The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging [Book Review]

Roam and Root
Feb 28, 2018 · 10 min read

I am definitely a fan of books, but truthfully I don’t spend a lot of time with them — despite having 400 titles saved in my wishlist on Hoopla. (Which by the way is a free service offered by many public libraries that provides users a small monthly allotment of credits that can be used to rent from a solid selection of ebooks, audiobooks, music, and movies. See if your local library offers it and/or Kanopy which focuses on cinema and has many offerings from The Great Courses.)

One of my informal “resolutions” for this year is to read more, and the Hoopla service is helping me make good on that. Now on my fourth title through the service, I’ve found a book I must share with you!

If you’re in any way interested in the topic of community, then this one should definitely go on your must-read list.

The book is ‘The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging’ by Charles H. Vogl and I’ll let this gem introduce itself:

Drawing on 3,000 years of spiritual tradition, Vogl lays out seven time-tested principles that every leader can apply to grow enduring, effective, and supportive communities.[…] Vogl has secularized and universalized these principles so they can enrich a wide array of communities — formal or informal, physical or virtual, and centered on any shared interest.

Vogl describes each principle’s purpose and provides extensive hand-on tools for creatively adapting them to the style, needs, and inclinations of your particular group. He also helps leaders ensure that their communities remain healthy and life affirming and do not degenerate into rigid cults. This is a guide to bringing friendship, connection, and support to where there had been loneliness, separation, and isolation.

Alright, now let’s move on to the main event. In order to get at the bits I think you’ll find useful I will be interviewing myself through a set of four questions in this review. Enjoy!

1. What made you choose to read this book?

In a world that is increasingly social and connected, and as someone who is striving to make the world a better place by creating things that are conscious and holistic, I find it incredibly important to know how to foster community. Unfortunately I feel like I suck at bringing people together and I’ve developed quite a complex around this belief. After struggling with this for many years I’ve reached a place where I really need to deal with it and figure out how to overcome this personal challenge.

That accounts for my general interest in the subject, but more recently I had a pretty big disappointment and set back when I joined an incubator program for social good entrepreneurs and it completely failed to deliver, leading me to drop out. I had such high hopes for my time in the four month long program and when that came to a sudden end I was left wondering how I would replace it.

I didn’t want to sacrifice the momentum and energy I’d built up or the time I’d committed to figuring out the next step towards achieving my entrepreneurial dream. Thankfully, before the incubator had even begun I assigned myself the task of reading a selection of books which complemented the focus of the program. I committed to doing this throughout its duration, so at least I had that to latch onto even after I left the program. I finished two books and was half way through the third when a particularly epic conversation with one of my best friends during our weekly mastermind, and a subsequent day of personal reflection, led me to borrowing this title.

2. What did you personally find so valuable and interesting about this book?

Almost three years ago now I attended a personal development weekend with the organization called Landmark. The biggest lesson I learned that weekend centered around the topic of belonging. They walked us through this theory about how we all respond to our need for belonging in those early childhood years that was incredibly eye-opening and impactful for me. I was able to release tons of blame that had been weighing me down and see how we are all storytellers for better or worse. As a direct result, that very weekend, I finally re-established a healthy and loving relationship with my parents that is still going strong to this day!

So, I found it incredibly valuable that this book centered the topic of community around our need for belonging. It is such an incredibly powerful driving force in our lives that it makes total sense to start there when figuring out how to create a sustainable community and keep it healthy.

Something else I deeply appreciate is Vogl’s authenticity, heart, humility, and wisdom. His writing style is conversational and easy going, and I never felt like he was trying to impress, me, the reader. What came across is that he experienced enough personal heartbreaks in his own life in search of community, and had learned so much about creating community, that he honestly just wants to help others in their own quest for belonging. I found his story about the years of tirelessly hosting free weekly dinner gatherings with his wife at their home during college to be delightful, generous, and inspiring. That is something I have a great interest in and it was really comforting to hear another person describe challenges and emotions I can highly relate to as they poured their love and time into making something to enrich the lives of others.

And the last thing I’ll mention is the defining characteristic of The Art of Community as not just inspiring, but intentionally instructional. It is a functionally useful book that on one hand is like a map with specific milestones marked, which helps the reader understand the landscape of healthy communities. On the other hand it acts as a compass in that it provides specific information about what to do and how to do it which serves to orient and guide the reader as they make their way towards the destination. I’m very happy that this book was filled with things that can immediately and practically be applied in ones life, rather than theory.

The content is gold. I particularly appreciated the conversation about the difference between a community’s explicitly stated values, and their implicit ones. It is the difference between what a community says it’s about, and what it actually does, which reveals what the real deal is. Stating that you have certain values and even having the desire to uphold them can be more difficult to live up to than we imagine, and as Vogl points out it’s not uncommon to have a complete blindspot around this.

