Cultivating Community, 7

I think the size and structure of any given community necessarily requires different types and levels of organization underneath it. The bigger the garden or the more intricate the garden plan, the more prep & planning is involved at the front-end of things. The front garden spot in my yard took a lot of work the first year, but since I planted perennials, it really is just about maintenance at this point, ten years later. My vegetable garden in the back yard is a different story. We reorganize it, add raised beds, and iterate the watering system just about every year; we are still figuring out the best methods for fertilizing and composting, and experimenting with different types of foods to grow as well as where to purchase seeds & starts. It’s more like starting from not-quite-scratch every year than it is simple reiteration or maintenance. Year over year, it remains an enormous project, and I never feel like my thumb gets much greener. But I still jump in and try!

At this point, I still run Paideia Northwest almost completely on my own, so I am able to keep the organizational structure pretty simple. Running a ten-family weekly homeschool co op has required more official paperwork and organizational communication than running an annual conference for hundreds of registrants. That seems rather backward to me when I ponder it on the surface! I think the reason for this, however, is that the homeschool co op is meant to be more of an equal cooperative of families mutually serving one another – which means more shared burdens and equal servanthood and bearing of the load. The conference is more of a business structure (although I treat it as a ministry, in practical application), where I run it from the top down, and I am slowly learning to delegate and

CONFERENCE ORGANIZATION:

If I were to have more women officially on the Paideia Northwest team, I think I would likely use a GoogleDrive format similar to what I previously described in my co op organizational habits. Since it’s pretty much just me, though, I find using Word documents and the Notes app in my phone is adequate. I have a website, social media accounts, and email account for communication, registration, and marketing. I also have SurveyMonkey and MailChimp, although I think we have outgrown both platforms’ free versions – so I need to probably iterate those things and find replacement programs (or budget for their paid versions). I communicate with my advisory teams mostly via Voxer chats or texts. But I keep all my documents and lists and recaps on my laptop, and just email them to people when such times become pertinent.

What kind of documents?

-conference master list, by year
-speaker agreement packets
-brochures
-letters to churches, schools, and co ops
-vendor agreement packets

It’s the master list that really is like my brain download.
It contains:
-Task List
-Spending Recap
-Packing List
-Conference Schedule
-Volunteer Teams (Set Up Crew, 2 Coffee Crews, Luncheon Crew, Clean Up Crew)
-Task Lists for each Team
-List of Vendors
-List of Journal Ads
-List of Giveaway Items
-Personnel (Names, Position, Contact Info)
-Bio of Each Speaker
-Intro for Each Session
-Hymns & Prayers & Scriptures

I think it is the Task List that makes people the most curious. What in the world does it take to plan, prep, and pull off an annual conference for hundreds of women? (200 the first year… expecting over 400 this year… it has grown year over year, and has always sold out very quickly!)
I can generally break down my tasks into monthly sections. I endeavor to have six months “on” followed by six months “off,” but it doesn’t cleanly slice that way, because I actually do things for the conference off and on all year long. But the mindset I have is kind of six and six, more or less, and mindset is a big foundation for how this all plays out. On a most basic level (because yes, it actually IS more involved and complicated than this list: so this list is simply the basics), it looks like this:

Jan: email & social media sparsely; contact speakers to finalize agreements; make sure taxes were all done and filed properly
Feb: email & social media sparsely; communicate with speakers and location as necessary
Mar: clean out last year’s inbox and documents to make room for organizing this year’s
Apr: design this year’s conference graphic; try to finalize location; book AirBnb for conference personnel
May: make sure location is finalized; share graphic and other artistic elements online; check email regularly; social media regularly; begin to plan swag and decor
Jun: introduce each speaker on social media; schedule registration date for Aug; check email regularly; social media regularly; experiment or shop around for swag and decor
Jul: finalize catering; contact potential vendors; mail brochures and fliers to churches, co ops, & schools in the region; check email regularly; social media regularly; finalize swag and decor; reserve hotel block
Aug: get website, MailChimp, and PayPal set up; open registration; order pens and stickers and other swag; record & release short podcast episodes with each speaker
Sept: follow up with potential/committed vendors; be vigilant with email and social media; purchase decor; plan clothing for conference
Oct: close registration 10/1; make sure all digital files are received on time; place shirts order; finalize all Master List details; make sure all drinks and snacks and paper goods are purchased; fill my freezer with freezer meals for the weeks surrounding the conference; make sure volunteer lists are finalized and task lists emailed out; design, create, & order conference journals
Nov: daily email and social media interactions & updates; print name badges; stuff name badges; write checks for all speakers; write thank you notes; pay caterer; pay location; get all swag bag contributions; stuff bags; shop for any last minute items; get ahead on homeschool commitments and co op duties the week before the conference; spend one day packing vehicles; spend one day setting up; plan to have at least 48 hours of recuperation after the conference with zero outside commitments; send thank you emails; send survey; send audio & video file links to all registrants
Dec: keep an eye on email and social media; make sure the recording links were sent out and received; rejoice over God’s good work; make sure all the moneys and taxes and receipts are in order and ready for upcoming tax season; pack away all the conference supplies in the basement

This is just a quick summary of the biggest points, the main tasks that absolutely have to be accomplished. And this just follows a general timeline of what I have found works best for me. I don’t get paid to do any of this work (which is what I mean when I say that I treat this as a ministry – I don’t cut myself a paycheck or anything – all my time is donated, and a lot of my personal resources are also donated), so it has to be spread out among many months in order to make it doable. I am in a busy season of life (is there ever a season that isn’t busy?! I’m doubting it…), and I will never get any of these days back. I do not want to come to the end of my life and wish I had not done what I am currently doing. I want to be wise. I want to serve. And I want to follow the Lord’s plans for me. And a good portion of that means that I need to plan well and wisely in the midst of the busy hours, days, months, years, and seasons. Planning with hope and joy and intentionality.

