June 18, 2023 will mark 40 years since 10 Baha’i women were hanged in Shiraz. Their only ‘crime’ was their refusal to renounce their beliefs in a faith that promotes the principles of gender equality, unity, justice, and truthfulness. This collection highlights Baha’i Blog content relating to the ongoing persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
All of us feel the sadness and pain that the peoples of the world are experiencing in this day and age. Yet as Baha’i’s, we know we must not lose sight of humanities’ bright future, focussing our energies on contributing our part to building a flourishing spiritual and material civilization. In it’s 2015 Ridvan message, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
For, ultimately, it is systematic, determined, and selfless action undertaken within the wide embrace of the Plan’s framework that is the most constructive response of every concerned believer to the multiplying ills of a disordered society.
What are some examples of systematic action in the Baha’i community?
A few I can think of are the consistent flow of people through the Institute Courses, which in turn generates more human resources; the advancement of clusters from one stage to the next; the regular meeting of friends in a cluster in order to pray, reflect, study, and plan before the next cycle of learning and action.
The Universal House of Justice wrote in detail about being systematic in its 1998 Ridvan Message:
Unremitting faith, prayer, the promptings of the soul, Divine assistance—these are among the essentials of progress in any Baha’i undertaking. But also of vital importance to bringing about entry by troops is a realistic approach, systematic action. There are no shortcuts. Systematization ensures consistency of lines of action based on well-conceived plans. In a general sense, it implies an orderliness of approach in all that pertains to Baha’i service, whether in teaching or administration, in individual or collective endeavor.
Clearly, being “systematic” implies more than just holding regular activities and meetings. It implies “well-conceived plans” and “an orderliness of approach”. We are all familiar with the cycle of study, prayer, planning, action, and reflection that gives rhythm to our reflection, but how can we raise the quality of the systematic action already taking place in our communities?
A few years ago, I was serving intensely with a small group of Baha’is (there were about 10 of us). We met regularly to reflect on the quality and effectiveness of our service. But we noticed that sometimes, after a considerably long meeting, we would leave feeling as though we were “stuck” in the same place as when we started: either not knowing where to go next, feeling overwhelmed by the amount of actions we wanted to take, or activities to initiate in the limited time of our next “cycle of learning”.
What we realized was that it wasn’t enough to conceive of our systematic reflections as a time to merely “share insights”, “go over what we’d done”, or “make plans”. It wasn’t enough to study the guidance from the House of Justice in the abstract—we needed to learn how to find what the implications could be for our particular environment. And this was not to mention the realization that most of our plans were too complicated, grandiose, or were designed before we had even finished learning from the actions we had just taken in the cycle prior. Although we were “systematically” holding meetings, we didn’t have a systematic orderliness in our approach.
One aspect of having well-conceived plans I believe depends on the quality of our reflection—if we are able to analyze our most recent actions and outcomes, we can make better and more appropriate plans for the next cycle of our activity.
The most dynamic clusters are those in which, irrespective of the resources the community possesses or the number of activities being undertaken, the friends appreciate that their task is to identify what is required for progress to occur…
The quality of our thinking in our reflection meetings rose as we developed an orderliness to the way we reflected when we came together. We organized our reflection meetings into 5 parts:
1. Study of the Guidance: Each of us would come prepared to the meeting with a quote (from the Writings, the Guardian or the House of Justice) that expressed something we had in mind upon our own individual reflection. This set the tone and focus of the meeting and gave us a collection of Creative Word and guidance to refer back to during our consultations.
2. Actions Taken: Here, we outlined what actions were taken in line with our previous plan.
3. Results Generated: Next, we listed the results of the actions taken, both qualitative and quantitative (where appropriate). This was a simple listing of the facts as we now saw them.
4. Reflection: Now, we analysed our experience (the actions taken and the results generated) in light of the guidance. It was important to identify the strengths upon which adjustments could be made.
5. Plan: Only at this point could we begin to plan for the next cycle of learning, identifying our objectives, strategies and timeline, on the basis of what we had just learned from our reflection.
It took a lot of effort, facilitation, practice, and detachment not to plan ahead or start reflecting before even collecting the information upon which we wanted to reflect. But we found that sticking to the orderliness of this process raised the quality of our thinking, reflection, planning…and of course the results! Our cycles of learning went from discrete efforts, to a unified rhythm of growing knowledge and experience.
This is just a small example of how one group of friends serving together developed a way to be more systematic and orderly. But no matter the strategies you may develop in your neighborhood, activity or community, the House of Justice reminds us that:
So much in the Writings of our Faith describes the relationship between effort exerted and the heavenly aid vouchsafed in response: “If only ye exert the effort,” is the Master’s reassurance in one of His Tablets, “it is certain that these splendours will shine out, these clouds of mercy will shed down their rain, these life-giving winds will rise and blow, this sweet-smelling musk will be scattered far and wide.
What are some of the ways you’ve raised the quality of your systematic approach in your “service, whether in teaching or administration, in individual or collective endeavor”? Please share in the comments section below!
Melanie is a Californian Baha’i and creative at heart with a background in printmaking and cultural anthropology. She has lived in Latin America, Israel, and Southern China, and is currently living in Sydney, Australia, where she stays productive by working on painting, illustration, and web design projects.
One of the difficulties I face and I think we as individuals, communities, and institutions face, is the problem of dealing with overlapping cycles and competition for resources. For Clusters, we’ve pretty well established that a cycle is three months, with aspects of study, prayer, planning, action, and reflection. But there are other cycles as well. Local Spiritual Assemblies have numerous tasks that are done on an annual cycle, such as planning the calendar, appointing committees, organising elections, and creating the Annual Report. National Assemblies have similar requirements, and the Baha’i calendar of Holy Days and Festivals itself imposes an annual cycle. Counsellors and Auxiliary Board Members serve five-year terms, which imposes somewhat of a five-year cycle on their operations, and the same is true of the Universal House of Justice. Lately, we have been working with five-year plans, which require planning, action, and reflection for the long term as well as for the short term.
