Christians Engaged in Faith Formation

WHAT ARE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE?

By Carol Krau, Retired Director of Adult Formation and Discipleship, United Methodist Discipleship Ministries 


At our biennial gathering in October 2012 we spent time dreaming about the future of CEF. One part of the dream included a shift in focus for local CEF chapters already in existence, as well as the possibility of new online communities that could be formed. We suggested discontinuing the use of "chapters” as the descriptor for our local/online gatherings, and we offered "communities of practice” as the new terminology.

This term is unfamiliar to many of us. In order to make this shift a reality, we are providing a series of articles to interpret the term, the rationale for the change, and the logistics of how communities of practice can/will work. This first article provides an overview of communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger defines communities of practice as formal or informal groups of people who share a common concern or passion about a topic and who interact on an ongoing basis in order to strengthen their knowledge and expertise related to the topic. Communities of practice (CoPs) share some characteristics with other small groups, such as networks, task forces and committees. The primary difference, from Wenger’s perspective, is that participation in a CoP leads to the development of a shared identity and shared practices related to a shared domain (topic).


THE THEORY BEHIND COMMUNITIES

The concept of communities of practice is grounded in social learning theory. This theory understands learning as inherently social in nature.

Human beings learn and develop within a social-historical context that shapes what and how they learn. We learn by watching and imitating (or avoiding) the actions of others.

We learn to regulate our emotions and our behavior so that both are within the acceptable limits of our most valued relationships. We develop a sense of competence and confidence in our ability to negotiate the various roles and responsibilities we hold as we receive feedback from others.

Sounds good, right? Right. Wait! What?

OK, here’s the theory in a nutshell. We learn best when we interact with other people.

We learn when we have opportunities to bounce our ideas off other people and hear what "works” for them. This kind of learning has always been an integral part of CEF on the chapter level and the conference level. 

DOMAIN 

Here’s where communities of practice begin to diverge from other kinds of groups.

  • Communities of practice form around a specific topic, issue, or concern that requires sustained exploration, experimentation, reflection, and conversation. CoPs address a complex need being faced by the community members when an appropriate response to the need is not obvious.
  • Participants in a CoP care deeply about the issue they are facing.
  • The issue affects their everyday lives in some way. They want to find effective practices for addressing the issue.
  • They know that there are no easy answers to their questions; if there were, there would be no need for a CoP.
  • This kind of learning differs from "programs.”

Over the years many of the CEF chapter meetings in which I have participated (or led) focused on the needs of faith formation from a variety of perspectives: age-level ministries, seasons of the church year, leadership development, etc. It is always helpful to review new curriculum resources, read and discuss a great book, or listen to a dynamic speaker. We will always want these kinds of opportunities. But these are not the focus of CoPs.

Planning for Advent or VBS is an important part of a leader’s ministry, but it does not require ongoing learning.

Bottom line: Domain = focused, ongoing learning re: a complex issue.

PRACTICE

CoPs are focused on the daily/recurring practices related to the domain under investigation.

  • Community members want to find new, more successful tools, methods, language, processes, structures or whatever else is needed in order to work effectively. They may have discovered that what they learned previously no longer works well, if it works at all. They may recognize that some things work with certain groups of people, but not with others. They are unclear how to proceed in order to work with new people in new contexts.
  • Practices represent values of the community members and those with whom they work and serve.
  • Values will be defined within the particular domain or area of expertise practiced by the CoP. In other words, not just any practice works. What are the standards that the CoP members use to determine success, effectiveness, appropriateness, etc.?
  • People want to work with integrity; they want their work to make a difference. Participation in a CoP provides opportunities for conversation about practices that support integrity and significance.
  • This aspect of CoPs should resonate with the members and friends of CEF. We are engaged in ministry, which is active, interactive and highly participatory. We may read a book, watch a DVD or participate in a study face-to-face or online to increase our knowledge, but the focus is always on the application of what we are learning.

Cliff notes: Practices are the ways in which we apply what we learn in order to work effectively.

WHY WE NEED COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE 

The context for ministry within the Christian church has changed radically over the past 50 years. We have finally realized that we are experiencing a paradigm shift in the culture at large and in the church specifically.

Paradigm shifts require more than "tweaking” the way we do things. They require new mental models—in this case, new models for Christian faith formation.

We cannot depend on "technical” fixes such as moving Sunday school to Thursday nights or changing curriculum. We must examine all the assumptions that we hold about what faith formation is and how we do it. This will require sustained exploration experimentation, reflection and conversation as stated above.

We do not know the answers. We may not even know the questions.

HOW CAN COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE HELP?

CoPs can provide the settings we need for surfacing assumptions, identifying questions, testing responses and developing new ways of being in ministry. They can be tailored to address the issues most important for participants. Rather than participating in a group because it meets in your geographical location, you can join a CoP based on the domain. The CoP may actually meet in your geographical location, but it can also be online. 

Members of the group decide what they want to learn, how often they will talk, and when they are ready to disband. You can be in more than one CoP if you desire.

Our CEF website is designed for building Communities of Practice. Be thinking now of the most pressing need you have in ministry. Consider helping to get a CoP formed, serving as a facilitator or simply joining to listen in on the learning.

And there you have it. 1, 2, 3—Go! 

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