Summary: The Art of Community By Charles Vogl
Summary: The Art of Community By Charles Vogl

Summary: The Art of Community By Charles Vogl

The Seven Principles

You may notice that communities you value already use some or all of these principles even though you may not have recognized it before. Some principles may sound surprising and unnecessary, but on further reflection you’ll probably realize that these principles are already present, though perhaps undistinguished in your communities. The principles are:

  1. Boundary: The line between members and outsiders.
  2. Initiation: The activities that mark a new member.
  3. Rituals: The things we do that have meaning.
  4. Temple: A place set aside to find our community.
  5. Stories: What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values.
  6. Symbols: The things that represent ideas that are important to us.
  7. Inner Rings: A path to growth as we participate.

It’s not necessary that you apply all these principles to your community, and certainly not right away. Only fairly mature communities will have thought out and included all of them. They’re simply presented as tools to use when you want to strengthen what you have at whatever level you’re at today.

Organizations like Weight Watchers, CrossFit, and Alcoholics Anonymous exemplify many of these principles.


#1 The Boundary Principle

Members want to know who’s in the community and shares their values. Visitors want to know a safe way to explore without committing themselves. Novices prefer to know at what point they’ve joined a community. A boundary is the recognized demarcation between insiders (members) and outsiders. This boundary should be more about making the inside space safe for insiders than about keeping outsiders out. Where there’s a boundary, insiders feel more confident that they share values and that they understand one another better than outsiders

Without a boundary you’ll face an everything–nothing conundrum. Some communities want to be open to anyone and everyone. This arises from a generous instinct: making a community open for all sounds welcoming. Most leaders, even if they claim to “welcome everyone,” actually mean something a bit more restrictive. If everything in the universe is good (and nothing is not good), then good things can never be differentiated from anything else in the universe. Good then identifies no (particular) thing because all things are good. Likewise, if everyone in the world belongs in your community, this can mean your community cannot be distinguished from no community.


#2 The Initiation Principle

We all want to know that we’re truly accepted into the communities we join. An initiation is any activity that’s understood as official recognition and welcome into the community. The initiation helps members understand clearly who’s part of the community. It marks the completed journey over the boundary and into the inner ring.

Initiations can look anyway you like. They certainly don’t have to be elaborate. Processions, dances, and fire-lit halls may be fun, but a warm, personal letter or telephone call that welcomes a new member can be powerful. A pat on the back with the right words or a dinner with a community gatekeeper can be profound events. They simply need to be actions that are immediately understood as recognition and welcome. For example, Peace Corps volunteers are sworn in by a State Department diplomat after completing months of training. Each is given a pin with the Peace Corps logo. Employees at the New Belgium Brewery are made company shareholders on their one-year anniversary. They then give a speech to all shareholders explaining what it means to them to be an owner. First-time Burning Man festival goers are instructed to get out of their vehicle and roll in the desert dust three times and then strike a gong on their first crossing into the Burning Man site.


#3 The Rituals Principle

A ritual is any practice that marks a time or event as special or important. The actions are imbued with meaning. They connect the present with things in the past and our hope for the future. The psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a four-hundred-person survey to distinguish happiness and meaningfulness. His research indicates that “meaningfulness” involves understanding our own lives beyond the present time and place. It comes when we reflect on what came before and how we’re connected to the future. Meaningfulness comes when we integrate now with the future and past. Our health, wealth, and relationships change. Meaning creates a feeling of stability in the midst of change. Rituals are a tool to bring meaning into our lives.

Rituals often have forms (patterns) that participants recognize. We learn these forms after participating in them when the time is right. For example, for birthdays in the United States, we expect a ritual birthday party form that looks something like this:

  • Friends and family are invited to one place and told there will be a birthday celebration.
  • Someone prepares or purchases a cake for the celebration.
  • Someone lights candles on the cake that in some way represents the years lived.
  • After a meal and unstructured social time, guests sing for the birthday girl or boy.
  • The birthday girl or boy blows out the candles as fast as she or he can.
  • There’s cheering from guests.
  • Cake and ice cream are served.
  • Presents are opened.
  • Hugs are shared with the birthday girl or boy.

A weekly, monthly, or annual dinner with friends can be a ritual if the gathering becomes special to you. You may even have a friends’ gathering that you never thought of as a ritual, but it’s a special, even sacred, time for you. You’ll get excited in anticipation, you’ll arrange your schedule to be available, and you’ll arrive prepared in whatever way is important.


#4 The Temple Principle

We all want a place where our community gathers and we can do things that we long for in our everyday lives. A temple is simply a place where people with shared values enact their community’s rituals. Members know that it’s where they’ll find their community. Members who are far away may long to visit. In some ways, the temple represents the community’s strength and legitimacy. It’s a “sacred space,” a place set aside for a particular use. A designated permanent temple is nice, but not necessary: any space can be made a temple simply by members gathering there and enacting rituals. In fact, a clear field is certainly a temple for some sporting communities.

