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Importance of Leadership and Participation in Ensuring the Success of a Teaching Plan

by Kian Erfanian and Mehran Derakhshandegan

published in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1996
Abstract

As we face the challenge of expanding the Bahá'í community in Australia, the urgent need is for a plan of action that ensures that the goals for teaching and expansion are effectively achieved. Any plan requires both leadership and participation and a successful plan of action is one that integrates the efforts of both individual believers and the institutions of the Faith.

Leadership in the Bahá'í community, whether from individuals or institutions, entails empowering others to participate - enabling them to play their part in the growth and life of the community.

This paper will focus on the relationship between leadership and participation of institutions and individuals in the organic unfolding of the Cause. We will present a practical model as a suggested plan of action for a local community.

Introduction

Throughout the history of the Bahá'í Faith the community of Bahá'u'lláh's followers has been continuously urged to pursue the work of the expansion of the Faith. Teaching has always been stressed at all levels of Bahá'í activity. However as we approach the final years of this century we find that Bahá'ís around the world are being directed with an increasing sense of urgency to focus on this particular issue on a scale unprecedented in the 150 year history of the Faith.

For instance, in 1993 the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá'í Faith's supreme institution stated:

"A massive expansion of the Bahá'í Community must be achieved far beyond all past records. The task of spreading the Message to the generality of mankind in villages, towns and cities must be rapidly extended. The need for this is critical..."[1]

In Ridvan this year that same body wrote: "at this extraordinary moment in the history of the planet, nothing whatever is of more critical importance than inviting people of every sort and every gift to the banquet table of the Lord of Hosts."[2] The House of Justice makes it very clear that achieving a tremendous expansion in the Bahá'í Community is to be the first priority of Bahá'í activity around the globe.

The task now before Bahá'ís everywhere is to arise and meet this challenge. What we require is an approach that will set before us a clear vision of our present objectives and will ensure that the resources of the Bahá'í community are mobilised as necessary and the goals of the Universal House of Justice are gloriously won.

This paper will attempt to outline how this may be done through planning and co-ordination by Bahá'í institutions and the involvement of the whole Bahá'í community. We will discuss the roles of the different elements of the community and how they work together in the course of a teaching plan.

How to Respond to the Challenge

The Universal House of Justice has certainly set an immense task before the Bahá'ís of the world. But thankfully, it has also provided guidance on the course of action that will ensure success, and this passage from its 1995 Ridvan message provides the basis for the ideas in this paper:

"Fundamental to any effective response to the immediate challenges facing the community are these requisites which are especially addressed to the individual and the Local Spiritual Assembly: On the one hand is the initiative that it is the duty and privilege of the individual to take in teaching the Cause and in obtaining a deeper understanding of the purpose and requirements of the Faith. Parallel with the exercise of such initiative is the necessity of the individual's participation in collective endeavours, such as community functions and projects. On the other hand is the role of the Local Spiritual Assembly to welcome, encourage and accommodate the initiatives of individual believers to the maximum extent possible; and there is, too, the responsibility of the Assembly to devise or promote plans that will employ the talents and abilities of the individual members of its community, and that will involve individuals in collective action, such as teaching and development projects, institutes, and other group activities. The effects of conscientious attempts at realizing these inseparable requisites will be to expand and consolidate the community and to foster a climate of unified action."[3]

Therefore we see that an essential part of the response to this challenge of expansion is the formulation of appropriate plans and projects and the utilisation of the human resources present in the Bahá'í Community, and the talents present in every individual.

We feel that the requisites outlined in The House's message underline two essential functions: (1) leadership - the function of initiating plans, formulating goals and directing the resources of the community; and (2) participation - the function of taking an active role in the execution of the plan and carrying it into fruition. This paper will focus on the importance of these two functions, how they are employed and manifested in the Bahá'í Community and the need for them to act and work together.

Why We Teach

Teaching, or spreading the message of the Faith among the population was enjoined on Bahá'ís by Bahá'u'lláh and described by Him as the "most meritorious deed". Teaching is therefore a duty and obligation binding on the followers of Bahá'u'lláh.