So, when I approach a three-month cycle, I can’t pretend that some planning for the next three months hasn’t already been done. Events and activities will take place during that time that have already been planned and will affect our ability to devote time to Cluster plans. These pre-planned activities may or may not contribute much to the winning of Cluster goals and they may not be much affected by the learnings of the last cycle. But many of them are still essential and may contribute to important goals that span the three-month periods of action.
It doesn’t seem that we have yet found a way to harmonise the tension these differences produce. Cluster Agencies strongly encourage Assemblies to align their strategies and activities with the plans for the Cluster, but sometimes Assemblies are completely overwhelmed with trying to observe Holy Days or prepare their local directories or deal with personal issues and don’t have energy left for Cluster activities. Then, the non-involvement of Assembly members in Reflection Gatherings or collective teaching at the Cluster level inadvertently sends a message to members of their communities that the Cluster activities are not important, so the other community members may not get involved either. The result, too often, is that Assembly members can feel accused of focusing on the wrong things, Cluster Agencies can feel like they are dragging the community along all alone, and community members can feel disconnected or alienated from all of it.
Do you have suggestions for how to reduce these tensions, how to give appropriate attention to activities that fall outside of the scope of three-month cycles, how to communicate that all sorts of different things may be important even if they’re not mentioned in the latest Ridvan message, or how to divide up responsibilities in such a way that people don’t feel let down when others are not available to do the same things they are? This is probably a topic for another post, rather than part of this one, so I apologise if it’s outside the scope.
Alan Manifold (January 1, 2016 at 11:32 PM)
Thank you for your comments…
You make a good point that there are many “overlapping cycles” that happen all at once, and that sometimes it can feel like they are in tension with one another. There are so many aspects to the question “How can we be better at being ‘systematic’?”, that for this article I really had to narrow my focus to the reflection stage. The main idea is that, no matter in what setting or role we find ourselves reflecting, that we look at our reality and past actions before making plans, so that our plans are more ‘ordered’ and based on where we are, rather than only on where we imagine we’d like to be. I think this principle can apply to an individual, cluster agency, Local Spiritual Assembly, or any group of people trying to advance an aim!
With regard to your question about “reducing tension” and giving due regard to activities that “fall outside of the scope of three-month cycles”, my initial thought is that we first try to view these activities and efforts not as being in tension with one another…but as parts of one organic whole. I know that can sound idealistic, but I think its usually our own limitations that make us feel like we aren’t doing enough or that our efforts are not being valued “as they should”. Within our daily lives we manage different cycles such rhythms in work, family, personal life, exercise, service, etc., and if we see those as in competition with one another, we will definitely feel like they are pulling us in different directions. But if we view them as complementary parts of our life, which is one whole, some of those tensions may fall a way. Maybe it could be the same for the way we view the different cycles that punctuate Baha’i life and service?
I also thought it could be relevant to look at the second paragraph on page 7 of the 29 December 2015 letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, where the House of Justice says:
“All the elements of a system necessary for growth to be sustained are now in place. Reaching the second milestone along the continuum of development, which we described to you five years ago, is accompanied by advances qualitative, but also quantitative—such as a rise in the
number of those involved in conversations that enable receptivity to be discovered and
nurtured, in how many homes are being visited, in core activities and participation, in how many individuals are beginning the sequence of courses or supporting others as they gain the confidence to serve. Attendance at gatherings to mark the Nineteen Day Feast and Bahá’í Holy Days is being fostered by Local Spiritual Assemblies. Such advances are the more visible signs of a much finer development: the gradual spread, within a population, of a pattern of community life based on Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings.”
Some of the challenges you described, such as Assembly members feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from cluster activities, while not something that can be ‘ignored until later’ per se, may resolve themselves as we advance in the teaching work, so that there are more fresh minds and souls that can serve as human resources in the community, and take the load off of the small bunch of people who may be feeling they are overloaded with just keeping the basic administrative aspects of Baha’i community life going.
Just my thoughts at this point in time!
Melanie King Dollie (January 1, 2016 at 10:36 PM)
Great answer, Melanie! Thanks!
I agree that a lot of the answer is always to keep things in proper perspective. We’re all working towards the same glorious end and can encourage each other in whatever work we’re each engaged in.
Alan Manifold (January 1, 2016 at 6:24 AM)
What a great learning experience, Melanie. Articulately and lucidly expressed. Not rushing to plan next steps before establishing the facts of where we are is indeed key. I feel we also need to improve a sober mindset about results. To see it as being positive and change-oriented when we are totally honest about results. The two extemes of sapping criticism and fluffy pandering (and consequently finding nothing major to improve) must be avoided in order to establish facts at our reflection meetings. If there’s love, trust and a spirit of genuine encouragement (avoiding fearful flattery), the friends can be open, ‘vulnerable’ and honest about their activities without tension nor judgment. Results are guaranteed.
Sam (January 1, 2016 at 5:41 AM)
Hello, am Mark Mike from Mpigi cluster in Uganda. I have lots of questions coz am new to serving at the ATC but for the start may I ask, “is the expansion phase of the cycle only for expansion? How should we then handle the little days between the expansion and consolidation? How do u organise a Trio meeting? Hope the friends will help me learn. Allah-u-abha!
Mark Mike (August 8, 2018 at 7:58 PM)