Our world is suffering the pangs of new birth. Life seeks to evolve beyond the incomplete and fractured lives of human persons. God is at the heart of life and continues to love the whole into greater wholeness. We have the capacity for a new world because we have the capacity for a new level of love on a higher level of consciousness. But the path to this higher realm is steep; it requires us to tame what is unruly, to gather in what is scattered. – Ilia Delio, OSF
This blog is offered as a reflection on some of the key concepts of Sociocracy 3.0 and its theological and practical implications for Christian communities. It is hoped that it will present a convincing case for its usefulness as a fresh expression of Christian faith, mission and discipleship, and that it might inspire clergy and lay people to experiment with it in their groups and parishes.
Extensive, free-to-access resources can be found at www.sociocracy30.org, and there is also ample material on YouTube. Please get in touch if you would like help with exploring further.
Sociocracy 3.0 in a nutshell
The creators of S3 have evolved the core practices of ‘classic’ Sociocracy into a collection of guidelines for all aspects for governance and collaboration – from making decisions and facilitating meetings, to developing structure and organising work. It is more a philosophy than a method, a mechanism for transformation that can help us become more conscious and dynamic in our actions and interactions.
S3 provides an organic, step-by-step approach to change that meets organizations where they are and helps them move forward at their own pace and according to their unique context and needs without the need for radical and wholesale reorganization. Drawing on the collective intelligence of the group, it facilitates the development of strategies that are “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try”, and fosters accountability and a sense of engagement.
S3 and the Holy Trinity
I would name salvation as simply the readiness, the capacity, and the willingness to stay in relationship. – Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
Theological speaking, S3 can be seen as a way of more consciously tapping into the power that is present when ‘two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus’ so that, in turn, we can become more effective servants of the Divine Will.
To be gathered together in the name of Jesus is to participate in the self-giving circle of love that is the Holy Trinity – the Father emptying Himself into the Son, the Son emptying himself into the Spirit, and on and on into eternity, until all peoples and all creation are bound up in this embrace of one-in-three. Adopting S3 principles and working with the patterns in our corporate life can been seen as a practical demonstration of our readiness to fully participate in this Trinitarian dance of reciprocity and relationality at the heart of the Universe.
Sociocracy has a lineage stretching back nearly two centuries. It evolved extensively in the Netherlands throughout the 20th century, in large part as a response to the chronic failings of democracy highlighted by two world wars. It has become more widespread in the English-speaking world over the last ten years, and has been influenced significantly by Quaker principles and practices.
The root of the word is ‘socio’ from Latin ‘socius’ meaning companion or friend, and ‘cracy’ from the Ancient Greek work ‘krátos’, meaning ‘power, rule’. In contrast to democracy, which is about the rule of the general mass of people (the ‘demos’) with voting privileges, it’s about power (capacity to do stuff) that is shared between people who are in relationship with each other. Sociocracy is not intended to replace democracy, but to deepen and augment it.
Lightweight and Actionable
All human knowing is ‘imperfect’ and ‘seen through a glass, darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12) and must necessarily be held with humility and patience. – Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
S3 is designed to be open, with a modular framework, and free with no hidden fees or barriers to access. It supports flexibility to respond to changing contexts and new information as it emerges.
As well as having its roots in classic Sociocracy, S3 draws on other proven methods for managing projects and evolving communities and organisations. Of particular note is lean project management, with its emphasis on maximising and aligning value (everyone’s gifts flowing freely and joining up) while minimising resource expenditure and eliminating waste at all levels (including money, time, energy and goodwill). Agile is also a key influence in S3, characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.
The Seven Principles
All the patterns are underpinned by the Seven Principles:
- Empiricism: Test all assumptions through experiments and continuous revision.
- Effectiveness: Devote time only to what brings you closer towards achieving your objectives.
- Transparency: Make all information accessible to everyone in an organization, unless there is a reason for confidentiality.
- Continuous Improvement: Change incrementally to accommodate steady empirical learning.
- Accountability: Respond when something is needed, do what you agreed to and take ownership for the course of the organization.
- Equivalence: Involve people in making and evolving decisions that affect them.
Consent: Do things in the absence of reasons not to.
A Patterns Language – Applying What Works
The patterns – numbering seventy in total – are bare-bones, common sense practices based on a vast body of experience and observation about what works in a wide range of different contexts. They are designed to be applied on an as-needed basis, and adapted to context. The following is an outline of some of the key patterns and concepts.