In addition, Bahá'ís see teaching as a service to humankind. The Universal House of Justice wrote in 1994: "We live in the midst of populations which are in desperate need of the Message of Bahá'u'lláh. It is our duty to present it lucidly and convincingly to as many souls as possible. The darkness and suffering around us not only are the signs of a need, but also present us with an opportunity which we must not fail to use."[4] To Bahá'ís, spreading the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh is indispensable to solving the problems that humanity is currently facing.

The purpose of teaching the masses is not necessarily to increase our membership, though that would be the result of our teaching effort. Rather, the purpose of teaching, as Bahá'u'lláh states, is "that thereby all men may enter the pavilion of unity and all the people of the earth be regarded as a single body."[5]

The House of Justice's call for expansion is not just to benefit the Bahá'í community by increasing its membership, it is a response to humanity's need for the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh.

Nor is a mere increase in the number of Bahá'ís adequate proof of the success of the teaching effort. Shoghi Effendi states that the more important consequences of these activities are "the spirit that is diffused into the life of the community, and the extent to which the teachings we proclaim become part of the consciousness and belief of the people that hear them."[6]

Development of Teaching Plans

The first plan for the expansion of the Faith can be said to have begun when the Bab sent his first eighteen disciples, the Letters of the Living to bring the knowledge of His Mission to the attention of their countrymen.

This plan was reinforced and expanded by Bahá'u'lláh as he exhorted his followers to take the Faith to people in all regions and countries and Himself addressed His historic letters to the kings and rulers of the world.

Early this century Abdul-Baha for the first time formulated the teaching plan for the West in His Tablets of the Divine Plan, His "grand design for the spiritual conquest of the planet". [7] The Tablets embody Abdul-Baha's vision for the unfoldment of the Cause and contain His design for the systematic propagation of the Faith throughout the world. The global plans initiated under Shoghi Effendi and the plans conducted under the authority of the Universal House of Justice represent successive stages in the execution of the Divine Plan.

Now in the face of the magnitude of the task before the global Bahá'í community, it is important for local communities, families and even individuals to set their own teaching goals and devise plans for achieving them.

Leadership and Participation

To ensure a cohesive and effective response to this challenge, the roles of the different elements of the Bahá'í Community (institutions and individuals) must be clearly understood and their relationships to each other, that is, the interplay of leadership and participation must be clarified.

Leadership is not a simple matter of directing others, "leadership in the Bahá'í community, whether from individuals or institutions, entails empowering others to participate"[8]

Outside the Bahá'í Community it has traditionally been the case that the leaders are the most important people in the implementation of a project. They are the ones with the authority, they decide what needs to be done and how, they provide the motivation and set examples for their workers and it is they who have the power to get things done.

In the design for His World Order however, Bahá'u'lláh has separated the elements of leadership into the various parts of the organic Bahá'í community.

To the elected bodies (LSA, NSA, and UHJ), He has given authority. The nature of this authority is not dictatorial - it is consultative, it is trusteeship, exercised through divine virtues - but nevertheless it is authority, absolute and abiding.

Inspiration, insight, and example are provided by the "learned" of the Faith (Counsellors, Auxiliary Board Members, and their assistants). He has provided for an appointed institution that offers counsel to individuals and assemblies, and whose members are the standard bearers of the plans.

Power, the ability to accomplish tasks, rests in the body of the believers. If the individual does not arise to act, nothing is achieved. Freedom of individual action is bounded by appropriate administrative channels, but within that framework, any activity he or she deems fit to undertake can be initiated for the furtherance of the plan.

Successful prosecution of every plan of action requires the integrated efforts of the individual believers and the institutions of the Faith. Only as the institutions and the individual believers and families that make up a community harmoniously fulfill the roles of leadership and participation can a strong Bahá'í community evolve and only then can projects be devised and successfully carried out in response to the House of Justice's exhortations.

