Every Local Spiritual Assembly elected by a Baha’i community has many roles and responsibilities. It administers, keeps records, organizes activities, sanctions marriages, mobilizes human resources and maintains relations with general society.
But there’s more: It ministers, spiritually educates, encourages consultation, fosters a loving atmosphere, counsels individuals on Baha’i laws of conduct, and generally does its best to act as a “channel of God’s grace” in its locality, in the words of the Universal House of Justice.
Small wonder that “Translating Vision into Practice: Fostering the Organic Development of the Bahá’í Community” — a skill-building, participatory-learning weekend conducted several times a year by the national Office of Assembly Development — has been a source of encouragement and capacity-building for many Assemblies across the country.
“This was inspiring, challenging, very interactive, and fun!” wrote a participant in an evaluation at the end of the June 30–July 1 session in Naperville, Illinois, which drew Baha’is from five states and as far away as Detroit. “There was a wonderful balance of studying the Writings and guidance, and practical application and discussion.”
When the Office of Assembly Development began conducting these programs about six years ago, they were generally held at one of the three permanent Baha’i schools. In fact, the next session of “Translating Vision into Practice” is set for Sept. 28–30 at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine. But in the past few years they have also been presented at localities across the country.
These events give Local Assembly members an opportunity to meet with National Spiritual Assembly members and share in their wisdom.
For instance, at the Naperville weekend, Deputy Secretary S. Valerie Dana shared a talk on the evolving role of Local Spiritual Assemblies in the current Plan for development of the Faith, providing context on how the institution has developed over the past century. Treasurer Juana Conrad spoke on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s vision for America and how Fund contributions empower the National Assembly to advance it.
The heart of the weekend is the workshops, and each participant has the opportunity to attend several.
Workshop topics cover some basics of routine Assembly operation — such as chairing, writing correspondence in the institutional voice and composing effective agendas. Others deal with areas of frequent concern to Assemblies, such as collaboration with cluster agencies, financial stewardship, public affairs and media relations.
All, of course, have spiritual components grounded in Baha’i guidance. Several workshops, though, touch on more manifestly spiritual topics: unity, the Assembly as a channel for the spirit of the Cause, and integrating the spiritual and material in Fund education.
“Every time we do this training, we reflect on the results and comments,” says Timara Adams, director of the Office of Assembly Development. “And as a result, we have several new workshops each year.”
For instance, one of the workshops put in place for the Houston weekend on June 2–3 was on assessing needs and mobilizing resources to build community, and was organized in consultation with the Regional Baha’i Council.
One mandatory topic for every training — and consistently one of the best-attended — is “Baha’i Law and the Handling of Personal Status Issues,” led by the National Assembly’s Office of Community Administration. Famously conducted with a light and humorous touch, the workshop still tackles serious issues that engage each Assembly’s duties to care for the community and protect the Faith’s integrity.
The Spiritual Assembly of Houston reports that, between practical discussion and examination of relevant Baha’i writings, the workshop helped it find a better grasp of what issues are within its capacity to handle.
“Since we have such a large community, there are a lot of personal issues that crop up and how to deal with them in a way that would be expected of an Assembly,” says corresponding secretary Ehsan Bayat.
As a result, that Assembly has reviewed and refined at least one of its procedures, balancing efficient operations with courtesy and concern.
When a person requests assistance with a personal matter, Bayat says, “We send a letter using the guidance, and obviously there is a nice opening thanking them for sending us a letter.
“We lay out the guidance and we send that to them. Then we follow up with them regarding their issue.”
The benefit extends beyond current members of Assemblies, as a participant in the Naperville program noted in the evaluation form. “I am not currently on an [Assembly], but am moving to an [emerging] cluster where one will probably formed,” the participant wrote, adding that the program “helped me refresh my ideas on what it means” to serve on a Local Assembly.