I didn’t even plan my own wedding and reception, to be honest, so when I decided to plan a conference including catering and swag bags, I went into it with about as little experience as a person could imagine! In fact, I’ve also never been to any kind of educational conference before. I have never once attended a homeschooling conference! And while that surprises people when I mention that, I kind of wonder if it keeps Paideia Northwest unique and fresh. I essentially plan according to what I genuinely would personally find helpful, beneficial, and sweet. I do not plan anything according to what “should” be done according to any kind of other event standards. I am not trying to copy what anybody else does anywhere else. In fact, from what little bits and snippets I have seen online of occasional other conferences, I would actually prefer NOT to emulate many of the things I’ve seen.

The main reason I felt the need to pursue Paideia Northwest in the first place, though, was because there were no options in the area that I could attend. As a fulltime homeschooling mama in a family with a single income, I do not have the time or finances to pursue the luxury of traveling hither and yon to places around the country to fill the need I felt for this kind of community, connection, encouragement, and resources. And that is precisely why I have never been to a homeschool (or other educational) conference or event! I have dreamed about attending some. But that’s what it has remained: dreams.

So in general, I find it to be a good practice just not to look around at other events too much. Not only do I not want to cast sidelong glances (contentment and comparison can both be hard), but I also don’t want to get distracted from what is needed HERE. I am trying to be attuned to what I hear women in my own region saying blesses them, encourages them, and urges them to raise and educate their kids with faithfulness according to what God has led their families to do.

And that’s one of my main points about cultivating community all over again: it has to be intentional, and it needs to be about what is needed where you are, among the people you’re with. Just because it is a community, doesn’t mean it is the right community for every place or gathering of people.

We need to be asking what does God want me to do here, with this specific community, and the specific gifts He has given to me?

Cultivating Community, 6

One of the questions I have frequently been asked boils down to how do you keep track of everything? This can really be the make it or break it sticking point, I think. I have always loved lists: shopping lists, checklists, to do lists… you name it, if I can make a list for it, I will love it better. And when I love something better, I have more confidence and feel like I am doing a better job. (I probably AM doing a better job, to be honest.) So I have learned to make documents in Word just to keep track of stuff (having it on a laptop, which was a business expense, is really helpful), and I keep smaller versions in the Notes app in my phone. I try really hard to diligently keep the two synced and current. Having both not only gives me two places to put updates but gives me a double layer of accountability. That’s like my low tech backup hack.

This goes for Paideia Northwest (the annual conference) as well as Paideia Studies (the weekly homeschool co op). I know it is hard to get a handle on what kind of documents and lists are helpful without seeing it yourself, so I’ll try to briefly step through some of the main ideas. I will have visuals and printables through a Scholé Sisters workshop this summer, so that might be a great place to connect with me if you want the real inside scoop.

CO OP ORGANIZATION:

One of the best things I learned at a previous co op was the trick of using GoogleDrive to organize everything and give all the co op families access to all the necessary things… including all the weekly homework. It took me a solid six months to catch on to how to best utilize the Drive myself, but by then I was absolutely hooked. I think the moms at Paideia Studies had a similar experience to that! Once you get the hang of it, it really streamlines things.

We have folders there on a shared drive for Formal Documents, Current Details, Weekly Homework (which is then divided up by class), Moms’ Meeting Agendas/Minutes, and Curriculum Assets (essentially where we can keep lesson plans from previous years so we don’t have to recreate the wheel each time we do Latin Primer A or Story of the World Volume 3, for example).

When it comes to administrating the co op, I have formal documents in that folder on the Drive such as:
– Family Interview
– Visiting Family Feedback
– Application
– Family Agreement
– Intent to Return
– Philosophy Statement and Links
– Sample Scope & Sequence
– Official Handbook (that’s a 24 page document, in case you wondered)

And then I also have a folder of current documents on the Drive which will change prior to each new school year, including:
– current directory (a version with a family picture, as well as a simple text version)
– current student list (organized by date of birth)
– class rosters
– cleaning duties sign-up sheet
– playground supervisory sign-up sheet
– birthday list organized by month
– class schedule
– year’s calendar at a glance
– curriculum & supply list for current year
– financial reimbursement request page
– reimbursement receipt page
– there’s a folder we call Year’s Pics for everyone to upload any co op pictures to throughout the year so we can make a fun slideshow super simply to share at our celebration at the end of May.

Communicating with all the co op families takes multiple forms as well. We have a group text that we all just kind of keep going, and we inform one another that way of anything pertinent. I open every co op day’s morning Collective with announcements to make sure everyone is aware of any assignments or delegations or substitutions. Then within 24 hours after that, I make sure to send a recap email to everyone which reiterates any announcements and includes links to anything shared in Collective or in classes (if a teacher texts me a link to share for a resource or article or YouTube video, for instance). And then at the monthly moms’ meetings we start with “business” after an opening prayer in order to communicate in a clear and straightforward manner anything that needs to be shared with all the co op families, especially if there are any upcoming events or class changes or deadlines.