Tension as Wisdom Seeking Emergence
The ‘Navigate Via Tension’ pattern reminds us to listen individually to the inner promptings that alert us to something that might be either helpful or harmful in the context of our mission and common life. Tension is the gap between what we currently perceive as happening, and the sense of possibility at the very edge of our vision. Based on an understanding that we are all nerve endings in a cosmic body, the Body of Christ, we learn to trust these nudges as the emerging future seeking manifestation through us.
Pause to Reflect and Understand
Articulating this inner experience as a ‘Driver’ – a brief statement about what’s happening and what’s needed – invites us, when experiencing the stimulus of tension, to pause for collective clarity before moving to response. Habitually we tend to jump straight from tension to response – prompted by a desire for quick resolution, or by a fear perhaps of being overwhelmed by complexity: tension is uncomfortable. However the in-between bit is really important – it’s where we open up to the wisdom of the collective and to the unknown – the new creation in Christ seeking emergence through us.
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
A Driver in S3 is the motive of a person or group for responding to a specific situation – the why. In S3 drivers can be used as a starting point for developing goals, objectives, vision, aims, etc. However, Drivers – what’s happening and what’s needed in the here and now – supersede high level planning as the motivation for action. This shift aligns an organization towards discovering and addressing its own and others’ needs and invites a corporate practice of presence to what is and what could be.
Drivers for Pulling S3 into Parish Structures
Here are some proposed driver statements for introducing S3 into the life of a parish – do any of them ring true for you?
1. Generally speaking in our culture committee meetings are experienced as being dull and unengaging, and church meetings are no exception. We need to experiment with how we can make meetings more inclusive, dynamic and effective, not just for our own benefit, but also so that we can attract new and younger people to get involved in the essential (and potentially exciting!) work of parish governance. It doesn’t have to be boring!
2. While the Western model of democracy is undoubtedly a positive fruit of progressive liberal forces, history has shown it to be, on its own, an insufficient means of holding the forces of tyranny and violence in check. The blunt instrument of majority rule is increasingly perceived as inadequate to the task before us of mobilizing consciousness and will to bring healing to both planet and people. There is a need to deepen and enhance our democratic processes, and to bring in practices that enable us to function as a collective intelligence – one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
3. The church is often perceived by people outside of it (and by some inside it too!) to be lagging behind innovations in culture and society, even to the extent of being seen as anachronistic and irrelevant. While not necessarily seeking to be populist or fashionable there is a need for the church to engage with the ways in which the Holy Spirit is at work through so-called secular channels and to humbly deploy this learning in order to pioneer new and more effective ways of being church. In this sense, experimenting with S3 could be seen as a ‘fresh expression’ of discipleship and mission.
4. There is a new consciousness arising in our times, a power for transformation, healing and transcendence, which is not being able to find full expression because the structures do not currently exist to support it. It would seem that our institutional structures across the board are struggling to come up with adequate responses to the pressing needs of our times. There is a need for new wineskins to carry this new wine (Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37, Matt 9:17) of conscious awakening being called forth as our planet and its people grapple with forces of chaos and destruction seemingly beyond our capacity to respond.
Domains and Self-Governance
Domains in S3 are distinct areas of influence, activity and decision making. They are delegated to a team, or to an individual in a role, who exercises autonomy and takes accountability for the domain, within defined constraints. Having domains that are clearly designated help build a culture in which everyone is empowered to offer their gifts and to play their part fully. It can also lead to increased harmony between different areas of influence, and reduce waste caused by duplication of effort and confusion about who is accountable for what.
Co-Creation and Evolution
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes.’ – 2 Cor 1:19-20
The S3 patterns for facilitating meetings and consent decision making are based on the premise that group wisdom exceeds individual abilities. Adopting the maxim of decisions that are ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’ and applying the principle of continuous improvement by taking one step at a time helps cultivate a ‘yes’ culture of ‘let’s give it a go’.
Consent in S3 is subtly but significantly different to consensus. Shifting the emphasis from ‘everyone agrees’ (consensus) to ‘no one objects’ (consent) reduces the need for prolonged discussion and deliberation. This is counterbalanced by the practice of deliberately seeking out objections, and by distinguishing between concerns and objections, leading to dynamic action and risk-taking that is at the same time measured and responsible. Identifying misunderstanding early and ensuring that consent really does mean consent fosters support and accountability for agreements made.
