In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (10:24-25) it says;
In the early 1990’s Cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and Educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning, introduce;
It could be argued that the church has been engaging in a form of Communities of Practice, without that name since it’s earliest times, in its love and care, biblical preaching, discernment, works of good deeds as it participating in the ministry of Christ’s healing and reconciliation of the whole of creation.
In the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church, our practice of mission and ministry is based on the one Lord Jesus Christ, and how we discern to live this out is through the discernment of our councils and communities. In a way, our way is that of a community of Christian discipleship in practice.
While Communities of Practices has been around for a few decades now, it is only in recent times that this way of developmental peer learnings as been more formally adopted in the disciplines of Health, Finance, research, and IT.
The 2019 Synod of the NSW and the ACT affirmed, as part of the Renewed Vision for Formation, the importance of developing and encouraging communities of practice for mission and ministry leadership development. This page is in introduction to CoP within the Uniting Church context.
Pillars of Communities of Practice
A CoP is not an everyday circle of friends or just an interest group that anyone can join. CoP are intentional communities that needs planning and formation. To assist in this planning and formation Etienne Wenger proposes 3 pillars.
Being clear about the focus or the ‘title’ of the group is essential. Different domains may include a focus on the craft of theological/biblical preaching, pastoral care, r transformative community engagement, or evangelism. Members of the CoP all need to be committed to the practice of their domain, to improve their craft, to collaborate, discern, strategies and problem solve within that domain.
All the activity that happens within the CoP’s Domain happens in community. Each member is aware of what each other members is doing, researching, experimenting, finding what works well or no longer is working well in practice. It is an inclusive community in that different levels of expertise, competencies and approaches are respected as it related to the domain. One Preacher is Post-Liberal seeking to proclaim a clear Word, while in community working with another preacher who is Post-Evangelical, de-constructing some old certitudes which have caused harm. Each member learns and grows and develops their faithful craft in community together. Everyone learns from each other.
A CoP is not a theoretical workshop. It is practice focused and practice based. Being practice focused and based means there is an encouragement to honest sharing about one’s practice, the tools, experience, teaching and training one has in the domain. Without judgment, the successes the failures and everything in between is encouraged to be shared. The CoP provides an opportunity for the resourcing of each other’s practice, as well as the ability to name and bring in training and resources for the community as the needs emerge.
A CoP of pastoral carers have discovered that for some of their members are questioning the servanthood and empathic approaches to pastoral care they have been taught. This is not equipping them to pastoral care in way that offers pathways of reconciliation and justice, in the face of presented racism. A CoP will explore this together seeking learning opportunities from others to be more faithful pastoral careers.
Forming Communities of Practice
You may be a part of a CoP without even knowing it. A study group focused on discipleship, an elders or pastoral care committee, a network of Treasurers or a ministry cohort. CoP cultivate the implicit or Tacit Knowledge. This is different to explicit knowledge. In Church circles this is the knowing that comes through relationships.
Church Council, Congregations, Presbytery, Synod and Assembly bodies need to empower these communities of practice both with resources and time for them to flourish.
- Generally, when people start to reach out to others to find support, this is an opportunity to begin to build a community of practice.
- At the end of an educational process, a community of practice can form, initially in the practice of that practice of ministry.
- A new role encourages you to be apart of a community of practice (often pioneering roles).
- Interest in doing what you do well, and realising that so many others are also doing this, and keen to network for peer learning and development.
- Having a coach or a CoP initiator can be helpful during formation, but not necessary, to help facilitate the values and rhythms that will be most helpful.
- Regular gatherings are essential (once a week for new communities), if possible, face to face. Minimum of 5 practitioners.
- Develop values with each other early on. Set terms of membership around the practice but keep things informal, as the focus on the practice in community is the main priority.
- The culture of the church or organisation needs to encourage a level of independence (with passive oversight) and not management CoP. The creativity of a CoP cannot be managed by any eternal body. Creativity and adaptivity dies very quickly when a CoP domain is managed externally. Management and Councils need to be firewalled from the trust held within a CoP.
- It takes time to get to know each other, to know the gifts and querks of each member, and how they practice their ministry, It takes time to trust each other, and trust that God is part of this bigger thing.
- Having a self-selected convener at this point is key, to keep the discipline and focus.
- Grow in honest sharing of ministry practice, practice deep listening with each other.
- Begin to practice no judgment – no taboo but rather seek the wisdom that is both gift of God and grounded in lived ministry practice.
- Is developing significant tools and resources related to the domain or focus area.
- Is clear about the domain, community and practice at the same time being hospitable to outsiders, peripheral enquirers, the occasional, the active members and the core group, with adaptive to the ebbs and flows of each.
- CoP can begin to exit online and internationally.
- Management and oversight bodies begin to see the benefits to the whole of CoP and begin to actively support them.
- Strong bonds exist between members in their practice where honestly for each other’s benefits is second nature.
- CoP becomes normal, continuing education, reviews and associated goals are informed by the CoP.
- Has a strong and resilient core group.
- The CoP is the background of the mastery of the craft and practice in complex and challenging environments.
- Members of the CoP are happy to share generously and widely learnings and development in their practice.
- Can begin to dialogue for cross-disciplinary learnings and development of the domain.
CoP are not projects teams or strategy groups in and of themselves but they may engage in these things. CoP is rather a way of learning and development. The formality or informality of the CoP is directly related to the community’s contextual need. It could be as simple as a regular dialogue, to a community that engages in a number adaptive and innovative ministry practices.
Benefits of Communities of Practice
- Affirms that we operate best in community, learning and growing as we participate and practice in the mission of God’s reconciliation and renewal of all creation.
- Builds genuine collaboration, which leads to wholistic and adaptive practices.
- Teams of people have a collective intelligence and discernment that is far greater than any individual intelligence and discernment.
- Moves from silos to seeing the value sharing knowledge, solving problems together, and using collective knowledge to grow and develop.
- Will be more agile and adaptive in addressing concerns and changing practice together.
- Practice being the Body of Christ.
Rev Ben Gilmour is the Head of Vital Leadership at Uniting Mission and Education. Ben has been in ministry practice for 20 years in both city and regional contexts. He is passionate about encouraging and support growing ministry practice in teams and communities of practice.