Speaking of the moms’ meetings, that took some real iteration and practice! I had never been taught how to lead a meeting before, and I sort of took it for granted that it would just happen naturally. I learned quickly that nobody can read my mind and my tendency toward not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings or crush anyone’s excitement made it hard to stay on track. While the meetings were supposed to end between 9 and 9:30, the first few meetings went well past ten and we’d stay around fellowshipping closer to eleven. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised: throw ten women in a room together and try to have them all on the same page working toward the same goals at the same time… and you’ll quickly find that it takes a long time to accomplish anything even with the best of intentions. I think it was the month of February where I finally listened to the counsel of our Board (which is made up of three co op dads from different churches and with different aged kids – it just helps with plurality), which was to structure the meetings more officially and business-like and according to a set pattern. It was way outside my comfort zone to do that! But now that we have done it that way three times, and we have ended on time… I can see the validity of their recommendation.

I read a short Scripture and open in prayer, and then the Steering Committee (a couple co op moms from different churches and with different ages/stages of kids – again for plurality and a broad range of experience/input) presents the Business portion. Anything that is just relaying of information from the leadership of the co op isn’t up for discussion or debate (clarification is always okay, obviously), but discussion points are marked on the agenda by an asterisk* so everyone knows they can interject or offer another viewpoint or idea. Then we have a Scholé Moment, where we ponder and discuss something true or good or beautiful. I pick a different thing each month: a poem, a hymn, an article, a chapter of a book… and the moms have it ahead of time to read and ponder, if they want. Or they can just listen at the meeting, as I try to have it be something short enough that we can simply read it aloud when we are together. Then we have a Hot Tip open forum in case anybody has a pressing need for something, or stumbled upon a neat item or hack or event or whatnot in the last month. It has been a recipe, an Amazon link to a skirt, or checklist suggestions at various times. Then we share prayer requests and pray aloud for one another. We don’t tend to skimp or cut it short. If someone needs to leave, and it gets past 9:30, then they are free to just slip out at that point. There’s no pressure to stay past the predetermined time of 9:30. And then after prayer, we fellowship until we need or want to head home. I frequently don’t get home until 11pm give or take, because I am the one who opens and closes the building, in general. I am also usually the one who brings tea or sparkling water and something to munch on: cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, chocolates and bruschetta… but we don’t always have to have food. However, since a lot of the moms seem to head out to the meeting without stopping to eat dinner with their families, it tends to seem like a blessing to have at least a little something munchy to offer. And everyone knows that if they want to volunteer to bring snacks or drinks, they are always welcome. Our next meeting is on Cinco de Mayo, so I might just put out a little request that anybody can bring anything Mexican themed just for fun. 🙂 I’m planning to bring a layered Mexican dip with chips, plus churro cookies (using this recipe).

This is again another place for striking balance between business and fellowship. Constant iterating has been my experience up until this point, but I feel like we are just now getting the hang of it.

Administration of something like a ten-family co op (which included 45 kids this year) does include a lot of front-end groundwork in order to make it the most smooth as possible month by month. Last summer felt like a crazy whirlwind as I tried to research different ways of accomplishing these administrative tasks without any kind of instruction or teaching on the subject! And this spring I have tried to recreate the necessary things in preparation for next year so that I don’t have to spend all summer on those things, and so everyone has the information well in advance so everyone (not just me) can prepare well.

What I do plan on spending my summer doing in relation to Paideia Studies is preparing all 31 weeks of Collective, and printing up copies and getting them bound. I would like to print the black and white pages at the library (because I can print 80 pages per week per library card at our county library… I pay taxes, so I might as well use the paper & ink they buy!), and then will get the art study pages done more nicely – at a copy shop or something (I printed them on my home color printer this year, and don’t plan on doing that again in the future).

I also try to do lesson planning during the summer so that it is easier week by week to implement teaching and homework assignments, as well as to have things already prepped in case we get sick or have a family emergency or something. Every class has a “teaching assistant” assigned to it, which means that if the teacher is absent for any reason, the assistant steps in to take over the class. Because they are in that class every week, they are already up to speed on what’s going on, and it really is a smooth ordeal for subbing.

In case anybody wonders, yes, I have already started lesson planning for the next school year… but that’s really only possible because I already finished (and uploaded all the lesson plans and homework to the Drive) all the prepping and planning for this current school year. I don’t know about you, but I prefer planning generously ahead of time. It makes me a more cheerful, patient person – and everybody appreciates that.

Cultivating Community, 5

Once I had the courage to try something new, to bring a small basket of loaves & fish, I learned to then prayerfully watch the Lord do the blessing & multiplication.

Within just one month I had a business license, created an LLC, purchased the website domain, designed a logo, and was fully in the planning phase of the inaugural event… which I brazenly scheduled for just three months down the road! As I said over at Paideia Northwest, “Registration opened at the end of August for an event called Courage for the Daily, held in November 2018. With 200 women in attendance at that first event, the need for this blessing was solidified – and Paideia Northwest began to put down real roots.” I could hardly believe the variety and depth of positive feedback I received after that event. Truthfully, I was genuinely surprised that it didn’t flop. It’s only because God is good, and He was the One at work.

