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Monday, March 01, 2010

Pyramids and Circles

Howard Thurman once wrote:
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
I had this thought in the back of my head as I traveled to Chicago for the meeting of the steering committee of The Consultation but even more especially as I traveled from there to Nashville for the meeting of the Board of The Episcopal Women's Caucus.

It should come as no surprise that many organizations in this country are experiencing decline. Robert D. Putnam's 1995 book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" revealed these trends across all levels of our life, including civic organizations and churches.

The Caucus is no exception. As I looked around the room at who was at The Consultation as well as The Caucus, it was hard not to see that we are an aging body that hasn't attracted young people into our groups or governing bodies for years.

Like The Episcopal Church, The Caucus has been at a dangerous plateau for at least a decade. We have begun to decline in membership, energy and focus.

The passion that once called us into being has been replaced by a complacency fueled by the belief that, since we have Katharine Jefferts Schori as our Presiding Bishop and Bonnie Anderson as the President of the House of Deputies, all the battles for equality for women in the church have been won.

That's about as true as saying that, now that Barack Obama is in the White House, racism has been completely eradicated.

If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

With the decline in membership, energy and focus has come a loss of clarity in our own identity, which began to contribute to the downward spiral of membership, energy and focus.

In Thurman's words, we needed to stop asking what the world needs and, instead, ask what makes us come alive and go do it.

So, we did.

We had some difficult discussions - some "sit-down-come-to-Jesus" moments of truth-telling - which allowed us to gain some clarity about the energy that continues to hold us together.

In the midst of a dark time in our communal life, however, we were more clearly able to see the glowing embers of our passion for advocacy for the status of women in the church and in the world.

As we gained more and more clarity about our passion for advocacy, you could begin to feel the energy released in the room, which turned our conversations to vehicles and structure.

We began to move from Pyramids to Circles.

Traditional leadership structures look very much like a pyramid, with the large membership base at the bottom, moving upwards through layers of hierarchy to the narrow top which is where the governing body resides.

The resource energy flow is from the bottom up. The regulatory flow is from the top down.

What we began to acknowledge and name out loud is that the way of women in leadership is much more circular. We are more collaborative in style and are less insecure about sharing power and authority.

We began to wonder, then, if we had been wasting energy trying to fit our round selves into a pyramid shaped hole. We wondered if we might be able to free up some energy by changing the shape of the way we organize ourselves.

We decided, then, to enter into a three year experiment, tweaking the structures to better fit our identity and focus. For example, we changed the status of President, VP, etc., to 'Convener' which will be a one year term.

We organized the board tasks into 3 month term of commitment, with the possibility of renewing that position at the end of three months.

Understanding that our our voices, as tools of communication, have traditionally been the best vehicles of advocacy for women, we gave our highest priority of focus to our newly established monthly e-mail news letter, "The Monthly Caucus" - which will make its debut the end of March, the publication of Ruach - which we have committed to producing three times per year, the still-under construction but soon-to-be-ready Web page and our brand-spanking new FaceBook page.

Things began to happen. Our FaceBook Group had been in existence for 48 hours and had gained 264 members. What was so remarkable to us was not so much the number of people but the great variety of people who signed on - young, old, male, female, ordained, laity, and people of all color.

Our new mission statement is
"The Episcopal Women's Caucus: Advocating for women since 1971, theologically, spiritually and politically."
We also decided to take the risk of leadership in reaching out to the members of the former "Women's Council" of TEC (Episcopal Church Women, Daughters of the King, National Altar Guild, etc.), The Commission on the Status of Women, as well as parallel ecumenical and interfaith organizations, to see if, together, we might develop a portal of connection for us to be in common cause partnership for the advocacy of improving the status of women.

We began to come alive again.

I offer this honest reflection on the beginnings of our experiment in new organizational life to others because I believe that the internet and technology does not have to be, as Putnam posits, the reason for 'bowling alone'. It can, in fact, be a vehicle for a newly defined communal life of service to the world.

Thurman is right. It's a matter of clarity about your identity and vocation. It's a matter of determining focus and priorities. Ultimately, it's a matter of the soul.

I'm also remembering the story about someone who asked Mother Theresa about world hunger. "It's overwhelming," s/he said, "How can we make sure that everyone in the world gets enough to eat?"

Mother Theresa responded, "One. One. One. One."

We may not be able to end sexism or racism or all the other forms of prejudice in the world in our lifetime, but we can start with one. And, that one is me. And you. Which becomes us. And them. Which becomes more of us.

We're off on an exciting journey to turn pyramids into circles.

Because that's what makes us come alive.

It just may be what the world needs more of as well.


IT said...

I find this interesting because I see some of the same thing in women in academics. First, we're all getting older. The young women are not as energized, perhaps a tad complacent.

Second, the battles have changed, as you note. I know I'm on the cusp generation between those who had to fight from the ground up from nothing, and those who take it all for granted. The nature of the battle has changed. We can't fight the old skirmishes with the old strategies. But we can't ignore that there are skirmishes still to be fought (as I remember regularly at senior faculty meetings, where I am often the only woman.)

Institutions survive when they can be nimble and adjust--not giving up the past, but building on it. The wisdom comes in sorting fads from fundamentals.

Sounds like you energized your group in a good way. I hope you are successful.