Let us now take a closer look at these roles:

The Role and Importance of the Individual

Any plan or undertaking is doomed to failure if the importance of the individual's role is underestimated. It is for this reason that the House of Justice particularly addresses the individual:

"Our appeal for immediate, redoubled and sustained action on all aspects of the Plan is addressed primarily to the individual believer of every locality, who possesses within himself or herself the measures of initiative that ensure the success of any global Bahá'í enterprise, and, "on whom, in the last resort," as our beloved Guardian plainly stated, "depends the fate of the entire community."[9]

The field of teaching, more so than any other area of Bahá'í activity depends on individual action and response. The Universal House of Justice states:

"Whereas plans must be carefully made, and every useful means adopted in the furtherance of this work, your Assemblies must never let such plans eclipse the shining truth ... that it is the purity of heart, detachment, uprightness, devotion and love of the teacher that attracts the divine confirmations and enables him ... to win the hearts of his fellowmen to the Cause of God."[10]

Individuals and families are called upon to adopt goals and to pursue them systematically so that they may play their part in the unfoldment of these plans.

"It is now imperative for every Bahá'í, the universal house of justice says, to set for himself individual teaching goals. The admonition of Abdul-Baha to lead at least one new soul to the Faith each year and the exhortation of Shoghi Effendi to hold a Bahá'í fireside in one's home every Bahá'í month are examples of individual goals. Many have capacities to do even more, but this alone will assure final and complete victory for the Plan." [11]

It is evident that, especially in teaching, the arena of action clearly belongs to the individual believer. It is the individual who must deepen him- or herself to be an effective teacher. It is the individual who must make sacrifices for the Faith. It is the individual who must possess the will to act, and it is to accommodate, direct and guide the actions of the individual that the institutions of the Faith become involved.

Role and Importance of the Appointed Institutions

The appointed arm of the Bahá'í Administrative Order plays a vital role in the Bahá'í Community. The Board members or assistants consult with assemblies, offering suggestions and guidance, directing their attention to the goals of the National Assembly, and when appropriate, to passages from the Writings. They also work to release the power of individuals to accomplish the plans, and through their own actions in the teaching field, provide a model to inspire and lead others.

"Thus it is seen" the House of Justice has written, "that the Auxiliary Boards should work closely with the grass roots of the community: the individual believers, groups and Local Spiritual Assemblies, advising, stimulating and assisting them."[12]

In a letter dated 3 September 1976 to all Auxiliary Board members and Assistants serving in North America, Counsellor Velma L. Sherrill writes:

"The Supreme Body gave its assurance that the tremendous endeavours, sacrificial service, deep knowledge and purity of spirit of these precious souls -- the Auxiliary Board members and their Assistants -- are the source of many spiritual bounties and blessings to all the friends. They add to the luster of the teaching activities, enkindle the fire of love in the hearts of the believers, eliminate the darkness of misunderstandings and inactivity, bestow joy and fervor to the dispirited and hope and comfort to the despondent."

The qualities that distinguish the members of these institutions are learning, example and experience and they use these qualities to motivate and empower the individual to act.

The Role and Importance of the Elected Institutions

The Universal House of Justice tells us that "the challenge to the local and national administrative institutions of the Faith is to organize and promote the teaching work through systematic plans ..."[13] So their primary role is in organisation and the formation of teaching plans.

With regard to Local Spiritual Assemblies, Shoghi Effendi has written:

"Their function is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent... They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel."[14]

Assemblies, in consultation with the Auxiliary Board member or assistant, can create a local plan based on the resources and opportunities available to accomplish a part of the national or international goals. The local plan addresses the participation of all believers, with special attention to children, youth, women and minorities, for "the best Assembly is the one that capitalizes the talents of all the members of the group and keeps them busy in some form of active participation in serving the Cause."[15]

The Assembly has the resources to be able to support the action of individuals in carrying out the plan. They can divert resources to one activity or another based upon the feedback they receive from the participants.

Thus it is important to monitor the success of the plan against the goals that the Assembly would have initially formulated. This will highlight obstacles that may need to be overcome, and it can point out new areas of opportunity for the community to focus on.