The community which we seek at Paideia Northwest is an atmosphere of principles over methods, and simply raising kids for Christ is my goal in encouraging regional mamas. Practically everyone calls it a homeschooling conference, but in practice it is really much more broad than that. I never mind when people refer to it as a homeschooling event. Yet homeschooling is one method of raising and educating kids for Christ… and the principle beneath it is much more graciously broad. We have so much to learn from each other, regardless of educational niche. Unity in essentials (Christ!), diversity in non-essentials (methods), charity in all things (brotherhood).

The mission with this annual event continues to be a desire to build bridges, create community, encourage camaraderie, and facilitate fellowship in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. I know that each year there are a couple of attendees who have flown in from other corners of the country, which honestly surprises me. But it also delights me. While the goal for Paideia Northwest is to keep our events local to our region, we not only welcome people to attend from other areas, but are eager to see this mission & vision take root in other locations on the map. I love how the annual conference has built a new sphere of community for Christian mamas in the OR, WA, ID corner of our country. But I also love that I receive emails every single year after the conference, asking if I would be willing to “take it on the road” and do the same event in other locations (short answer: nope) or willing to “share the vision” by helping other Paideia Communities form (short answer: you bet).

So, why me? Because God called me to it. That’s really it.

Why an annual conference? Because that’s what God put on my heart, and what He has equipped and enabled me to pull off at this point.

Why in the broader Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area? Because that’s where I live, and where I have personally felt a need… and the attendance of the conference which increases year over year has confirmed that I’m not the only one who felt the need.

Going back to the question Brandy Vencel asked: is it worth it? Again, I can wholeheartedly say YES. But what’s really interesting about that question is that the people who ask that question have no idea what it costs. Financially or physically or emotionally or time expenditure – none of it. So I can say it’s totally worth it, but that still honestly gives you no clue (zip, zilch, zero) about what I invest in the process each year.

I know that you have no idea… because I had no idea prior to jumping in and just figuring it out on my own.

So what DO you think it takes to put something like this together? What would you imagine goes into the planning of a one-day conference, just once a year, for 200, 300, or 500 women? What kind of team is needed? What kind of finances? What type of organization setup or practical administration is necessary? How is the creativity side orchestrated? What about advertising and social media? Who plans the themes and books the speakers? How do you know who to ask and what to pay and how much to plan for?

As far as I know, there aren’t really classes to teach this. Or maybe there are, and I was in too much of a hurry that first year to bother looking around. Also, I didn’t have money to put toward that kind of thing! Any furthered education I needed in order to learn how to be a conference and event planner, I had to seek for myself. I researched what I could, Googled what I imagined might be helpful (again: so many weeds to weed through when you do that), and just went by faith into trial & error.

I am not a master gardener, but I do have a vegetable garden every year. I do my best. I iterate. And there is always fruit (actually mostly veggies, but you know… idioms). And it is fun to stand back and see what the Lord brings up for harvesting each time. Some things do better than others. I take notes and learn from them for the next season. Each year, I have more notes and experience to build upon, so it feels less like trial & error and more like practice & iteration.

I am also learning that cultivating community by myself as a one-woman-show is more exhausting than cultivating larger community as a small community. This is what’s known as teamwork, delegation, working together, sharing the load, bearing one another’s burdens, partaking in one another’s joys. Yep. I’m still growing. Still learning.

There is more cultivation to do.

Cultivating Community, 4

In addition to communing well in my own home with my own family, and pursuing solid relationship and reliability within our extended family circle, plus intentionally cultivating both a healthy church family AND a homeschool co op where we foster a variety of friendships and collaborations… I have engaged in the formation and cultivation of a larger community as well.

My friends at Scholé Sisters emphasize that learning happens in community, and that is one reason they have taken on the task of developing and maintaining a growing and thriving online community of homeschooling mamas, particularly those in the Classical Christian niche. It’s been a while since I heard it, but I remember their episode which talked about communities versus networking – and I loved pondering the distinctions there. Both have value. I am part of the Scholé Sisters Sistership, which is their online community for banter, brainstorming, and spitballing. It is a blessing, it is unique, it is sweet… and it’s a form of social media I can get behind.

But it is still digital, distanced, and the only “real” face to face time comes when you happen to have your schedule free enough to prioritize the meetups for reading accountability, book discussion, mentorship, and retreats (which is still done through the medium of internet and screens). There is a huge blessing to this nuance of the digital age. And yet if that’s the closest community we pursue… it is going to leave us a bit droopy and dry. (That’s why Scholé Sisters actually encourages you to find others in your local community to live out the principles together which they teach and promote.)

Back in early 2018, I found myself longing for an occasional meetup with more likeminded mamas than I found at our church at the time (there were only a few of us homeschooling families there, and it was honestly not closeby) or at our co op at the time (there were only half a dozen or so of us). I heard stories and saw online snippets of different conferences and events around the United States. I was particularly intrigued by the sound of the Great Homeschool Convention, because I knew Sarah Mackenzie, who spoke at those & promoted them broadly. At the occasion of her book releasing party for The Read Aloud Family in early 2018, I remember asking her if she knew if GHC would ever consider doing an event in the Northwest. She kind of chuckled and told me that the folks who run GHC consider their event in southern California “local” for the entire West coast… even northeastern Washington state. I think I made a snide remark about how they needed to study United States geography a bit better than that. But anyway, I then asked her (because she’s an outgoing, gregarious, entrepreneurial go-getter) if she would ever be up for hosting (or helping with) some kind of actually local event to encourage moms in educating their kids. She said, “I am not the one to do that, but I think it would be great if you did it.” I laughed and told the friends I was with, “I am not interested in doing something like that. I just really want someone else to do it! I think the Pacific Northwest really needs something to encourage moms like us!”

