It was a group of about 60 church leaders and lay people, gathering for a regular business meeting. They meet face to face like this only a few times a year. I was invited in to provide participatory design and hosting for the session. They wanted to use the time to look back and discover what they have been learning from their transformation journey over the past few years, and to sense into the work they want and need to do now to create a thriving, vital, living and sustainable future. To gain clarity on their next round of learning and action work.
We invited together a core planning team that represented the diversity in the system. Together we worked through the Chaordic Stepping Stones to design the session with just enough structure to hold us but also with enough space for emergence and creativity to arise. A lovely bonus for me was some of the members of the core planning team had some familiarity with the Art of Hosting, circle and group dialogue processes.
One of the pieces of the Chaordic Stepping Stones is the principles, or what we want the experience to be like for us as a planning team and the participants at the session. These principles are crucial to guide the design. The principles we articulated were:
- Participatory, energizing, renewing hope, an experience of faith.
- Intentional learning through stories and questions.
- Staying in the mystery, not solving a puzzle – remembering we are in a time of complexity and adaptive problem solving.
- Scripture, theological reflections, music and worship.
I was particularly guided by this quote from Margaret Wheatley:
As Margaret Wheatley said in a recent talk, “we don’t know what we’re doing, that is the starting point”. In light of this we are continually being asked to build the path as we walk it. Mastery in this context seems to be about flexibility, adaptation and curiosity rather than certainty. The invitation is to experiment and combine, to test and play and above all to continually learn and respond. Enjoy the journey. ~ The Art of Social Innovation – A Field Guide For Systems Change
The team crafted a beautiful invitation that helped prepare session participants for a different experience, one that they would contribute to and co-create through story and conversation.
We used circle as the pattern for our work together. Our design was:
- Friday night start-point with music and readings in their spiritual tradition.
- Circle check-in, a chance to hear every voice and welcome each other, sharing a few words on how we arrive tonight.
- Collective Story Harvest, where we heard from four stories each about a different transformation experience happening across their community. The framing from the Collective Story Harvest was that we were looking back not to measure but to remember, to reflect on, learn and celebrate, and use this as fertilizer for our next round of learning and action work. The core planning team and I worked ahead of time to articulate the themes we would use to harvest from the stories, connecting them to the aspects of their transformation transformation journey and spiritual traditions.
- Closed in their spiritual tradition with a prayer and a song.
- Saturday morning began again with music and prayer, and we invited an opening check-in for people to share a few comments, reflections or insights from last night’s Collective Story Harvest. We didn’t have enough time on Friday night to do this, and it felt important to welcome this group reflection before proceeding with our day.
- From there I provided a context setting piece using the two-loops living
system map of change, inviting people to find themselves on the two-loops and to have a conversation with those around them on the map about what it’s like for them right now.
- We moved from that to hearing about one particular area of priority for the
community that they had been doing some work on and wanted to invite some focused conversation and feedback from the whole group.
- Then we moved into some collaborative conversation in a short World Cafe on “Seeds of Hope and Possibility for our Future”, where the group began to surface different ideas for the work they want to do now and in the next couple of years.
- We harvested the World Cafe and headed to lunch. Yum!
- After lunch we came back together to build on the momentum from the morning and move into an Action Space – a chance to name some specific ideas, possibilities or projects they wanted to explore further – to recruit some thinking partners. This was a blend of different group processes designed to open space for seven possible ideas to be named, with the rest of the group to join a convenor as a thinking partner and help sketch out their ideas on a harvest template. At the end of the conversation they might have some steps they are walking out with, or they might decide they are complete with the idea at this point. After the session the core team would be following up with each of the convenors to learn more about what happened in their conversation and how they might be supported to incubate their action idea.
- We returned together for a closing check-out to share a word or two on how we are feeling leaving this session, and with prayer and song.
- As theological reflecting was an important principle they had invited someone external to their community to sit in this role during the whole session, offering their reflections and witness from time to time. This was a beautiful and important part of the experience (and as our theological reflector joked – was like theological improv for her!).
After the session I gathered together various artefacts (photos, notes, etc) and created a harvest document that told the story of what happened during their time together and provided some synthesis of themes I noticed that may provide insight into their direction for the next few years. This document was used for further reflection by the core planning team to discern the focus areas for the next few years, as well as other actions or ideas they can help incubate.
I was grateful for the chance to work with talented, passionate people who were committed to being and working together in a different way. Here were the themes from the closing check-out – always neat to see the connection between the principles we articulate at the start of our design process and what people were sitting with at the end of the session:
Here are some resources I shared in the harvest document:
- Background on the Collective Story Harvest process and a quick reference guide to hosting a Collective Story Harvest
- Information on the Circle Way process based on PeerSpirit Circle (and What Is Circle PDF)
- Article on Two Loops by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale
- Videos of Chris Corrigan teaching the Two Loops: Living Systems Part One and Living Systems Part Two
- The Art of Social Innovation – A Field Guide For Systems Change