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 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.
Here’s where communities of practice begin to diverge from other kinds of groups.
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.
CoPs are focused on the daily/recurring practices related to the domain under investigation.
Cliff notes: Practices are the ways in which we apply what we learn in order to work effectively.
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.
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!