There were a couple more instances of similar conversations that popped up that spring from time to time. Then in June, Sarah told me she thought that Mystie Winckler might be interested in a similar endeavor, and I should connect with her. I had actually met Mystie a few years previously at a women’s event at a church a couple hours away – neither of us were local to it, and we sat together at the luncheon. So reconnecting with her felt easy. She told me to get the Voxer app, and we chatted back and forth for hours, piece by piece. (Oh, here’s a hint: the Voxer app is another great way to pursue community with someone who is long-distance, but with whom you want to share conversation. It’s another excellent medium for encouragement, accountability, spitballing, and bouncing ideas around.)

It was those conversations with Mystie which God used to change my heart. I did not want to be the one to drum up a local conference. I did not feel equipped to start a business or ministry that needed so much groundwork. I didn’t want to do the work necessary for the kind of blessing I wanted to receive.

But I felt called to it.
And God used Mystie to give me the courage necessary to give it a try. I went into that first conference thinking that I would love for this to be an annual thing, but knowing that I would be content if it ended up even just being a one-off event.
And yet here I am four years later, preparing for the fifth annual event with more wind in the sails and encouragement from the offing’s than I could have predicted or imagined.

I have been asked lots and lots of questions about this in recent years. Why a conference? Why this niche? Why you?

And again, I can’t help but go back to the idea that it was all God. I am just a bit player in His story, and this is but a wee sidestory in the grand scheme. I like being a nobody, and prefer to remain a nobody. (Great Homeschool Convention? Nah, no thanks. Not my gig. I prefer small, intimate, down to earth, real community where authentic fellowship can take place.) But while being a nobody, I am happy to do lots of work behind the scenes to deeper bless the mamas who are laboring nearby in the trenches alongside me, seeking to follow the Lord in furthering His Kingdom here on earth while we anticipate the culmination of it all someday in heaven.

We long for community because we were made for community. It is worth the sowing effort of time and resources and stress because of the fruit God brings from it. I am passionate about cultivating this community and sharing its fruit with anyone hungry for it because I have seen God at work, and I love to see Him praised.

Cultivating Community, 3

Cutting to the chase, only three weeks after I received the phone call that we were losing our much-loved co op community, I hosted a parents’ informational meeting at my parents’ church, five minutes from our house to see if there was adequate interest in a new homeschool co op closer to home. (This happens to now also be OUR church… because God likes to surprise us and work in mysterious ways!) Thirteen households were represented at that meeting. And one month after that, we had created an official co op. Paideia Studies.

It was a whirlwind of a summer for me. I spent three months trying to create a solid foundation for a beautiful community to grow. This was not work I wanted, nor asked for – but the Lord made it very clear that this was a good work He had prepared for me to walk in. Because of that, I took great joy in throwing myself into it. God graciously provided for the nitty gritty needs: from pencil boxes to handbook outlines, a location to meet, and enough families to give the manpower (actually, mompower) to juggle classes for each age group… God did it all.

It just so happened that the co op we had loved which dissolved had been around for 26 years, and we actually knew a couple of the families who had started it in their family rooms all those many years ago. So we were able to get together with people who had begun the cultivation of that community, in order to learn how they did it. It’s like getting tips from a master gardener. This was an opportunity for me to do some major educational research: nobody had ever taught me how to start a co op, how to run and direct a co op… and y’all, it is honestly not as simple as hosting a weekly playdate. At least, not in my experience. For our first year of Paideia Studies, we had ten families (including the one other remaining family from our previous co op), which equaled 45 children ranging in age from 1 to 17. So we jumped right into the deep end, needing classes & staffing for every stage from toddler through high school. Remember how I said I had been excited to help develop the high school program at our previous co op year by year as my oldest aged? Well. That flew out the window pretty quick. With eight high schoolers right off the bat, we scrapped together the best ideas we could and decided to run with it.

The co op needed a name, documents, organizational structure, school supplies, a location to meet, a schedule for co op days and a calendar for the whole year. We needed to construct a leadership team and to define all kinds of terms and priorities and parameters. Most of the families didn’t know each other, so this was like throwing together sixty people from different places and saying, hey these could be your new best buddies! and just praying that God would grow something valuable and lovely and fruitful.

The thing that really just sticks out as a high priority is intentionality. You absolutely have to be intentional. That actually points back to the name of our co op as well. Paideia Studies. And yes, if you know me, you might know that I love using the term paideia. I’m not exactly a broken record or stuck in a rut, but I’m very intentional about keeping paideia at the forefront of my mind as I go about life. I’ve shared before about the definition of paideia – formation and cultivation of a society, the entire enculturation of a person. You are going to grow a culture in your family & home, in your co op, in your church… in whatever circle or community we’re talking about at any given moment. Each group or gathering of people will have a culture, and it will grow. So we want to be very intentional about what culture we are growing. What are we cultivating in a particular community? Something is going to grow! But will it be weeds or will it be fruit? We absolutely have to be intentional.

Nobody taught me how to start a co op, but the Lord led. Nobody showed me how to make class schedules or write a handbook for a Classical Christian homeschool community, but the Lord provided. Nobody trained me in leading weekly Collective for almost sixty people, or monthly moms’ meetings for ten women (and how to fight for the balance there of business and fellowship), or how to assist in restoring peace and communion when there are bumps or miscommunication in a community. There wasn’t a class to give me tips. Although I did Google randomly for a lot of things! But there were plenty of weeds to pull out in order to find healthy snippets to take for cultivating.