The rituals performed inside a temple might be considered weird if performed outside and seen by outsiders with no explanation. Within the temple, they’re meaningful and comfortable. Insider knowledge allows the rituals to be experienced as satisfying and even fun. Here are a few examples of rituals that would look weird if they were done outside the understood time and place set aside for them:

  • Hoisting a shirt with a big number on the back high into the air (at a jersey retirement ceremony).
  • Soldiers with guns standing completely motionless in perfectly clean uniforms next to a parking lot (greeting a hearse in Arlington Cemetery).
  • Middle-aged people walking in a line wearing black robes and then reciting in Latin (at a university graduation).

Some people feel free to sing, dance, and express themselves emotionally only within rituals. These could include weddings, sports events, or holiday festivities.


#5 The Stories Principle

Stories are the most powerful way we humans learn. Every community, like every person, is full of stories. Sharing certain stories deepens a community’s connections. If people don’t know (or can’t learn) your stories, they don’t know or understand your community. They can’t know who you are, what you do, or how what you do matters. Stories are how members, future members, and outsiders learn the values and the value of the community. The stories must be shared so that members can understand the community’s authentic values and identity.

Anyone familiar with a religious tradition knows at least a few iconic stories that are core to the tradition’s identity. Canonical and sacred texts including the Muslim Qur’an, Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, and Buddhist sutras are full of stories. Some are historical and others metaphoric.

In all great religions, there are stories that must be known if one is to understand the tradition, such as the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and the Mormon story of Joseph Smith’s revelation by angels and golden tablets.

There must also be stories about how the community’s values are expressed and how they affect real people. These stories will tell everyone far more about the community identity than everything else combined. When you think of communities you appreciate, consider what stories are told to newcomers and shared over and over again among members. These stories represent the values all hope to embody.


#6 The Symbols Principle

Symbols are powerful tools in building community because they quickly remind us of our values, identity, and commitment in a community. Using symbols is a way to make communities stronger. Symbols represent a set of ideas and values, which is to say, they often represent many things at once. They can conveniently stand in for many words.

Anything can be a symbol. This includes the flame symbolism in the Unitarian Universalist tradition and the purifying water in Hindu tradition. In consciousness traditions like Taoism and Buddhism, symbols tend to be more abstract. For example, the yin and yang represent in part how things that may appear opposite are in fact complementary. In theistic traditions, such as Christianity and Sikhism, the symbols are often taken from iconic stories. The Christian cross comes from the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. The Sikh crossed swords refer to a turn away from pacifism to defense of the vulnerable. In any tradition, there will be many symbols for different times and places. Simply changing a robe color or donning a head covering can symbolize a special time.

A community symbol is far more than a pictorial representation of a single word, idea, or memory. In fact, community symbols work best when they’re not too literal. Literal symbols leave less interpretive room to represent numerous and evolving ideas. For example, the circular Peace Corps logo is a symbol for the worldwide Peace Corps community, both current and past. It includes a dove within an American flag.

Communities often use many symbols. In fact, this is almost inevitable. Some symbols will naturally emerge. Others can be thoughtout and chosen. Symbols usually reference a story, place, or tool that’s important to the community’s history. What’s most important is that you recognize the power of symbols and how much members appreciate them. They can be potent tools to remind all who you are, what you do, and why you matter. Ask yourself, what are the symbols your community uses? If you have none, what elements should your community’s symbol include?


#7 The Inner Rings Principle

We all want to be special to someone or several someones. We all want to be valued and valuable. This could look like joining the elite club of Academy Award winners, Olympic athletes, or Nobel Prize winners. There are formal inner rings with official membership, and there are many more informal inner rings. We all aspire to belong to prestigious inner rings, perhaps not just for authority and respect but for new ways to participate and contribute. This desire is so powerful that we’re rarely satisfied with the rings we already inhabit. We simply differ on the inner rings we aspire to join and what we’re willing to do for admission.

The endless striving for the next ring can be a dangerous trap. In mature and formal communities, there’s a much more satisfying and healthy way to relate to inner rings. Mature and strong communities create different levels of inner rings that members can enter (not to be superior snobs but to serve differently). At each level, members gain some benefits related to their maturation or formation. The benefits could include new access, knowledge, authority, acknowledgment, or respect. Groups have many different names for these inner rings. A typical progression will look something like this, with different labels:

  • Visitors
  • Novices
  • Members
  • Elders or senior members
  • Principal elders and skilled masters

A community can decide what makes an appropriate inner ring and how many there should be. Obviously there’s a point at which it becomes pointless and silly: imagine an organization with only ten members and seven inner rings! Even small organizations, however, will see at least a few informal rings form.


Endings and Beginnings

It’s okay for a community to end. This can happen for any number of reasons: people move away, the goal is accomplished, interest has shifted away, other priorities arise, you can’t serve members anymore. When a community ends, the relationships can continue. If we consider that the community’s real purpose is to enrich members in some way, then it’s okay if at some point a community stops gathering. You may not keep your temple, or enact your rituals, or use your symbols. With luck, you’ll still have the relationships that were formed in your community, and this alone can be considered a success.