02 April 2011

Feast Communities

My previous post about Monkey Brains discussed the value in decentralizing Baha'i communities as they get too big, to allow for more growth. In the comments I got an earful from people bemoaning the loss of a larger community, "If you split up in groups before you have a cohesive fire started somewhere then those groups will fizzle out... Success isn't in division."

At the time of writing that, my city of Portland had 7 Feast areas, and had been alternating every other Feast from centralized to decentralized. Centralized attendance was in the 50-80 range, and decentralized attendance ranged from 4-20 people, depending on the area. The city has 150-170 active overall. The Baha'i center is an hour from certain parts of the city. After breaking up into 7 areas, overall attendance actually went up noticeably, especially in the outlying areas. So did Fund contributions, which usually follow attendance. A side effect of breaking up was that people became more intimate with Baha'is living close-by, and it gave a further boost to non-Feast related activities. It also became more friendly to new Baha'is, because they didn't feel lost in a crowd. In this case decentralizing was a catalyst for growth, in a city that hadn't seen noticeable growth for well over 10 years prior.

There is a challenge in decentralizing. If the areas are too small, as my friend commented, then the fire goes out. Out of the 7 areas two of them sometimes reached attendance of three people, depending on families being out of town. In some areas, if the Feast got up to 20 people, then it was difficult to host in most homes.

The Assembly just made a somewhat dramatic decision. From now on Portland will have three Feast areas, with no centralized Feasts. This effectively shapes the city into three distinct Baha'i communities, sharing a single LSA and a single cluster boundary, with a few central holy days. The interesting part is that while decentralizing, the areas got bigger, at least for awhile.

There are some serious advantages to this scenario. First of all, it avoids the large group problem of having so many people that personal connections get lost. Second, it creates communities of about 50 active believers, which happens to be the number much toted several years back as the magic number for growth (although since then the International Teaching Centre has discouraged relying on a formula for growth). Third, it also avoids the small group problem of not having enough people to keep the fire going with resources for a variety of activities.

There are also some serious disadvantages to this scenario. First of all, attendance will be in the 25-30 range initially, and will only grow, so most homes won't work for hosting. That puts us back into rented facilities, despite owning a Baha'i center (and spending a lot of $$$ for upkeep). Second, it adds to the travel problem that smaller neighborhoods fixed, so a trip from one extreme to the other still takes about 45 minutes. Third, in the downtown area where people mostly don't own cars, rides will have to be coordinated when the event is not close by.

The Assembly also will appoint two people from each area to coordinate Feast venues and hosts.

I'm very interested in feedback. What have other communities experimented with? What have you learned? What advice do you have?


  1. I'm new to your blog and I don't know the demographics of your city, but why don't you still use the Baha'i Centre for all three Feasts but run them at different times?

    Alternatively, is it possible to give people the option to attend the large Centralised Feast if they want to but also optionally run small neighbourhood Feasts (in homes) like before if the group wishes to.

    That is, a group of ten to fifteen in a smaller area might like to keep running their neighbourhood Feasts, but if in another area there are only two or three or the host is away, they could join the large centralised Feast.

    Also, even if you did belong to a larger sub-community, you could optionally attend the large Central Feast or the sub-community Feast depending on what individuals preferred for that particular month.

    Does that make sense or am I as clear as mud? Think Catholic parishes. You can attend your home parish church or you can attend the bigger main city church for Mass, depending on what you prefer, timings, distances etc.. My Irish in-laws swap between their parish church which is closer to them, and the main city (well... town) church which is a bit farther away but is bigger.

  2. One of the best ways to ensure the success of neighborhood Feasts is the presence of Assembly members at each Feast, regardless of whether any live in the neighborhood. I used to live in an area in which our decentralized Feasts only ever had four (VERY occasionally 5) local believers present. The Assembly's commitment to sending a member to our Feast each time, even though none lived near us, made us feel to be an important, if small, part of the wider community.

    The presence of Core Team members is also a huge asset. If there are insufficient members to attend every Feast in the cluster, then it can be done on a rotating basis. This is important even in clusters made up of many smaller Assemblies that are still hosting centralized Feasts in their own localities.

    If transportation costs are significant for Assembly/Core Team members, the local Funds can be used to assist. This is much more reasonable than trying to assist an entire neighborhood with the cost of attending a centralized Feast in an inconvenient location just because the Baha'is happen to own a property there.

    Neighborhood Feasts are the ideal place for the formation of and consultation among teaching teams, as well as building stronger bonds of unity. It is the tendency in centralized Feasts to equate consultation with expressing a series of unrelated ideas. In a group of 5-15 believers of all ages, the chance to practice this important art becomes realized.

    Change always comes with a certain amount of trepidation. The only real answer is to do it so brilliantly that none of those fears ever materialize. :)