Now that it has been almost a full school year of cultivating this particular co op, it finally feels like an oiled machine. And I look forward with great joy and happy anticipation to the time when I can say that it feels like a WELL-oiled machine! 🙂 We will have eleven families this next year in our co op, equaling 49 students ranging in age from 2 to 17. My oldest son will be in the high school (and my youngest son still in the nursery), and I will be teaching a class in the high school for the first time. I am still learning. Still iterating. Still actively cultivating.

But there is so much life being exchanged. It’s like a fantastic biome! (Or at least an ecosystem?!) We give and receive and work alongside one another with humility yet confidence, initiative yet gentleness. We seek one another’s good. We bear one another’s burdens. We pray for one another. We give grace. We receive a soft place to land.

I have known many of these families for less than a year, and yet I feel intimately knit with them. I love their children and long for them to grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. I’m eager to walk with them toward that end! I love these women and long for them to see fruit prosper from their labor. I’m excited to cultivate an atmosphere of truth, goodness, beauty, and excellence with them in that pursuit! My children have told me how much they love this community of friends – they love the classes, they love the teachers, they love the work, they love the consistency and predictability and structure. And God is granting so much joy to each of us, simply because He graciously loves us, through the labor involved in the continual cultivating of this community.

Starting the community was just the first step. That’s definitely not where the hard work ends. Just imagine if we treated gardens that way. The most fruitful gardens tend to be the ones with the most intentionality in their cultivation. The same thing goes for growing a community of people longing to bear fruit.

And this is the question Brandy Vencel asked me recently: is it worth it? Is it worth all the trouble and time of not only starting the co op to begin with, but to maintain and grow and cultivate it week by week, month by month, and (Lord willing) year by year? I can say confidently and gladly: YES, it is worth it. It is worth it because the Lord is bringing fruit from this labor. And it is good fruit. It shows up in the moms’ meetings where we could just pray together for a whole hour and suddenly realize it is 11pm and we need to get home to our husbands. It shows up in the social dancing time each week when we see friendship and camaraderie between each co op member – teenagers dancing with a kid half their age or with someone’s mom – laughter and delight wrapping up our day. It shows up when there is miscommunication somewhere, and hard conversations need to happen, but it is done with truth in love, Christlike grace, and results in forgiveness & clarity & big hugs. It shows up when a teenager pulls a mom aside to ask if they can talk because they need encouragement. It shows up when my two year old now genuinely thinks he has an additional grandma because he spends every Wednesday with his buddy’s great-grandma in the co op nursery. It shows up when kids’ relationships get messy, when assignments are ignored, when things are done well, when there are reasons to rejoice… The fruit is literally weighing down the branches, and I can’t seem to count it.

So yes, it is worth it. One hundred percent.
And yes, it is exhausting and labor-intensive.
This community is only here because we have been intentionally cultivating it. Because God made it obvious that that was His plan.
And I’m here for it.

Cultivating Community, 2

I was homeschooled during the eighties and nineties in the state of California, which is very different than homeschooling in the time and place where I currently do it. There were some necessarily isolating factors built into the practice in my childhood. There weren’t co ops and large homeschooling communities or gatherings… or at least, none nearby that we knew of. There were other homeschooling families at our church, and we occasionally did something with another family or two (or ten), especially things like fieldtrips or Christmas parties. But it was sporadic and unpredictable. There were two different years when we did a weekly homeschool day with one other family, and I remember snippets from those studies more than just about any other part of my childhood homeschooling experience. (Math with my dad was memorable because of all the M&Ms… but it was also very ordinary, very daily.) What stands out in my memory are the things which we did in community – including a year of anatomy which included things like getting our blood typed (I was the only one who wouldn’t let the moms prick my finger! We waited to type mine until I got a bloody nose one day…), we kids got casts put on our arms for a week-long experiment, and we did cool dissections like blowing into a set of lungs attached to a trachea by puffing into a PVC pipe inserted into it. Perhaps predictably, one of the most striking memories I have from homeschooling alongside another family was our three week long “fieldtrip” going along the coast of New England one autumn, because we had just finished studying early American history. Even that was done in community, because we traveled across the country with our friends. It was that pursuit, that cultivation, of community that really made it stick and stand out.

But now in the current generation, we not only have curriculum galore (enough to drive one batty on the best of days), we also have community almost anywhere and everywhere we want to find it. Co ops are almost as common as coffee shops. And yet real community is often elusive.

Sometimes I think it is because we can tend to treat things such as a homeschool co op (or social equivalent) like a drive-thru coffee hut. You blitz through in order to make a transaction, but you aren’t really engaging and communing on a deeper level. It’s grab and go. On the run. Take what you need, pay your dues, but keep a level of distance. It is all very business-like at times.

