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  • Rebecca W. Ellison

Baháʼí Spiritual Consultation in the Group Context

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

In 2004, I attended my first group relations conference and likened the experience to sitting through a long water slide. After descending through each turn of discovery and every second expanding into what seemed an eternity I landed, hyper-aware, into a tumultuous pool of the collective consciousness of a group relations conference. I joined the conference feeling timid and exhilarated of my own authority, increasingly terrified of the varied projections, yet also unfamiliar with the resiliency of my psychological and emotional anchors. The work felt disruptive yet cathartic and I recognized a salutary effect on my spirit yet without even spirituality being raised in the consultative space. As a person of ‘faith’ I saw opportunities to integrate spirituality into my work life at group relations conferences and then into my service within my faith community.

I have been a Baháʼí for the past 30 years where the worship, leadership, and community building structures are almost exclusively made up of the efficient functioning of small groups as structures within a broader system. Individual accountability for one’s own thoughts and actions through the use of prayer, meditation on the creative word, and service to others represents the primary way we are answerable to God and to creation. We are enjoined to develop a conscious awareness of a divine expression in all things. It is perhaps through this lens that I find the ability to pray for receptiveness to the dynamics in a room and even my own ability to demonstrate competence in the consultation work. Drawing upon spirituality in the context of organizational life in a conference follows through into the practices of community building and administration within the Baháʼí community.

To Baháʼís spiritual consultation helps members, in work groups, to learn and collaborate together. We are encouraged to practice spiritual consultation in all matters of community life and every effort is made to use utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care, and moderation to express one’s views. Not unlike members of other faith communities, however, members strive to work through inherited cultural understandings, biases, and beliefs for sense-making in an effort to promote unity thought and peaceful understanding. We are also expected to work, however, through challenges even when there appears to be an impasse. The Baháʼí writings say, “…every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of different opinions.” (Abdu’l-Baha, 1922) Truth must be sought with the absence of discord and wrangling otherwise the truth will remain hidden. It is through this search for truth or “reality” combined with a desire for collective service, however that guides the purpose of consultation.

Group relations theory has broad application across many industries and systems. The Baháʼí Faith is based on Divine Revelation that emerged almost 80 years before group relations theory. It is characterized by unique operating principles and a democratically-based Administrative Order designed to protect diversity including differences of thought and expression. Group relations theory also recognizes that groups represent the sum of collective contributions among individual members, creating a dynamic that is reflective of the whole rather than of individual members. (Brazaitis, 2017) Its premise acknowledges that reflective self-examination is also a critical component to strengthening performance and eventually work group outcomes. Wilfrid Bion’s study of the “leaderless group model” in the “here-and-now” was designed as a method to assess leadership qualities and relational dynamics among potential military officers within small groups through the participation in tasks. Even though the aims of faith-based groups are different, and their center of motivation are based on spiritual principles and not on personal recognition or rewards I believe there may be an opportunity for faith-based groups to leverage the skills gained through group relations theory and training. An anticipated outcome from an intervention could include a deeper awareness of the dynamics within the group that are impacting a sense of unity and collaboration

Throughout our human history the effectiveness of groups has largely depended upon a complex set of circumstances, including abilities to lead, skills, resilience, and personal authority. Members of these groups perhaps were also uncertain of the strength of their foundations in the face of challenges and endured through them with “faith” that a truth would emerge of how they could best contribute to the wellbeing of our world. It is in this striving that perhaps we also find grace in the shared purpose of our collective endeavors.

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