and areas with older populations. It is to be hoped that these losses can be compensated with new assemblies and new capacities elsewhere, so that the foundations for pioneering, teaching work, the support of the funds and for the next generation of Bahais can be maintained. In a rapidly changing society, we should not imagine that the institutional foundations can always be maintained in the same places.

Assembly work is quite demanding: it is conceivable that a community could have 9 or more adult Bahais, but not 9 whose circumstances and character enables them to serve on the Assembly.

Sometimes, concentrating on individual and community activities is the solution to disunity in the Assembly. Most Assemblies have a terrible tendency to over-administer anyway. Scaling back the Assembly meetings, holding a brief meeting on the margins of some other activity, and limiting the decisions to essentials, while at the same time increasing the deepenings, devotional meetings, proclamation, social activities and teaching, may reduce the pressure on assembly members to allow unforced growth in their relationships with one another, while also offering some hope of new ideas and new people refreshing the community. This solution will be particularly effective if a substantial part of the problem is that some assembly members are unenthusiastic about the assembly work itself. Perhaps there is little real call for assembly decisions, and frequent meetings, so long as the assembly is elected and is there as the first authority to turn to if an administrative issue should arise. In small communities, many matters can best be taken care of by individual initiatives, by friends working together in groups on particular projects, and by common consent at the Feast. The Assembly is a means, not an end in itself, and sometimes other means will work better.

“As the administrative work of the Cause steadily expands, as its various branches grow in importance and number, it is absolutely necessary that we bear in mind this fundamental fact that all these administrative activities, however harmoniously and efficiently conducted, are but means to an end, and should be regarded as direct instruments for the propagation of the Bahá’í Faith. Let us take heed lest in our great concern for the perfection of the administrative machinery of the Cause, we lose sight of the Divine Purpose for which it has been created.” (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 102)

However, if the cause of the difficulty is not a shortage of people able to serve, but disunity about some particular Bahai issue, the most likely solution is to get together to define the question as clearly as possible, and then to seek an answer to it. However one or two members who think they know the answer, and are personally qualified to define the question, can easily prevent this working.

There seems to be very little “institutional learning” in the Spiritual Assemblies, especially in the local assemblies. They can grow and develop for a while, and then lapse back: a sure sign that it was the individuals who did the learning, but it was not passed on in the form of maturity for the institution. A business or organisation would improve institutional learning by turning its learning, year by year, into training course materials, situation response scenario’s, “best practice” codes, and the like, and then by calling individuals to account if they failed to use what had been learned in the past. Most Local Assemblies are not going to do that, and if they were to devote much of their time to writing their learning down it would be a distraction and largely a waste of time.

That means that the maturity of the assembly never becomes “bedded- in” : it is the sum of the maturity and learning of the members, and little more. We will have more mature assemblies when there are more mature Bahais, and when the more mature among us are in fact elected and serve.

The first half of this means that the focus of all that “institutional learning” stuff should be the Bahai community, particularly children and youth, not the Assembly members. Not the procedures of the assembly, but skills such as consultation and attitudes such as humility about one’s supposed knowledge of ‘The Faith’ will have to be studied and practised.

The second part requires first of all larger communities (so that the voters have some choice), maturity in the voters (they must really be told that they harm the assembly by voting for Mr. Knowitall and that rich couple with the enormous house where every feast can be hosted), and more openness between the assembly and the community. If the voters do not know which assembly member seldom attends, who comes up with good ideas, who squelches every initiative, who does the real work and who complains that other people should — then the voters cannot give the assembly better members at the next election.

Ending the secrecy of LSA deliberations (but not the confidentiality of personal matters) is an important step: put the minutes of the Assembly on the table at Feast, or publish them or a summary in the newsletter (without the confidential matters relating to individual’s situations). Let the minutes, or the Assembly report, go to the Feast: say who was present, who sent apologies, who came up with ideas and who brought what argument in support or against the proposals. There is nothing in the Writings to prevent the community being told that Alice sent her apologies, Mary presented an idea for regular newspaper advertisements, Majnun offered to help while Mary was on holiday, Tahireh and Peter said that media proclamation was being discouraged, since Ruhi classes would be more effective, and Dawn said that the decision should be postponed until more members could attend, or perhaps a committee could be formed to study the Guidance. In fact, openness between the assembly and the community is encouraged:

“Every institution in the Faith has certain matters which it considers should be kept confidential, … Such matters, however, are but a small portion of the business of any Bahá’í institution. Most subjects dealt with are of common interest and can be discussed openly with anyone. Where no confidentiality is involved the institutions must strive to avoid the stifling atmosphere of secrecy; … (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, August 2, 1982)

“… Their functions is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent. … They must at all times avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations.”
(Shoghi Effendi, From a letter to the Bahá’ís of America, February 23, 1924: Bahá’í Administration, p. 64)

If the community is informed about the assembly’s work and functioning, informed voting by the believers will in time turn lame-duck assemblies into Assemblies going somewhere. Members of the community will get a boost just from the respect that is implicit in being informed.

Closed, insular communities tend to be very stuck in their ways: after a while people just don’t see how strange their accepted ways are, because there is no perspective from outside. So visitors who stay a while and contribute are important: not necessarily Counselors or ABMs (whose aura of expertise can get in the way), but simply visitors from other Bahai communities. We used to have a flow of travel-teachers who not only taught, but also refreshed the communities, but that practice has fallen into disuse. How about an exchange programme, say a house-swap at Ridvan: a couple from the coast goes to the mountains, and vice versa, or between Canadian and American cities? Another way to open the community culture up is to shift the prime focus of the community from Feast and Assembly (Bahais only) to devotional meetings and to the institution (not necessarily a building) of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or House of Worship. When we see ourselves more as others see us, we become more ready to change and to see that what we have always done might be open to criticism.
~~Sen McGlinn~~
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One Response to “Do assemblies learn?”

  1. Hi Sen,

    I so agree. Many great suggestions.

    I’m glad you have pointed out the forms that institutional learning (or I would call it development) must take for it to be institutional and not just individual. I have thought about this a lot. In addition to the changes you name, I think it would be good to consciously engage some of those ways institutions can actually develop that aren’t completely dependent on the individuals.

    When I was in the Chicago community attendance records of all assembly members were part of the annual report. Whenever somebody had very low attendance they were not re-elected. I thought it was great. People need information to vote well. Prayer is not sufficient. Assemblies and the communities they serve could really start developing if the community had access to the information you suggest they should.


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