The Roots of Building a Secular Community Part 2: Direction, Ownership, and Teamwork (DOT)

On Monday Tom Kellogg discussed food, friendship, and meetup in Part 1 of “The Roots of Building a Secular Community.” Today he turns to direction, ownership, and teamwork in the second of this three-part series.


Every organization has its own style of management, from organized and structured to more of a freestyle method, and will handle program development differently. When one or more members or leaders want to take on a project/program or regular event/meeting within the group, the board of directors should offer to help them out in the beginning by giving friendly advice and encouragement, however they should avoid meddling or getting bogged down with too much red tape. Planned events need to be implemented. Leaders can certainly take on planning and even running programs, but there may come a time when it is necessary to have others help run them or take them over. When a member or a leader has an idea for an event or program they want to start up, let them present it to the board who will analyze it and offer suggestions to refine it. Make sure the idea is relevant, practical, well thought out, and doable. It must not compete with other similar programs in the group.  First, the board should consider the initial tentative plan and vote to allow work to proceed on a final detailed plan. For a simple plan, such as a restaurant or coffee meetup, it can be approved immediately. Elaborate plans are reevaluated by the board several times until either approved or rejected with a final vote. The events should be monitored, at least at first, with friendly suggestions made to help improve it. People who take on a new project or program will most likely have frequent times of discouragement.  Things won’t always go as planned, people won’t show up, and it will always take up more time and work than expected. Offer encouragement and tell stories of your own experiences and how you positively stayed on track. New programs will almost always start out slowly at first with low attendance or start out big then die down after the initial excitement wears off. Hang in there and it will take root. If it doesn’t after a long try, then give it up or try something different. It is extremely important to avoid trying to implement too many programs and events at once. Add them slowly and help nurture each one along carefully as interests grow along with the group itself.


Let volunteers who want to take on an event or program “own” it, run it their own way, then host it on a regular basis. This will give them pride of ownership, which is motivating. Occasionally, gently offer help and advice. Make sure that those who take charge are well-known, reliable, competent, and stay on task.  If the event is not doing well or running poorly, then the leaders may have to intervene. Once in a great while, someone will come along who is extremely passionate and motivated, with lots of great ideas. They should be encouraged because they will be willing to take on more work and responsibilities than most others. However, sometimes they may unknowingly go off on tangents, so they need direction to stay focused on the group’s mission. To keep them from losing interest and moving on, guide them gently, but be totally honest and upfront. Always compliment them on their work, and don’t let them bite off more than they can chew. Also, watch carefully for “hidden agendas” and “power trips” of highly ambitious people who may be prone to internal politics and maneuvering. Make sure to face this with the advice of individuals you trust and respect.


Building a team of dedicated people who are inspired and motivated is essential, but not easy to do. Try to create a board of directors or leadership committee with the most dedicated members who have the time and passion to roll up their sleeves and do the work. However, sometimes you just have to take whoever will show up. Meet once or twice per month and form special subcommittees if needed. Programs and events can be run as a team together or delegated depending on what is most comfortable. Be careful to avoid a situation of “too many cooks” who may disagree with each other or feel left out. Avoid or remove individuals who only tell others what to do or who criticize the work and ideas of others without offering a positive alternative. Some people like to tell others how to do the work, but won’t do any of it themselves. I learned early on that the best way to respond back to someone who is telling you what to do or criticizing your work is to ask, “Have you done this yourself successfully?” A typical reply is, “No, but I know how to do it.” Be wary in this situation, because he or she may try to dominate a program/project and even exclude other organizers. While on the subject of “difficult” people, one hard but very important reality to come to grips with is the fact that you may have to disinvite certain members who cause trouble. They may not get along with other members, behave unpredictably, or proselytize religion. I’ve seen this firsthand and have had to ask a few people to leave a group. Luckily, these types are rare, but they can drive away other members who become uncomfortable or frightened by them. They can infect the whole organization. Of course, we want to be compassionate and accepting of others, but these difficult individuals cause a real dilemma. So, for the survival of the group, they may have to go.
On Friday Kellogg looks more specifically at how you can get folks together and keep communication strong, the kinds of things you can do with your secular community, and how to pay for it all.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3