Role Selection: Anointing and Blessing
The S3 pattern for ‘Role Selection’ presents a fresh alternative to our habitual practices of recruiting volunteers. The group is invited to nominate individuals to roles and to each express their reasons for the person selected. Each person then has the opportunity to reflect on the group wisdom expressed, and to potentially change their nomination accordingly. Following this a proposal is made, which the group is invited to consent to – or not. The person nominated can at this point object – but only after having heard the reasons behind it. They – and the group – can propose amendments to the role which might resolve any objections.
Affirming and encouraging our brothers and sisters through this practice is a way of bringing forth our respective gifts as diverse members of One Body. It can be a powerful way of anointing and blessing each other. It invites us to move away from scarcity thinking (‘Who can we get to take on this role?’) to trusting the abundance of God’s grace (‘How is God providing – through us – for our sacred work of mission and evangelism?) It also inspires a renewed sense of individual and collective vocation (‘Who among us is being called to serve in this way?’) Finally, it gently subverts our egotism – the person with the loudest or most confident voice, it not necessarily the best person for the role.
Having time limited roles and regular selection processes can help ensure healthy rotation of leadership. This in turn can aid in attracting new people into service and gently challenging all of us when we become stuck in our ways. Long-term members of the community become elders, the custodians of tradition and wisdom, while making way for others to come forward and help shape direction.
Enablers of Co-Creation: Getting on the Same Page
Many churches will recognize some – if not all – of the S3 principles as already implicit in parish culture. Adopting the principles in a conscious way, combined with making shared values explicit (both those which are inherent and those that are aspirational) can help create a clear framework for decision making and responding to drivers. The S3 patterns ‘Agree on Values’ and ‘Adopt the Seven Principles’ can be pulled in to help achieve this. Similarly, the pattern ‘Artful Participation’ invites a culture of continuous reflection and growth about how we can become more effective and loving in our interactions and collaborations.
A Modular Framework
Patterns from the groups Co-Creation and Evolution (decision making), Meeting Practices, and Enablers of Co-Creation (shared values) form the backbone of the S3 and make sense as a place to start for any parish wishing to experiment with this framework. Patterns from other groups can be pulled in as, when and if needed.
Hierarchy and ‘Power-With’
We do not need collected intelligence. We need collective intelligence, a coherent integration of our diversity that is greater than we could generate separately, just as an orchestra is greater than the sum of its instruments. This new kind of collectivity would cherish individuality and diversity and allow us to arrive at creative consensus without compromise – a shared power that calls forth the best in all of us. – Tom Atlee, The Tao of Democracy
The S3 philosophy touches on important and complex questions of how power and influence is distributed within our systems of governance, which in turn invites a re-evaluation of the role and function of hierarchy and leadership. This arises out of a clear and growing cultural consensus moving away from the old ‘power-over’ paradigm towards ‘power-with’ practices of solidarity, inclusiveness and participation.
The issue of who gets to make decisions and who holds more or less influence cannot be avoided without a significant cost to all involved, including potential harm towards those made vulnerable by their simple human need to belong and to contribute. Precious wisdom is lost when the full range of voices and dreams are not heard.
It has been observed that no group exists without power structures of some kind. The question is not whether or not structure exists, but whether those structures are informal or formal, implicit or explicit. Implicit or informal structures by their nature tend to be exclusive, whether this is intended or not, and are to varying degrees impenetrable by those not ‘in the know’. Informal structures generally evolve around friendship networks with unacknowledged benefits for those involved, and they readily turn into cliques and elites.
While these networks are to some extent inevitable and have positive benefits too, their effect on those excluded, generally by reason of cultural difference (age, political outlook, sexual orientation etc), needs to be offset by intentional practices of inclusion – what in S3 we speak of as equivalence. Making structures more formal – or more conscious – through a framework such as S3 represents a decisive step towards distributing power and influence in a more inclusive and ultimately more loving and valuing way.
Hierarchy and leadership continue to have a place, where they are functionally pragmatic and where they enable individuals with particular gifts to serve in particular ways. While not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, S3 and similar approaches invite a distinct shift in emphasis – orientating hierarchy towards growth rather than dominance, enabling distributed leadership, and, as far as possible, releasing individuals and groups to be self-organising and autonomous within prescribed constraints. All of which turns out to more effective and realistic anyway, as, arguably, the old systems of command and control are proving to be inadequate to the increasing complexity and pace of change that characterizes our 21st century world.
