Shaping Communities

“Coordinating a community’s practices through good governance helps to make its way of life clear, visible, and viable.”

— Larry L. Rasmussen


Thoughts and questions to help you consider this practice

The shaping of communities is the practice by which we agree to be reliable personally and organizationally.

This practice takes on life through roles and rituals, laws and agreements — indeed, through the whole assortment of shared commitments and institutional arrangements that order common life. In one sense, then, shaping communities is not just a single practice of its own. It is the practice that provides the choreography for all the other practices of a community or society.

Constituting a way of life

Life is sometimes a mess. To flourish, we have to decide how we assemble, how we divide life's basic goods, and how we will record our history. In order for communities to flourish, they must be ordered, cared for, led. The practice of governance is the soil in which all the practices of a community are rooted and nourished.

When have you experienced a community that was poorly governed? What changes in ordering, caring, and leadership were called for? When have you experienced healthy community? In what ways did this community create a space for your gifts and talents?

The community of Jesus

Christians look to Jesus as an example of leadership, and the Bible provides models for life-giving governance. Jesus constituted his community around power turned upside down. What message does Jesus' style of egalitarian discipleship suggest about models for leadership?

Both Jesus and the first Christians embraced Judaism's sense of a covenant relationship with the one God. What covenantal understandings were present in the early church? What Jewish practices did the early church eventually decide to give up? What tensions attended the faith community as it made its decisions?

How did the "new world order" of the early church change when Christianity gained status as the universal imperial faith? At what point in a community's development does stability win out over flexibility?

The church as alternative community

In what ways does your faith community reflect the alternative community of the early church? In whose hands does effective power reside? What kind is it? How is it used, and to what ends? Who benefits and who pays? Who frames the issues and directs the kind of attention they get? How does information flow?

At best, leaders are choreographers to help people identify the challenges they face and untangle the issues. What leaders do you know who are able to clarify the purpose, values, and goals of a group?

Setting the table of community

The perennial Christian strategy is to gather folks, break bread, and tell stories. We can adapt and create governance and leadership practices, then, by answering basic questions: What shape will the gathering take? Who breaks the bread — all or some? Who tells the stories? Whom do our practices welcome to the table? How do we show in our life together that social distinctions based on race, class, and gender don't count here?

Are guests sometimes called to be hosts? Do we encourage each participant to find gifts for meeting the hungers of the world? Does the organization of general community life encourage leadership to emerge from the foot of the table?

  • Host or organize a meal with about 10 people from your faith community or from your neighborhood. Invite participants to tell stories about how they came to this place and to share two of their favorite memories of life in this community.
  • Get a map of your town or city and mark the identifiable neighborhoods. What reputation does each neighborhood have? Who are leaders in each neighborhood?
  • See how many city council members you can name from memory. If you get stumped, obtain a list from city hall. What gifts do the various elected officials bring to the community?
  • Identify gifts brought to the community. Reflect on the people in your study group. Identify particular gifts they bring to the community. In what ways could you help draw out the gifts that are present and weave them into the life of the larger community? How does your faith community go about calling people to service?
  • Collect an offering of service gifts. During stewardship season, collect an offering of service gifts pledged for the coming year from the church community. People might offer to provide a meal in an emergency, give those who need help rides to the doctor, provide musical accompaniment for worship, read scripture for worship, do a special maintenance project, or edit the community newsletter.
prayer group
  • Describe a congregation that you think embodies "best practices" of shaping community. What characterizes its forms of leadership and its power structures? What types of people have leadership roles in governance, testimony, outreach, teaching, or hosting table fellowship?
  • Support community leaders. In what special ways does your community support its leaders? Write a letter expressing appreciation to a leader you admire.
  • Within your faith community, identify ways to nurture these qualities that make for democratic governance and adaptive leadership:
    • A sense of divine power as the power for human flourishing
    • A basic equality that dignifies the varied gifts of all members
    • Forms of address that tend more toward "brother" and "sister" than titles
    • A sharing of resources with a view toward individual need
    • An effort to cross social boundaries for a more inclusive community
    • An uneasy relationship with every dominant order, every "Caesar"
    • A conviction that this community is a vanguard example for the wider world
  • Reflect on specific occasions when your community gathers in a special way, and ask what each says about the source and purpose of your community: Eucharist/communion, baptism, confirmation/membership, remembrance of the saints, all the festivals of the liturgical year. Review material on these occasions in your worship book, if your church uses one.
  • Use these strategies for dealing constructively with communal change:
    • Set a time to listen to objections and clarify so that those who oppose know they were heard. Do not defend proposed change.
    • Use conciliatory speech and avoid polarizing or patronizing rhetoric.
    • Find an objective facilitator who can help people feel they are part of the change process and that it's not forced on them.
    • Respect dissent, and be willing for the proposed change to incorporate some of the ideas of those who oppose it


