Book Review – Organic Community

Filed under:book review, community — posted by Sonja on July 28, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

I’ve read two books this month. Well … I’ve completed two books this month. One was HP and the Deathly Hallows and I’m re-reading parts of that and talking about it and absorbing it. What a fabulous book. As Julie Clawson says, it belongs on the shelf next to Middle Earth and Narnia. And all the conservative Christians out there tarring and feathering Rowling for magic and the occult, owe her a very large apology. If you want more than that, you’ll have to read the book. Or trust me.

Organic CommunityThe other other book I completed this month is titled, Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect by Joseph R. Myers. I read it while on vacation in Vermont. I approached it sideways at first because I’m tempted to be very critical of the notion that one can artificially “create” a place where people can “naturally” connect. The notion seems disingenuous at worst and contrived at best. So, the kindest thing I can say about myself is that my mind was not terribly open as I opened the book. I did not approach this book expecting great things.

I was surprised.

It is a treasure of a little book. Myers writes in a very unassuming style and is very understated. In so doing he allows the reader plenty of time and space to imagine for themselves how they might use this information in their own lives. He gives them gift of place. Instead of giving the reader a paint-by-number kit at the end, throughout the book he points you to the brushes, paint pots and easel in the room and encourages you to pick them up yourself. It’s as if he said, “Here, all of us have been given this gift. Now you paint too. Create a painting that will bless your place.”

If I had a quibble with the author it would be that I think his thinking is perhaps too binary. He sets out his argument in terms of either/or. There is “master plan” thinking OR “organic order” thinking. One must be one OR the other and behavior falls into one category or the other. My feeling is that most behavior in human groups probably falls in a spectrum with master plan thinking on one end and organic order on the other. And behavior can be classified on that spectrum as being more or less in one direction or another. My guess is that if I were to meet him and have a cup of coffee with him, I would discover that he feels this way too, but expressed his views in this binary manner in order to make his point.

A secondary quibble, pointed out by Alan Hirsch in his review here, is that Myers does not specifically address missional issues. I’d agree with Alan, but for the fact that my guess is that Myers might say that missional issues are larger than this book. I think that people who engage in community within the organic order and a Christian viewpoint will also, organically, follow a missional lifestyle. It will be a part of who they are, rather than a part of their plan for living.

Myers defines “master plan” thinking as that which we see all around us everyday in the military, in business, in government. It is that zero-sum game which demands that we all compete for resources, power, time, etc., that we “learn the ropes,” that we paint-by-someone-else’s-numbers that will guarantee a successful outcome, that we measure success in numbers. He begins defining “organic order” thinking by defining an artist as “… someone who enables art to emerge from a canvas …” and then goes on to say this:

“Shaping an environment where people naturally connect is more like creating art than manufacturing a product. It marks a major shift: from programming a community (i.e., following a master plan) to using principals of organic order to develop an environment where community can emerge.” pp. 26-27 italics in the original

Perhaps my favorite principal in this book is the idea that organic may be equated to order. In this post-industrial, fully mechanical age we have a strong tendency to view those things that are organic and natural as being chaotic and out of control. Organic, natural things have a definite order and system to them. While that order is not always under our control, we may be able to embrace it and dance with it to live a healthy life. So I was very grateful to read a book that encouraged us to consider that organic and order are not mutually exclusive terms.

Scot McKnight did a review on Jesus Creed last month and summarized the two models nicely as follows:

If you are seeking to avoid the Master Plan programming model and, instead, want to create an organic environment, this is a good book for lots of ideas. Here’s a summary of the Master Plan programming model and the Organic Order model:

Patterns: prescriptive vs. descriptive.
Participation: representative vs. individual.
Coordination: cooperation vs. collaboration.
Growth: bankruptcy vs. sustainability
Measurement: bottom line vs. story.
Power: positional vs. revolving.
Partners: accountability vs. edit-ability.
Language: noun-centric vs. verb-centric.
Resources: scarcity vs. abundancy.

Myers devoted a chapter to each subject above and does a fairly thorough job of comparing and contrasting with examples the differences in each. He draws on from many different disciplines and across many fields of study for his examples. He also draws on his direct personal experience with the company that he and his wife started some years ago. It is fairly successful even by so-called master plan standards and is thriving. But they operate using organic order principals and it sounds like a wonderful place to work.

It struck me, as I read through the book, that I recently had the privilege of working in a group that operated with organic order principals for a short time. It was a joy to work in that group and we did some marvelous things. We had a difficult time explaining how we operated and I found myself wishing I’d had this book “back then” so I could have explained us better to those who were wondering how we managed to “get things done.”

For instance, I loved this definition of decision making (it’s from the chapter on participation):

People want their contribution to be part of the contribution of the entire group. They want to know that their individual participation will accumulated with all the other members’ contributions to provide something more robust than they could give by themselves. Is there some organic mechanism–a person or a descriptive system–that turns individuals’ thoughts and judgments into a collective thought, decision or action?

Finding the aggregate is the taking of everyone’s stories and using them to build a whole new story–one that makes sense to the whole group. This takes considerable wisdom. It allows groups to move forward. Finding the aggregate is not the same as reaching consensus. Consensus, when achieved, is little more than taking raw data and totaling it. Consensus, when not reached, translates to frustration and inaction.

Finding the aggregate … I loved reading that. It takes into account everyone in a group and mixes it up and creates a new story that is somehow larger than the sum of all the parts. Like when you’re cooking and you have to use 50 year old curry powder … or something. Or just cooking in general. The final product of any recipe is the aggregate of all the bits the cook has put in.

Then there was this from the chapter on power:

We concluded that power was not something that the three of us would possess just because we held the position of “owner.” We recognized that each of us would carry different roles and responsibilities, but these roles and responsibilities were not assigned because of position. Rather, they were matched to our strengths. No position anywhere in the company would hold power merely because of the post itself.

As our company has grown, “the project holds the power” has become one of our guiding phrases. When new employees are added, they are amazed at being given power by the project and that we, the owners, don’t stand in the way.

Does this mean that we are a “flat” organization, where everyone has the same degree of power at the same time? I’m not sure that a flat organization can truly exist and move foward. A project is always inviting a person to step forward and steward the power. And just as no one person holds positional power, neither do projects hold positional power. … Among people and among projects, the spirit is “revolving,” not “flat.”

As we discovered in my group, this requires both humility and trust on the part of the participants. It also requires buy in from everyone. But … if everyone will concede, leave their ego at the door and throw in with this, your group is then able to do remarkable things that no one would be able to do on their own … or even as a group with traditional positional power structures in place.

I think the finest chapter in the book is the chapter on Partners. Myers hits on the desire in the secular and faith cultures for holding each other accountable and shows how we so often miss the mark by driving people away instead of creating intimate atmospheres where vulnerability and encouragement are developed. He does this by developing the picture of accountants (accountability) vs. editors (edit-ability) and sums it up by saying this: “Accountants keep records. Editors wipe away errors while keeping the voice of the author.” (p. 140) Which would you want helping you follow Christ more closely? An accountant or an editor? Which kind of friend would you like helping you mirror Jesus more clearly … an accountant or an editor? Based on the scripture which tells us how he views our sin after Christ’s death and resurrection, which do we think God is?

In all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is engaging with other people in thinking of new ways of “doing” church. It is extremely helpful for for verbalizing some of the ideas that don’t have form yet. Or giving the right words to the things that are working, but perhaps you’re using the wrong words over and over again. Or maybe you just want to see a new way of doing things because the old ways just aren’t working anymore.