I was twenty-three when I was elected to be a member of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í community of Topeka. I had just finished my student teaching out of town and obtained a job in Topeka at an elementary school. I was not a stranger, the Bahá’ís in Topeka had known me for six years, from the time I had started college in Topeka and continued with visits after I had transferred to another school. At the first meeting of the Spiritual Assembly after my election, officers were elected, and I was elected Chairman. That was a surprise. I didn’t realize it then, but I was the youngest person to be elected to that position in Topeka.
A Spiritual Assembly is the administrative council for a local or national Bahá’í community. There are no priests or clergy in the Bahá’í Faith, such positions are forbidden in Bahá’í scripture. Instead, these councils of consultation are specified in the Bahá’í Sacred Texts to guide and administer the affairs of the Bahá’í community. The role of Chair is to facilitate consultation, not to dominate. Specifically this means to kindly restrain those who like to talk voluminously and encourage those who may think they have nothing of value to say. The first often over rate their contribution, while the latter under rate theirs. The responsibility of the Chair is to moderate both. The position carries no role outside the meetings of the Assembly.
Meetings of the Assembly always open with prayer. Next come typical business matters of any organization: minutes of the last meeting, correspondence since the last meeting, Treasures report on the financial conditions, reports of committees, then to the heart of the meeting – any old, unfinished business and then new business.
The Assembly is responsible for scheduling events of its specific Bahá’í community. This is most effectively done by committee: a committee for the monthly general Bahá’í community gathering where the Bahá’í s come together for devotions, community business, and to socialize. Another committee will schedule events that are open to the public: holy day observances and other special events. Other committees will arrange for morals and virtues classes for children, empowerment activities for pre-youth, youth activities to serve the wider community, and educational programs for all. These are undertaken as appropriate for each Bahá’í community. There are no strict boundaries separating these activities or those participating in them, they are open to anyone who is interested. Flexibility is the key word. With all this, the Spiritual Assembly, the decision-making council, has a lot to do.
Many times a situation was brought before the Assembly for which I had no clue how to proceed. After praying and meditating on the matter, we would explore what spiritual or administrative principles were involved. Then, each would contribute how they thought the principle/s should be applied. Next the relevant facts are presented. The facts define the actual situation. As facts are presented, there is consultation as to their viability. If facts cannot be agreed on, they may not be actual facts. A person’s emotions are also considered. It is a fact the person feels this way. That is as important as other facts.
Next, the facts of the situation have to be reconciled to the principles involved and what action to take to achieve that resolution? Here, my role as facilitator came into play. When a person offers an idea, they are merely to explain it, not elaborate or argue for it. This takes detachment on the part of the one speaking and discernment on the part of the Chair to determine if an explanation steps into campaigning for the idea. And, ideas expressed, are not attacked. Ideas and perspectives are offered as a gift to the group and let go of. In this process, the Chair is responsible to encourage the less out-going ones to share their perspective. Many, many times a few astute comments from such a retiring member would turn the ideas presented upside down due to the depth of their insight and perception. As Chair, I would often watch a resolution unfold and grow before us until we reached a solution that none of us could have imagined at the beginning. It still takes my breath away to remember those occasions.
This process is being practiced in Bahá’í communities all around the globe, in highly developed societies as well as those in primitive areas, and everything in between. This process of consultation is beginning to be studied by sociologists and political scientists as a way that groups of diverse members can reach satisfactory outcomes that are equitable for all. This process, involving impartial fact finding, enables former enemies to consult together to reach an acceptable solution for all of them. Local Bahá’í communities themselves are often quite diverse which is not surprising since, world-wide, Bahá’ís come from over 12,000 various backgrounds of religion, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, etc. One observer concluded that the global Bahá’í community is the most diverse assemblage of people on the planet. That may be so. This process of consultation helps us all function together on the planet on common goals to improve our individual lives, our families, and the societies in which we live.