The energy in the universe is not in the planets or in the protons or neutrons, but in the relationship between them. Not in the particles but in the space between them. Not in the cells of organisms but in the way the cells feed and give feedback to one another. Not in any precise definition of the three persons of the Trinity as much as in the relationship between the Three! In other words, it is an entirely relational universe. – Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
Just as the biological world has been shown to be governed by principles of interdependency, mutuality and cooperation, human social organisms also possess an innate capacity for self-organising and co-creation. S3 is among many corporate practices abounding in our time to help us fully activate this potential. It represents an extension of spiritual practice orientated towards personal growth in discipleship and union with God, to group practice that brings our corporate being and doing into alignment with the evolutionary pulse of the Universe. Through coming together in the disciplined, prayerful and intentional way that S3 and similar practices invite, we can participate more fully in the dance of the Holy Trinity and translate our collective dreaming into concrete manifestations of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Experimenting with S3
There are a number of different ways the S3 patterns could be introduced within a parish. Here are some suggestions for a possible sequence of steps:
- A two-hour ad-hoc taster session with clergy, lay leadership and PCC presenting the background, rationale and core concepts of S3. Test for consent to proceed.
- One-off 2-3 hour session with clergy, lay leadership, PCC and wider community (those who are interested) to work through some of the Enablers of Co-Creation patterns (Adopt the Seven Principles, Agree on Values and Artful Participation).
- Establish S3 Peer Group facilitated by S3 Mentor with one or more clergy and any lay persons interested in more in-depth learning, focusing on patterns relating to Co-Creation and Evolution (decision making) and Meeting Practices.
- Facilitators from Peer Group introduce patterns for Co-Creation and Evolution (decision making) and Meeting Practices into decision making group/s over time, with support from S3 Mentor.
- A further stage could look at bringing in further S3 patterns and in particular the group for Building Organisations, depending on interest and need.
S3 Mentor – Liz Day
The greatest dis-ease facing humanity right now is our profound and painful disconnection. Disconnection from God, certainly, but also from ourselves (our bodies), from each other, and from our world. Our sense of this fourfold isolation is plunging us as a culture – as a species – into increasingly destructive behavior. The sheer scope and complexity of our disconnection is staggering. – Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
I’ve been studying classic Sociocracy and S3 over a period of some 10 years, having attended a taster workshop in 2008 and an intensive three-day training programme in 2016. I have also explored and studied various other collaborative processes during this time, including Dragon Dreaming, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry, the Way of Council and Open Space.
From these journeys of discovery I have become more and more convinced that the healing of people and planet called for in our times requires committed action on all fronts, and that stepping up a gear in our corporate ways of working and being together is an integral and essential part of the solution.
I am a committed Christian and an active member of an Anglican church community. I feel a deep affinity with the Christian contemplative tradition – which broadly speaking I understand as about meditation practice, inner work (prayer) and both ancient and modern mystical and esoteric teachings. I have been involved with numerous initiatives designed to help restore and make this somewhat hidden (or lost) dimension of the Christian faith more readily accessible.
I have experience of delivering S3 training and mentoring in the context of a local community farming initiative. I’m linked in with an international S3 peer network and is signed up to the ‘Intentional Commitment for Practitioners and Teachers of Sociocracy 3.0’ which can be viewed at https://sociocracy30.org/icpt.
Please feel free to get in touch if you would like help exploring any of this further.
Licensing and Sources
This paper has been written by Liz Day and draws on material produced by James Priest, Liliana David and Bernhard Bockelbrink of Sociocracy 3.0. S3 Illustrations are mostly by Bernhard Bockelbrink, with some adaptations by Liz. The core S3 concepts and practices have been elaborated on in order to communicate the underlying principles to a primarily Christian audience. This work has not been endorsed by the original licensors of the source material.
This paper and its source material is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution, ShareAlike 4.0 International License – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0.
Other sources include:
• ‘The Divine Dance’ by Richard Rohr
• ‘The Great Work’ by Thomas Berry
• ‘The Hidden Connections’ by Fritjof Capra
• ‘The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible’ by Charles Eisenstein
• ‘The Tao of Democracy’ by Tom Atlee
• ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, article by Jo Freeman
• ‘Trump and a Post-Truth World’ by Ken Wilber
• ‘We the People’ by John Buck and Sharon Villines
• And, of course, the Bible… And the Holy Spirit…