FWIW, BP and I have talked about how she feels making the transition to a church where women are included at all levels. She likes it very much, and appreciates the unique and often complementary perspective of women priests. In fact after mass yesterday, where the altar featured gay and straight, male and female priests, no big deal to anyone, just an average Sunday, she looked at me and said "this is how it is supposed to be."


Ellen Ehrlich said...

Amen and Amen. Excellent essay.
Ellen Ehrlich, Southfield MI

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen dear Sister!

Pablo (yo) said...

Great blog!!!
If you like, come back and visit mine:

Pablo from Argentina

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - that's the vision of The Caucus: to go out of business. Sigh! Will we see it in our lifetime?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Ellen, Goran and Pablo (I visited your blog. Sigh. I can speak a wee bit of Spanish but I can't read it very well at all!)

susankay said...

Not in TEC but about 30 years ago I spoke at at a womens forum at Harvard/Radcliffe -- they (the young'uns) did not acknowledge that there was any problem. So sad. Perhaps they are more aware now.

Pat said...

Regarding the older vs. younger feminists: 40 years ago I was a housewife and mother who was active in the women's movement. Today my daughter is a tenured college professor and mom and is far too swamped with the myriad responsibilities of laundry, carpools, AND teaching AND committees AND driving to dance classes AND writing student evaluations AND publishing a book and presenting papers AND a significant medical issue with one of her children that--although she appreciates the activism of older women like me to open doors for her career, she has no mental spiritual or physical resources left over for joining any advocacy groups.

Elaine C. said...

I was hired to the USFS among the first group of women and minorities under affirmative action management trainee programs in the 1970s. There, in undergraduate and graduate school in Forestry I struggled with plenty of unpleasant sexual harassment -- and no infrastructure/support to deal with it. The women's movement had opened the space, but attitudes weren't going to change until those in opposition had to live with the new order and keep kicking back before change occurred.

I still find that whatever the appearance of change, many peoples attitudes remain unchanged. Changing laws is a beginning not an end or solution.

I felt called to the priesthood, and given my experiences in natural resources, put off entering the ordination process for a long time, because I knew the church could be just as bad.

The first time I asked to enter the ordination process was 1982 ... I didn't get ordained until 2004. Some of that was because of which diocese I lived in when I first asked to enter the process, some was getting over woundedness from my USFS experience and the last 10 years had everything to do with sexual harassment endured while in an Episcopal seminary.

How does this relate to Women's Caucus? In the midst of it I wrote and asked for help, and the group couldn't do anything. I understand why, but all in all, it's was an isolating experience.

While I know that groups and institutions that I belong to and have at times, supported financially make a difference in changing attitudes and making the world better, I guess my sense that in my worst times, I was so alone, even though I know there was nothing they could do, means I am at times ambivalent.

Seems I'm feeling a little aware of my battle scars this morning ...

The bold leadership of women in the Caucus and other organizations, especially the so-called irregularly ordained women, crashed open the opportunity to be ordained. We all owe so much to them. I love that picture of women bishops -- yet it stresses the handful of women who are bishop's compared to the huge number of bishops in the church ...

no point to my remarks, just my rambling disconnected observations

riskrapper said...

Summoned to this space by my Facebook friend; I don't know if its my place to leave a comment on the subject but Pru raises an interesting delimma.

The good news is that those that have gone before in the struggle for equality have opened up new worlds of possibilities for women that still remains a far distant wish for many.

The bad news or more rightly the challenge is how to honor that freedom so rightly achieved with great cost, by assuming the responsibility and doing the necessary work to protect and enlarge the scope of equal rights for all women and all those who remain less free.

The frenetic demands of modernity that Pru speaks can potentially drain us from pursuing any life affirming work we know that needs to be engaged. It seems our daily exertions deplete our energy and ability to fulfill our responsibilities to enlarge the lens of liberation for all.

To be sure the harvest is indeed great and the workers remain few and far between. Perhaps we can look to the scriptures for some guidelines on how to address the problem modernity poses.

In Luke's tale about Mary and Martha he recognizes that Martha is exhausted and resentful about the exertions of her role in the kitchen. Jesus instructed Martha like Mary to chose the better thing. It seems this advise from Jesus continues to resonate through the ages. Its about freedom to choose and the responsibility to make the right choices.

If the wheels on the bus are falling off getting it to a car wash to clean off the mud is probably not high on the priority list. Choose the better thing beloved.

The story of Martha and Mary can be found in Luke 10.

peace and prayers,


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Pru and Elaine C - I so appreciate your comments. In fact, Pru, you have inspired this morning's post. Elaine, I wish I had had your comments as I was writing about "today's feminists".

I also got no help from EWC but I realize now that that expectation was unrealistic. The Caucus has never been designed to be a 'swat team'. The advocacy came by working the system to make it possible for us to be considered for ordination - not an insignificant thing.

Sexism is most certainly alive and well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, RR, for putting this into biblical perspective.

Muthah+ said...

I am about to retire. I was a member of Caucus back in the days before and following the Ordination of Women. I left active involvement when I was ordained and got into the 'pyramid'. But I now serve in an area where the church is becoming obsolete because of the pyramids that we have opted for.

Circles are what we women are about. And if the Church doesn't seriously start looking at circles for the future, the message of Jesus is not going to be heard in another 2 generation. But then again, I beleive God is capable of having the world hear God's presence and see God's acts in the world and they will have to acknowledge God's presence somehow. Will it be in the sacraments? Perhaps not. Will it be in hierarchy? Definately NOT! But somehow, some way God will make God's presence known. I have faith in that.