The Seven Principles themselves, listed below, are so smart and I was fully engaged and taking notes on each one. This outline and its insights taught me so much and really helped to pull together, organize, and re-frame my pre-existing thoughts and experiences of community. The entire philosophy is brought full circle too at the end when he covers the potential closing of a community in an intentional and positive way, which I found to be a thoughtful and wise inclusion.

The Seven Principles

1. Boundary: The line between members and outsiders.

2. Initiation: The activities that mark a new member.

3. Rituals: The things we do that have meaning.

4. Temple: A place set aside to find our community.

5. Stories: What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values.

6. Symbols: The things that represent ideas that are important to us.

7. Inner Rings: A path to growth as we participate.

I really love the names of the principles as the words he chose are part of my own non-religious spiritual language. Vogl has a masters degree in Divinity and it certainly contributes some theological terminology I’d not heard before, such as acolyte and diaconate. It also surely informs the unexpected but appreciated section at the end titled ‘Distinguishing Religion and Avoiding Cult’, which is about understanding the difference between a religious community, a cult, and a general lifestyle community which is what the book is about.

I’m deeply grateful that while Vogl does have this background, and presumably a religious belief system that goes with it, he choose to present this material in a way that remains accessible to everyone. The book is decidedly non-preachy and keeps its focus where it promises, on helping the reader learn the importance of belonging and how it influences the art of building a community.

3. Is there anything you wanted that the book didn’t provide, or other critique you have in general?

I didn’t realize when I started reading the book, but most of the questions I had (and still have) about building community relate to virtual online communities. This book however primarily addresses in person communities.

While most all of the material does apply to online communities as well because he’s really sharing concepts which deal with human nature, there are unique issues which apply to online communities specifically and don’t get addressed in the book. In “Part Three: Advanced Ideas” there is section that makes an attempt at applying the seven principles to virtual groups, but it’s basic and I didn’t really learn anything particularly useful there.

I don’t really find this omission to be in error or oversight though. He spoke to what he knows best and I have no doubt that an entire other book could be written to focus on online communities, and indeed I have a few queued up already.

Other than that there was one thing he suggests doing that left me with questions unanswered. Vogl recommends inviting new community members to “do the behavior”, that is to participate in the activities of a community, before requiring them to fully understand and believe in the value of those actions or the philosophy of the group. He refers to The Karate Kid movie as an example of this.

Remember that while young Daniel wants to learn karate from a master, Mr. Miyagi has him doing a ton of menial household chores first without telling him that it has anything to do with his training. Daniel ends up feeling like he’s being used as free labor and things come to a head before Miyagi reveals that the motions he’s been doing while working are the foundation to his karate training. The wax on, wax off motions were really defensive blocking moves.

Now ultimately I think I do understand and agree with what Vogl is saying here as well as his assumed reasoning (although really Miyagi, just admit you were kind of being an ass to the kid for fun, amirite?). However, I would have liked more elaboration and examples which further illustrate various ways this should be put into practice amongst different communities. I feel like there are some rules and best practices for this suggestion and I’m interested in knowing what they are.

4. Is there anything else about the book that you would like to share?

Sure, one quick thing to note is that there is another book (that pre-dates this one) that goes by the same main title name, ‘The Art of Community’ — though its subtitle is ‘Building the New Age of Participation’. That book does look good as well and is also on my reading list, but if it’s not your intention to read it then heads up.

Another thing is, at the end of the book in the Resources section the author provides all the worksheet questions for the concepts taught in the book. He also provides free printable worksheets on his website. But of course I had already spent a good amount of time converting the lessons into my own worksheets before discovering either of these things. Typical me.

And speaking of Mr. Vogl’s website, just look at that friendly smiling face welcoming you to his homepage, I love it! I just re-visited his site while writing this article and want to encourage you to read his story under ‘About Me’, there are even more lessons and inspiration to be found there. When I read the following words they popped right out at me signaling a message I really need to receive right now, especially in light of my disappointment with the incubator program I mentioned earlier.

I wondered whether I could complete what I had started, or if I was destined to remain an idealistic, but ineffective, producer and leader.

Then, one May night in midtown Manhattan, a wise executive trainer gave me an insight that changed my life. In one simple lesson, he showed me that I was exhausting myself with a “superman strategy.” From fundraising to managing a crew to negotiating contracts, I was overwhelmed by trying to master so many vectors to success. Instead, the trainer explained, if I simply focused on one thing, I could exponentially grow my impact and my results.

That one thing was the ability to inspire others to offer up their talent and resources. I needed to generate inspiration, connection, and commitment in others. But I didn’t know how. That’s when I began to cultivate a board of advisers for my life.

To Charles Vogl I say, “Thank you so much for your big, compassionate, wise, and giving heart!” And to you, I say nab yourself a copy of this book, it’s an easy read that you won’t regret!

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Roam and Root

Written by

Bunny + Nathan White | Converting a '00 Bluebird school bus into our roaming home. House and pet sitting. Holistic living.

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