Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lessons from Saddleback

Last August, our San Francisco community bid us farewell as we made our way south, behind what they called the Orange Curtain.  We moved to Orange County when my husband joined the faculty at the University of California at Irvine. In making this move, we chose to say yes to Southern California: yes to the new landscape, jobs, schools, daily rhythm, politics, neighbors.  Adapt or die, we thought.  We readily chose to adapt, genuinely eager for something new.

For the last eight months, upon waking, I've opened our bedroom curtains to palm trees and bougainvillaea, and the sunrise over Saddleback Mountain, reflected in our neighbor's east-facing windows. In the flats below Saddleback sits Pastor Rick Warren's famed evangelical Christian church of the same name.  Pastor Rick is renown for his influential teachings on living a purpose-driven life, and on building a purpose-driven church.  He is credited with mobilizing thousands on the Christian right through both his message and his methods.  Some progressive social movement organizers consider Pastor Rick's books required reading for understanding how conservatives have managed to organize themselves so well.

Last Sunday, I drove east with my mother and a friend to attend services at Saddleback Church.  We toured the enormous campus, weaving in and out of the Sunday school classrooms--five of which are dedicated to the three year olds alone--as a sense of scale slowly sank in.  Greeters explained all of the ways community members can lean on Saddleback, not only for spiritual guidance, but for legal assistance, financial counseling, and every kind of support group imaginable, from addiction recovery to infertility.  The handout read, "We're better together."

in the risers at Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California
As we settled into the risers, the empty seats filled around us.  Young couples in shorts and polo shirts, groups of single women in jeans rolled up with heels, families with hoodied teenagers lingering behind.  On the stage, a Christian rock band visiting from London pounded out a baseline that reverberated through the crowd a refrain I cannot shake.  My voice joined the 4,000 others in the room, in what felt to me not unlike an evening of kirtan in my more familiar haunts.  Blessed be the name of the Lord. 

I hope to say more later, when my kids are not tugging me into Sunday morning play. For now, suffice it to say that I left Saddleback with a profound sense of longing for my disparate communities of progressive social change makers to have an infrastructure that could provide any semblance of that kind of stability and extended family.  I left with a feeling of rolling up my sleeves: what would it take to make a secular church?  What would it take to allow ourselves to dwell together in awe of the infinite, to take care of each other when we get sick, to study together the ancient texts, and drive each other to the voting booths?  I join the chorus in saying with humility that we have a lot to learn.

What would truly supportive community look like in your life?  What would it take to create that?  Does it depend always on a charismatic leader and common faith?  If not, what is the glue?  What are your dreams for community interdependence?  I welcome your comments and musings here.


  1. I live in Oklahoma where "big box" churches are abundant. It looks like wonderful fellowship and community from the outside, but I have to wonder about the pressure for conformity and judgment of nonconformity. For those of us who don't fit in the Christian widget hole, are they truly accepting? Do the people sitting in those aisles really get to know and love each other unconditionally? I think for me, co-housing would offer a better community of support. Leave religion out of it. Spirit yes, religion no.

  2. I totally agree with you about co-housing. I think, for my family, we could go a long way toward answering the longing I describe if we could manifest a co-housing situation. Are you co-housing now in OK? If so, what is the glue in your community? I used to live in co-ops and in an intentional community. The co-ops were centered around environmental sustainability. The intentional community was centered around a charismatic yoga guru. I experienced more authentic community relationships in those settings than in our current nuclear family set up, but still much less than I seek over the long term. One thing I saw at Saddleback that I think may help parishioners get to know each other is that they are organized into small groups, like study groups, that get together on an evening during the week for text-based discussion. I often have a small group or two going in my life (a mindful mamas group, or a social change support and accountability group), that meets once a month, forming authentic and deep interdependence and friendship. So when I see that Saddleback is organized around small groups, that is what I imagine. So the scale of it is breathtaking to me, if that kind of deep support is what they are fostering there. But without being part of it, you are right, I don't really know how well it works. What has your experience been--where do you find fellowship/community? What would it take in your community to make it real?

  3. I think one of the most important things for the "glue" of community is creating enough safety for people to feel they can share their struggles/vulnerabilities, however small or large, and have them be recognized as legitimate by community members. So often, I hear/witness that people are withdrawn from engagement with the community they long for because they receive repetitive messages that their experience is not valid to those around them. This is where I
    see religion offering a framework and language for legitimizing (certain) struggle, though I think it does it often in a limited way. But where is our broader language and dialogue for the experience of human struggle and questioning? Or just needing to reach to another around us to hear, "yes, we are all in this together...this, being human together"? I only hear these conversations in carefully crafted political speech, usually devoid of personal emotion, just a soundbite, or from religious dialogue. I think it's important and we seek connection, yet it saddens me at times that people often need a dogma to make it legitimate. Perhaps in its stead, for a secular community, a basic yet flexible paradigm would need to be agreed upon about the need for community connection and for an acknowledging of shared human experience.

