My life’s mission is to make the world a less lonely place. That’s why I love writing about corporate community-building for Convene. It gives me the opportunity to discuss the sacredness of gathering within a realm that people don’t typically don’t associate with spirituality—the office.
Yet as I’ve mentioned in a previous article for Convene, Americans are lonely on a massive scale. The average person in the U.S. has only two close friends. And to make things worse, 75% of people say that they’re unsatisfied with their friendships. Religious gatherings—traditionally a major source of community—are on the decline, and new ways to gather can be difficult to find.
Combine those bleak numbers with the fact that we spend an average of one-third of our lives at work, and it’s clear that companies are failing at creating a space where meaningful connections can form.
Of course, it’s easy to say that an organization should foster community. But how can they actually do it?
I sat down with Angie Thurston, a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School and the co-author of How We Gather and Care of Souls, to find out. She’s a thought leader in new forms of spiritual and social connection, as well as a master gatherer.
It’s been a while since you published How We Gather in 2015. Can you tell me a little bit about an organization or event series that you’ve recently discovered?
One of the organizations I’ve come to love is the Faith Matters Network. Their work is basically all around equipping leaders both in social movements and across them to be more resourced in terms of their feeling of spiritual sustainability as well as being connected to each other. They do a lot of work around healing and resilience as two key features of what it means to be spiritually resourced. That means to be supported in the work of healing as you move towards inner resilience, in order to take on these change-making efforts that can be so depleting.
In How We Gather, you discuss how millennials are moving away from organized religion, but still want and need spirituality in their life. Do you know of any organizations that provide a sense of spirituality for their employees? How?
First, let me define spirituality. You can define it as the experience of living, feeling connected to a true sense of oneself, to showing up authentically in relationship and connected to something bigger than yourself. In addition, all humans have a need for connection. It’s as acute as the need for water and air. So a lot those statistics that are out there around our polarization or addiction or loneliness, that’s a kind of crisis of disconnection, isn’t it?
A lot of leaders, those who run secular organizations, are fostering community. And people are bringing their whole lives to these organizations. They have a hunger for connection, so they show up at their workplaces wanting to experience meaning and belonging and purpose. They don’t have another outlet for that! As a result, the leaders of those communities can often end up serving in a role that resembles very much what you might ascribe to a minister or a pastor.
And so the resourcing that I mentioned before, the kind that is required of leaders who are trying to go deep with people, is often really needed for people in the community leadership space.
In Care of Souls, you dive into seven archetypes of people who engage in the work of caring for souls. How do some of these roles apply to the corporate world?
The Elder comes to mind first. The language we used in Care of Souls about the elder was that they ground our gifts in history and community. It’s basically about inhabiting a way of being that is cultivated through experience, and then turning around and helping to listen and provide perspective to those coming up behind us. And the idea of “wisdom keeping” can live inside an organization in really beautiful ways.
Some companies have mentorship, but I think it would be a real paradigm shift for organizations to lean into the question of elderhood, where there’s a real value placed on the cultivation of experience, not just with skills, but with what I would describe as a spiritual maturation that can occur by virtue of living and working in community over years and years.
On a more basic level, how can companies make sure that attendees at their events feel seen appreciated?
One is to have them be intergenerational. At the very least, always have elders in the space. For my work, when we gather millennial community leaders, we make sure to always have elders there to witness and hold space for the experience. That creates a feeling of being seen, because you are literally being seen. Also, elders can share their wisdom.
Having event chaplains is another important piece. These are the people who raise their hand and say, if you ever have something that you want to discuss during this event, you can talk to me. There is someone there to be a vessel for an attendee’s experience, whether it’s something that unsettled them, or they disagree with, or they can’t stop thinking about. It’s about caring for the attendee’s inner world.
A third thing that can be helpful is caucus spaces. In the gathering world, we like to say, “What are the differences that make a difference?” This could be a lack of diversity, or gender imbalance, or a missing generation. For example, if the imbalance is racial representation, a caucus space can be offered for people of color and white participants to convene and be in a space where that dimension of their experience is alive.
Last question. What resources do you recommend for an event planner who wants to make their spaces feel more connected?
The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker is great. Also the Movement Chaplaincy Resources Portal from Faith Matters Network. Of course, the On Being Network has lots of resources around social healing. Oh and lastly, anything from The People’s Supper, as well as the Center for Courage and Renewal.