When my oldest child was eight years old, I decided it was time to see what kind of community I could engage in as a homeschooling mom. We live on a large plot of family land, where our closest neighbors are my parents, half a mile walk away. At that time my husband worked almost an hour away and our church was an hour away… and so were almost all of the people with whom we had fellowship or relationship in those spheres. If I wanted friends, I had to pursue friendship actively. If my kids wanted friends, I had to learn to prioritize making time for fellowship. So when I was invited to join a homeschool co op that was only 25 minutes from home, we jumped in excitedly! There I was: every single week, packing my four-at-the-time children into the car with backpacks and lesson plans… and I gave myself and my kids predictable pep talks each week as we pulled into the parking lot. Have fun, be friendly, learn well, listen more than you speak. Those kind of things. My kids loved the classes, because they love studying new things, being challenged, and learning alongside others. I enjoyed being stretched to teach things I had never taught before: music & movement to preschool kids, plus a letter-writing class that got rave reviews (and always included things like being assigned a long-distance penpal as well as a field trip to a nearby post office), for instance. That was also where I first developed Singing School to teach vocal & choral music to children outside my own kin. But what we did not get in that co op was real community. It was all business. A work environment. It was not about cultivating a rich fellowship of likeminded families. It was more about checking boxes for educational practicality. Not that that doesn’t have a place in life at times. But it was not what my family needed, and it did not lift any educational burden from my shoulders for our other days of homeschooling each week. After two years there, we felt completely depleted, exhausted. I wasn’t even on the leadership team, but I felt like I was carrying so much weight, without having others bear any burdens alongside me. My husband could see that it wasn’t ultimately a healthy community for us. Just because it is a community doesn’t mean it is the right community for you to be cultivating. (Different plants need different nutrients in their soil, right?)

It was over a year later that we finally found a homeschool co op which felt like home. (There was actually one in between as well, but suffice it to say: that was a little bit more of a burden than a blessing. We were grateful it was shortlived.) Finding a place where we fit in, and where God was obviously wanting to use us as well as fill us, was such a huge answer to pray. It was still a lot of work, took effort on my part to prep & teach as well as on the kids’ parts to be well-studied and prepared for classes each Tuesday. But it was not just about checking boxes. It was about relationship with one another while learning subjects for the sake of knowing God and His creation better. And it overlapped into our other weekly homeschool days, which made it feel like a blessing every day of the week- the blessing of Tuesday flowed throughout the other days. It felt so very different. Even though this co op was nearly an hour away (fifty minutes usually, but getting stuck behind a schoolbus or dealing with icy road conditions happened all too often), we instantly had deeper fellowship with that group. Once a month, the moms got together for a meeting. The workload of teaching and cleaning and watching toddlers was shared equally among the group. The kids immediately had friends like they’d never had before… and my oldest was eleven by this time, so they were ready for peers and buddies. The two years God gave us in that Classical Christian co op changed me for the better, grew my kids in pivotal ways, and spurred me on deeper in my love of truly good community. We were so excited to help develop the high school level year by year – my oldest was in the oldest class, so we were eager to assist in the building of what high school co op could look like. This was the first place where my family really felt like we actually fit in. It totally felt like home.

And then it dissolved. I did NOT see that coming. I was already planning what classes I would teach in the fall, had purchased my curriculum and was excited to plan ahead… but the last week of April last year brought a phone call that broke my heart. Co op is going to close. Four out of the remaining six families aren’t returning next year. It was my family and one other (who just had one school-age child remaining at home). I tried to be brave on the phone, understanding and empathetic. But I couldn’t wait to hang up so I could bawl. It felt like a death.

Looking back, I now know that it gutted us so badly because of what the community was for us. It was not just educational boxes that were checked off each week. This was where we spent our time, our resources, our heart, our relationships. We were closer with our co op community than with our church community – there were lots of reasons for that at the time, which I won’t go into here (but I’d be glad to share about personally any time). Suffice it to say: I think my kids and I wept for four days without coming up for breath. It was grief. (And I know grief.) As C.S. Lewis said, I never knew grief felt so like fear. And even in this instance of grief (which is different than the grief of a broken engagement shortly before your planned wedding, and different than the grief of miscarriage, different than burying baby after baby after baby), it felt scary. The rug was ripped out. Our community felt torn from us.

Within one week after that, two different women from different spheres of my life mentioned rather casually to me that they wished I would start a homeschool co op. My reaction probably included rolling my eyes, but I know it included me basically blowing that off. I don’t want to start a co op. I don’t want to be in charge of something like that. That’s not something I want to do.

I want. I don’t want.
I suddenly paused to ponder… but what does the Lord want?

Community cultivation is more than simply putting a date on the calendar to get together. It is so much more than that. Considering what the Lord was doing, I needed to consider what He was asking me to do next. And that was a very humbling experience.

Cultivating Community, 1

While my friend Mystie Winckler knows my “personality type” much better than I do, I am self-aware enough to know that I am neither a classic introvert nor a traditional extrovert. Perhaps most of us are like that: somewhere in between the two extremes. (Makes sense to me.) I love alone time, especially if I can read a book or listen to music. Having some time with sensory-relief is a huge gift to my soul, my brain, and even my physical body. It has taken me a few decades to figure that out, but God continues to graciously show me more about His creation as I grow & age… and that includes His grace in showing me more about even myself, a fearfully and wonderfully made creature in His image. And I’ve learned that I need to continually be seeking balance between busyness and being still, noise and quiet, community and solitude.

As a full time homeschooling mother of five exuberant kids, my daily life, routine, and occupation is naturally one of built-in (shall we say inescapable?) community. Solitude tends to be the thing which is harder to come by. Ask any mama, and she will tell you that hitting the bathroom alone for five minutes is a gift as rare as a pint of ice cream to herself. Going outside for a walk on my own feels downright selfish sometimes, yet God loves to use that kind of time to restore my soul and refresh me in the light of His mercy and the presence of His creation. So I am learning to lean in to the opportunities for solitude which He occasionally presents to me – seeking to accept them as gifts with a heart of gratitude.