    Another thought: as an introvert who loves her privacy and alone time, the idea of co-housing has always felt overwhelming to me. To me, a working problem would be to ask how could small groups be organized to support both extroverts and introverts? I know it's possible. In the small groups I participate in, I've deeply valued explicit discussion of trust-building and processing what our experience of sharing has been (this is largely professional peer supervision groups, yet this is a place where we are exceedingly human with one another - allowing our imperfections and struggles into the space is what makes it meaningful and helpful to us as therapists and people). I appreciate the discussion thread!

    1. Thank you for commenting. I share your love for "explicit discussion of trust-building and processing what our experience of sharing has been" in the small group setting. In facilitating small groups, where company is mixed (different levels of experience and comfort with group process), I find it challenging to strike a good balance between inviting examination of process and just doing. Essential to find the balance, but hard.

      I see reflected in your comment and others not only the longing for deep connection in secular community, but also one of the reasons it is so rare: taking care of each other (inching toward wholeness) requires an attentiveness and pace that runs counter to the habits of our fractured lives. And skill. Where, outside graduate programs in certain helping disciplines, do people acquire these skills? I was lucky enough to get training in the "inner work" of social change organizing as a teenager through youth organizations like Creating our Future and Youth for Environmental Sanity ( Those trainings provided the basis for the small circle work I do now, and at least in my networks, there seem to be an ever-growing number of training opportunities like that--outside of formal academia, outside of faith-based settings. It is inspiring, AND, I continue to struggle with how such efforts can extend into the mainstream, or be taken to any kind of meaningful scale.

      Regarding ways to ensure co-housing makes democratic space for introverts, a question back to you: in your view, what would it take to bring the depth you find in your professional peer supervision groups to a hodge podge of people outside your discipline, people threaded together by some common commitments, but who, as a whole, may lack a common vocabulary for relating at the level of nuance/care you describe? This is a live question for me. Alternately invigorating and exhausting. I look forward to your thoughts.

  4. I was very interested to read your account of a visit to Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. While secular liberals may have little interest in organizing in faith-based communities such as this, it's a mistake to assume that everyone in attendance at Warren's church, or other churches, are uninterested in secular issues like social justice and welfare. (In fact, many churches--Unitarian/Universalists come especially to mind--profess only the thinnest shreds of conventional religious dogma.)

    I remember being puzzled by the secular liberal outrage when Warren was named to deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration. Why not learn to accept religious communities, learn from them and even join them?

    One other point: One hundred years ago, it was labor unions that held out the promise of providing the organizational strength that churches have. Unfortunately, organized labor has been mostly destroyed in North Carolina, where I live.

  5. Hi David,

    Thank you for these notes. I agree--at Saddleback, Pastor Rick has tried to mainstream parishioner involvement in "secular" social issues--at least in the form of social service, if not in the framework of social justice. I don't have a good sense of how integrated these efforts are into church identity, but I could see at least the top-down invitation to engage. I can imagine the possibility, as you are suggesting, of bridge building between the church and secular liberals on these shores (faith-based social service to, say, alleviate poverty on one shore, and liberal secular efforts to, say, address the root causes of poverty on the other shore). The two shores need each other in the same way that banks of the same river need each other. Regardless of how either side views the methods of the other, we exist in the same in space, and it behooves us all to engage--even amid perhaps irreconcilable differences that would prevent working in concert. Engagement could at least start moving the conversation. In this time, I can't imagine that either side thinks it has a corner on the solutions.

    About labor unions: Even in light of the history you describe, I am inspired today by the fantastic efforts at new kinds of labor organizing outside of the union setting--in the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Caring Across Generations campaign (, workers (and in the Caring Across Generations campaign, employers, too) are addressing these core issues of what makes for meaningful human experience in community. They are developing a completely different model of organizing labor, and community. I look there for a path forward. To whom do you look? Who is doing it right in your community? What are they doing/learning?

  6. awesome, abby. sounds great! happy you are well

    xo, nat

  7. Thank you! We are well, deeply so. I hope you are well, too.

  8. Abby,

    Having just watched Fierce Grace, I came running to the computer to find YOU, for some reason. I'm so glad you are well and have manifested your spirit in beautiful children and a new community.

    Leaving radiant San Francisco for the Orange Curtain was more daunting than you knew (as now you know). I did the same, returning to Claremont to care for a aging parent. My work is community gardens and heirloom seeds, which connects me to people around the world, but not down the block. I haven't let go of the Bay Area, and am stuck not there, not here.

    Be Here. Now.

    Yes, composting is still a novelty in Southern California, but people are trying. Perhaps that's why I'm here (though I still don't FEEL here).

    If any of your endeavors call for seeds (besides a seed circle), please get in touch. I have many to share. In the meantime, I will be inspired by how far you've come.


    Mia Myers

  9. Thank you, Mia! Yes, we need seeds, and composting help! We just moved into a new house, and we have ideas for backyard compost (given that the City of Irvine doesn't take kitchen scraps, and our scheme of schleping the scraps down to the UCI campus bins every few days wasn't working). But I'd really love a consult about what system to use here. I'm dreaming about enlisting our block in putting up a common compost at the end of the cul-de-sac. But even before that could manifest, we are looking for a backyard solution. Also, it comes to mind that some of my students at UCI are part of a wonderful community garden. They are doing a project on Saturday and currently looking for large compost donations. Let me know if you have any leads! Nice to meet you here, Mia. Thank you.