The frustrations of trying to build community

It’s about time I updated my blog on my Sunday Assembly journey. I have barely mentioned it since Sunday Assembly Edinburgh was born over two years ago!

So – it turns out it’s pretty challenging to establish a secular equivalent of church with just a handful of volunteer organisers. I have found myself incredibly envious of organised religions, having their own buildings to act as a community hub, and having paid clergy!

I have given this project a lot of my time; for a spell recently, I was even the committee chair. We would meet in noisy cafes to work through too-long agendas, ever hopeful that new people would respond to the monthly pleas for help and show up. But they largely don’t – even the informal social meet-ups we tried to hold (in-between the monthly assembly events) were very sparsely attended. I have found it increasingly difficult to feel positive about my efforts to help build a “community” – it felt more like I was just working hard to put on a free show every month. Feeling overworked by it – and over-relied-upon – eventually pushed my mood in a mildly misanthropic direction, which I had to admit is kind of ironic, and at that point I knew I was done. 🙂

What was I hoping for? I went into it because I thought that I valued community, I valued people getting together and being uplifted, I valued trying to make things better collectively – and I liked the idea of a community in which I wouldn’t be at the margins in being secular-minded. But it’s difficult to feel uplifted when you are burned out from effort and carrying a bigger burden of responsibility than you feel is reasonable. And apart from a beach clean on one occasion, being of practical help in the wider community has remained sort of a holy grail that no-one has time and energy left over to think about or organise.

I think we have done some good in fostering friendship; it’s rare in adulthood to maintain a sizeable group of friends who all hang out together, and that is something positive that we have done just as well as church – at least for the people who are actively involved (organisers, band, and so on). And I have certainly benefited from the experience of playing in a band; up to now I continue to participate at that level. Are there other, less complicated ways we could have achieved the same things? I’m really not sure.

I also have some discontentment with the development of Sunday Assembly as a global phenomenon. We have a central organisation that in my view acts a lot like a business, trying to define and protect its brand and expand itself globally. Sure, it is only responding to demand from around the world, but I think how it responds is quite revealing. It is now moving from a grassroots model to something like a franchise, where new groups who want to start a Sunday Assembly will have to pay for mandatory training and each candidate organiser will be interviewed. (Seems to undermine “radical inclusiveness” a little bit, does it not…?) Once up and running, accreditation must be sought; the accreditation criteria are quite demanding in my view, culminating in a visit to the assembly event to judge the quality and conformity to the charter in various ways.

I have found this off-putting; I had always viewed Sunday Assembly as a movement, which implied the central organisation’s main role was to facilitate the sharing of ideas and experience between the network of assemblies – mutually – rather than trying to set itself up as an authority. I’ve looked into other models for comparison: the British Humanist Association requires local groups (known as “partners”) to sign a partnership agreement, and as far as I can see that is all – no onsite visits to make sure the talks are interesting and the welcomers are friendly and so on. The Unitarian church in UK is a network of autonomous churches, and the central organisation is defined by that network, not the other way round. Both those models are more appealing to me personally.

Anyway, what do I conclude on the question of providing the benefits of church (or its equivalent in other faiths) without religion? Hmm. I guess I’m not sure if there is a real appetite among the non-religious for communities like the churches some of us grew up in: like old-fashioned villages, where everyone knows everyone, significant points in people’s lives are marked and supported, and kids grow up with numerous surrogate aunties and uncles that care about them. Perhaps the people who want something like this are those of us that got involved in organising Sunday Assembly. Or perhaps this community concept does appeal more widely, and it would just require more resources to actually bring it about – weekly assemblies, rather than monthly, for example. Would people come weekly? Would people come to socials or small-group events if there was a permanent building to come to rather than having to come out and buy an overpriced coffee in a noisy cafe sitting awkwardly at a table of people they don’t yet know? Or is it that it’s simply less awkward when people are able to bond over some shared characteristic (such as faith), or are ideologically committed to being part of a community in a way that atheists wouldn’t ever be? I don’t know.

Sunday Assembly Edinburgh is still going, though (for now), and still as well-attended as ever. I suppose that says something positive.

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2 Responses to The frustrations of trying to build community

  1. David K says:

    The only thing I miss from my religious upbringing was the sense of community I felt. Someone posted about Sunday Assembly in our skeptics group and I thought it would be a great idea. I met with about 10 people form the group and it seemed like there would be interest but when I tried to put something together, many rejected it because it was too similar to “church”. I instead, ended up visiting a Unitarian Universalist church. I was intrigued that it’s members were a diverse group, Agnostics, Atheists, Wiccan, Pagan, mixed religion couples, Buddhists…etc. It turned out to be a great group for me. It really isn’t religious at all.
    The closest SA is about 2 or 3 hours away. I wish I could attend and I wish we had one in the area. Even though I am not part of your group, I can appreciate the effort you take to host it in your area.

  2. susanne430 says:

    interesting thoughts

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