Teaching Plans

When a local assembly sets out to create a plan for the teaching activities of the community, there are some broad guidelines to keep in mind. The House advise that the plan must be systematic and strategic. One reason for this is to ensure that the message of Bahá'u'lláh is delivered to all strata and sections of society.[16]

In addition it must aim at universal participation and seek to capitalize on the talents and abilities of all members of the community. Shoghi Effendi writes: "The first quality for leadership, both among individuals and Assemblies, is the capacity to use the energy and competence that exists in the rank and file of its followers. Otherwise the more competent members of the group will go at a tangent and try to find elsewhere a field of work and where they could use their energy."[17]

In a letter to an Australian believer, Shoghi Effendi wrote: "Effective measures, unprecedented in scope, should be carefully and immediately devised, proclaimed to the believers, and, through sustained and organised effort, carried into effect."[18]

The Assembly, after consultation with the community and the appointed Institutions of the Faith, must set goals and be committed to meeting them. Without a serious commitment to the goals, the plan would be a futile effort. On the other hand the goals must be realistic and commensurate with the resources of the community.

It was pointed out earlier that it is the individual who has the power to achieve such goals. Thus it is the role of the Institutions of the Faith, that is the Administrative Order in general to empower the individual to do so.

The Assembly must get to know the community (the human resources at its disposal) and devise activities that will make up a co-ordinated and united effort and include every member of the community. These will act as channels for the energies of the friends.

The role of the Assembly would then be to ensure that these channels are kept clear and if possible continuously extended. Therefore the Assembly also needs a way to monitor the progress of the plan and to receive feedback about any problems so that it may intervene and remove any obstacles that are encountered, or change the direction and focus of the activities if required.

If this is done then there is nothing to stop the friends from pursuing the goals, and through dedication, perseverance, and confident in the knowledge of the Assembly's support, from achieving victories for the Faith.

The Kuring-Gai Model

As an example that may illustrate some of these principles, we present a model of a teaching campaign that is being implemented in a local Bahá'í Community.

The campaign revolves around the well-known Fireside. The concept is not a new one, in fact it is a well established means of individual teaching. Shoghi Effendi said: "individual firesides will bring the knowledge of the Faith to more people, under favorable circumstances, and thus constantly enrich its circle of friends and finally its members."[19]

The first step in devising a plan or launching a campaign is to set goals given the resources available. In this campaign the goal is for each household to hold at least one fireside in every Bahá'í month. So if the Community consists of 34 households, the goal is 34 firesides to be held in each Bahá'í month. In addition, as the end result of these firesides should be the enlistment of new members to the Faith, the Community also sets a goal of 34 new believers in that year.

Now it is fine to set goals, but to make this campaign work, the community needs support from the institutions and the Assembly needs to monitor the progress of the community.

The Nineteen Day Feast is the best place for implementing these features of the plan. At the first Feast, the Assembly informs the friends about the campaign and obtains their commitment to it. It then invites a discussion on the theme "What Stops Us From Holding Firesides?". Out of this discussion the Assembly learns of the obstacles that may prevent the Community from reaching its goals. It then sets about to remove these obstacles whatever they may be. For example some of the friends may feel their home is too small, others may require baby-sitters, some may not be fluent in the language of their guests, while others may need more deepening and guidance on how to hold firesides.

If all of these concerns are expressed to the Assembly and the Assembly can act on them, then there is nothing stopping the friends from achieving the goals of the plan. This function can be performed by the Assembly or one of its committees and may involve a range of activities.

At each subsequent Feast some time is devoted to the topic of teaching. Here the friends can share teaching stories and experiences over the past month. This has two purposes: firstly the teaching stories will motivate and inspire the friends into more urgent action, and secondly, it gives the Assembly the opportunity to become aware of any obstacles that may confront the community. Each month, a hand-out can be prepared with a few quotes from the Bahá'í Writings or other information in response to the previous Feast's discussion. Of course these discussions are totally informal and voluntary and rely on the desire of the friends to share their experiences.