But I confess that I do not always lean into the opportunities for community which He presents… largely because I can sometimes often feel “peopled out.”

So this is where it goes back to what I said at the beginning: I have learned that I need to continually seek balance between the two extremes. After all, we were made for community. Really. We were actually created with community in the Creator’s mind! Just check out the book of Genesis for proof of that. Chapter 1 verse 26 talks about creating man in “Our” image, so the Triune God was telling us right from the getgo that we were created to be community-minded. And in chapter 2 verse 18, we find out that God sees His crowning creation, and declares that it needs even more community! Not just walking in the garden in the very presence of God. Not just hanging out with all the animals. But another human. It was not good for Adam to be without Eve as his helpmeet. And then along with that other image-bearer, there would be fruitfulness and multiplication… more humans! Bigger community!

Therefore, the biblical basis for community is right at the forefront of the Scriptures, and at the center of the Gospel. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 has foundational elements of community: make disciples, go to all nations, baptize in the name of the Trinity, Jesus will be with us always. Our Lord wants us in community.

I find it honestly encouraging to read in the Gospels about how Jesus Himself engaged in different levels of community: He would pray in solitude, He was knit specially to John (known as the disciple Jesus loved), He spent the majority of His ministry hours with the twelve disciples, and He taught the multitudes. His work, His fellowship, His time – it was spent in different ways, and we can be encouraged to follow the example He set of spending ours in ways which reflect those various spheres as well.

Obviously there are different forms of community, and there are many facets of each. Each person – and each family – has different needs inherently knit into their very selves. But the need for community is common to all.

I think it is helpful to look at “community” in some concentric circles. I am talking about community person-to-person(s), so let’s just agree that the indwelling of the Spirit is a foundational communing, since I am a believing Christian who has faith in the Triune God, which is the undergirth for everything else that I pursue or cultivate.

My nuclear family is my closest community – for me personally that includes my husband and our five kids – all of us who live under one roof and commune together day in and day out, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. Then my extended family comes next – my parents, grandma, and brother’s family all live close enough that when it comes to things like celebrations, holidays, lending a hand, bearing burdens… these are the ones that we rely on, and who know they can rely on us in return. (We do have extended family on my husband’s side as well, but three thousand miles between us makes tightknit community difficult. So they would share this concentric circle in our hearts and minds, but rubber meeting road plays out very differently on the practical side. When it comes to cultivating community, distance makes a difference.) I will also note here that “extended family” does not have to be limited to those with whom you share blood relations. In a version of Psalm 122 that I grew up singing, there is a phrase which describes “friends no less than brethren dear” – which has always struck me as a beautiful translation: there are sometimes friends who are quite literally family to us in every practical way, and they are absolutely no less than dear brethren. Don’t be discouraged if your “extended family” circle is made up of friends. (Shared DNA isn’t everything.)

And then the next concentric circle is where we begin to branch out into people with whom we share less genetics and family vacations. That would be, for us as Christians, the local church. In our fifteen years of marriage, we have been part of a few churches, and while I am fully ready to never have to move churches again, I can tell you that we have completely jumped into whichever church has been our home at the time. We don’t believe in just claiming a pew for two hours every Sunday, but then living disconnectedly for the rest of the week. We have sought to embrace our position in a local body with hospitality, service, humility, joy, honesty, and a desire to give of ourselves and our resources. This can look like serving in an official capacity in a church, or it can look like showing up every time there is something going on at the church or within the families who make up its body. It can look like attending weekly Bible study, taking the initiative to work in the kitchen at the monthly after-service potluck, inviting people from church over on a regular basis (weekly? monthly? quarterly?) for any number of meals or activities or excuses for fellowship. It also looks like sharing the burdens of our lives with this group of people. We rejoice with those who rejoice and we grieve with those who grieve – and those are some of the most obvious community-building elements that pop up week by week and year by year within a church body. Not only embracing the needs of others, but being willing to share the needs in our own life – that too is part of cultivating community.

As far as close community, those spheres are sort of the givens, the gimmes, the nonnegotiables.
You have a family? That’s community. You have extended relatives? That’s community. You are part of a church body? That’s community too. So start there. Pursuing community in those most intimate of circles is hugely important. It’s also the best place to try out your skills, test your gifts, and put ideas on trial. If you want to be the person who hosts a monthly Soup & Psalms night, then I suggest you find your best soup recipes by trying them out first on your family (who will give you the most honest feedback – watch their faces for feedback, too, and see if someone grabs for the salt or pepper or hot sauce), and also try out the singing in your closest circle before extending it to others. Dispersing my children amidst a group of people who are new to Psalm singing is a great way to spread courage. If my kids are confident with a song, they will sing with both skill and gusto – which tends to breed confidence in the people around them. Not only does it give guests something to listen to and sing along with, to increase in skill themselves, but if they find themselves thinking that they can’t carry a tune in a bucket, they will find confidence in thinking that my children are loud enough to cover up their sour notes or wrong lyrics. (I can say this because I have been told this on multiple occasions.)

Have the foundation of good community in your home, and find what kinds of hospitality practices work well with your extended relatives… then have the courage, humility, and willingness to invite your church community into some of these experiences – as well as be eager to lean in to the opportunities which arise for you to accept invitations, receive hospitality, and attend community-building events. Cultivate community with these closest circles in your life. It glorifies the Lord, and it will bear fruit in a merciful disproportion to the effort it takes to pull off.