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.

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