  • Learn how the Rule of St. Benedict has shaped community over the centuries. When Benedict of Nursia wrote his Rule in 530 C.E., the Roman Empire, though materially prosperous, was in a state of decline. Benedictine monasteries — with their message of balance and moderation, stability, hospitality, and stewardship — were credited with the preservation of Western culture, and Benedict himself was named a patron saint of Europe.

Worship Materials

"A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them...But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.'"

— Luke 22:24-27

Gathering prayer

God of nimble fingers,
at the flowering of creation
you took a mess of mud and shaped it
into your image:
male and female.

So take this ball of heaving, resisting clay —
this messy clay of all of us together,
and fashion of it a living table
where all may gather, be fed, and tell stories.

Craft it for long wear more than beauty.
Mold it for health more than power.

Set this table with space enough for elbow room
space for talent
space for guests.

Shape our feet of clay
into dance;
Shape our knees
into bending;
Shape our hands
into clasping;
Shape our water-logged lungs
into chorus;
Shape our chins
into upthrust resolve;
Shape our lips
into smile.

Take this ball of clay,
and fashion of it a living table
to which the dinner bell calls, we eat, and tell how things are.

Craft it for sturdiness more than smoothness.

Mold it for hosting more than for herding.

Set this table with just enough space for brushing skins
space for accepting gifts
space for the Guest.


— Lani Wright, Cottage Grove, Oregon

group prayer


Gather Us In

"Gather us in...the lost and forsaken, gather us in...the blind and the lame.
Call to us now, and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name."
Text and Music: Marty Haugen
Text and Music (c) 1982 G.I.A. Publications, Inc.

In Christ There Is No East or West

"In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north;
But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth."
Text: John Oxenham

For We Are Strangers No More

"For we are strangers no more, but members of one family;
strangers no more, but part of one humanity..."
Text: Kenneth I. Morse
Text (c) 1979 Church of the Brethren General Board

Books & Films

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Drawing on a dozen years of research among managers, officers, and politicians in the public realm and the private sector, among the nonprofits, and in teaching, Heifetz presents clear, concrete prescriptions for anyone who needs to take the lead in almost any situation, under almost any organizational conditions, no matter who is in charge.

Read more about Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church
Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church
Letty M. Russell

Ideas of the Christian church are changing, and Letty Russell envisions its future as partnership and sharing for all members around a common table of hospitality.

Read more about Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity
Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity
Etienne Wenger

This book presents a theory of learning that starts with the assumption that engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we get to know what we know and by which we become who we are.

Read more about Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Robert D. Putnam

Updated to include a new chapter about the influence of social media and the Internet — the 20th-anniversary edition of Bowling Alone remains a seminal work of social analysis, and its examination of what happened to our sense of community remains more relevant than ever in today’s fractured America.

Read more about Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies

In this classic adaptation of William Golding’s novel, a planeload of schoolboys is stranded on a tropical island. They’ve got food and water; all that’s left is to govern themselves peacefully until they’re rescued. “After all,” says choir leader Jack, “We’re English. We’re the best in the world at everything!” Unfortunately, living peacefully is not as easy as it seems. Analyze how “community” functions under these extraordinary conditions.

What Others Are Doing

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Photo by Unsplash / Priscilla Du Preez


read more about Living as community, then and now

Living as community, then and now

Dorothy Bass

A homily given by Dorothy Bass, based on Acts 2:43-47, at Valparaiso University Chapel, November 9, 2010.

read more about Practicing Our Faith: Get Thee to a Community

Practicing Our Faith: Get Thee to a Community

Martin Copenhaver

This sermon based on Acts 2:43-47 and I Corinthians 12:12-26 was preached at the Wellesley Congregational Church on February 28, 1999.

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Study Guide for “In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as a Spiritual Practice”

Mindy Sharp

Mindy McGarrah Sharp compiled this companion study guide for the book “In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as a Spiritual Practice,” written by Bonnie Miller-McLemore.