The method for monitoring the number of firesides is also voluntary and is also confidential. A chart can be drawn up and placed next to the Fund Box at the Feast. During the course of the social part of the Feast, the friends can go and place a mark on the chart for every Fireside held. Thus, in the same way that the Assembly monitors and reports on the progress of the Fund, it can monitor and report on the progress of the plan.

Once the firesides are up and running in a regular manner, the Assembly can organise proclamation activities such as advertising, involvement with the Local Council etc. to provide a steady supply of contacts for the firesides.

In this model each part of the Community plays its role and the functions of leadership and participation operate in harmony.

The individual has his or her own goals in this plan and has the responsibility to achieve them. No one is left out since the goals of the plan include every household in the Community, and will be achieved if every individual and family responds to the call for action. The Guardian states:

"The friends must realize their individual responsibility. Each must hold a Fireside in his or her home, once in 19 days, where new people are invited, and some phase of the Faith is mentioned and discussed. If this is done with the intent of showing Bahá'í hospitality and love, there will be results. People will become interested in 'what' you are interested in, and then be interested in studying."[20]

In this plan the individual is empowered to act. There is ample flexibility to capitalise upon the individual's talents, initiative and interest. Thus individuals can find the method of teaching that best suits them and pursue it within the framework of the plan. The role of the Assembly is to provide individuals with a channel for their energies, and remove the obstacles that they may face.

The role of the Appointed Institutions is no less important. The Auxiliary Board members and their Assistants provide motivation and encouragement for the community. Since the members of these institutions are in contact with many different Bahá'í communities, they are the repository of many success stories in the field of teaching. They bring with them a great deal of experience and expertise. If they work closely with the grass-roots of the community, they can prove vital in stimulating the community's response to the plan. In addition, through their own actions in the teaching field, the members of this institution provide a model to inspire and lead others.

Conclusion

This is a very simple and practical model which can be implemented in any community. It focuses on the urgent requirement at the present time for massive expansion in the membership of the Faith. In addition it brings the entire community together, working harmoniously and in a co-ordinated manner while maintaining the objective of achieving universal participation.

It demonstrates also the functions of leadership and participation within the Bahá'í Community and how they act to complement each other. They provide an integrated and united response which is the most effective means of ensuring that the goals of a teaching plan are met.

When the above elements are present in a teaching plan, then the individual has no constraints and no cause for procrastination. The channels are present for his or her energies and all of the resources, information and support he or she needs can be found in the Bahá'í community and provided by the institutions.

For it is the individual who ultimately determines the success of the plan and the Institutions of the Faith need to focus on the importance of individual action and the necessity of providing adequate channels for the energy of the individuals in their communities.

Once this occurs then we can truly say that the individual is empowered and nothing will prevent him or her from winning the victories that the plan demands and that the House of Justice have repeatedly appealed for and that are of such vital and critical importance in this era of humanity's crisis.


References

1. The Universal House of Justice, message of Ridvan 150 (April 1993).

2. The Universal House of Justice, message of Ridvan 152. (April 1995).

3. ibid.

4. Universal House of Justice, message of Ridvan 151. (April 1994)

5. Building Unity of Thought on Teaching, p 2.

6. Letter dated 18 February 1932 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer.

7. A Wider Horizon: Messages from the Universal House of Justice 49

8. The Spiritual Conquest of the Planet pg. 69

9. The Universal House of Justice, message of Ridvan 150. (April 1993).

10. The Universal house of Justice, 31 October 1967.

11. Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 35

12. Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1968-1973 p. 30

13. Wellspring of Guidance: Messages from the Universal House of Justice 5-6

14. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Administration, p. 64

15. The Universal House of Justice: Developing Distinctive Bahá'í Communities 3.14

16. Research Dept. of Universal House of Justice, 1993, "Entry by Troops", pg. 12.

17. On behalf of Shoghi Effendi, DDBC 3.14

18. Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual believer, May 25 1946.

19. From a letter dated 6 March 1957 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer

20. From a letter dated 6 March 1957 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer

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