Cultivating Community, 8

To wrap up this conversation about community creation and cultivation, I want to back up from the hands-on how-to aspects, and revisit the philosophical, theological underpinning of it all. I mentioned before that as image-bearers of the Triune God, we were created for community. Did we really cover what that means, though? What does community mean? Adam needed a helper, so God provided Eve. Does that mean they only needed one another? God told them to multiply and to fill the earth. Does that mean that they just needed to procreate and then send their children off to all the far corners of the globe? (Can I just giggle at that idiom, too, please? Corners of a globe? We know the earth isn’t flat and doesn’t have corners, y’all…)

I mentioned concentric circles moving out from immediate family to extended family to close brethren/friends to more formal communities like a church family or school or co op affiliation and then the community in which you live… but there are other communities too. What about a place of employment? How about a particular ministry at your church? And then there are kids’ sports teams and orchestra connections and… and… and!

I mentioned the fact that I did not actually seek out being the community builder for a conference or a co op — and yet, here I am! I told the stories of how God opened my eyes to the need, gave my heart a desire, and then ended up tossing it into my own lap when I least expected it, and called me to be the one who orchestrates it.

How do all of these things coexist and coincide together? How did I know that I was supposed to say YES to those things? I certainly can’t say yes to everything! (Just ask my husband: he is good at reminding me that I can not add more good things to my plate simply because they are good things.)

What is actually required of you? You as an individual. With a particular set of giftings, a particular frame, a particular family, a particular life. What does God require of you? Check out Micah 6:8 for the most amazingly basic yet broad answer to that question. And then read Romans 12, which describes marks of a Christian in a bit more detail which can really get the creative juices flowing. And one of those things we are exhorted by Paul to do is to practice hospitality. In Hebrews 13, we also find a list of virtues and pursuits which are encouraged for followers of Christ – and you’ll find hospitality listed there as well. So this begs the question: what is hospitality? (And how is hospitality connected to the idea of community building like a conference or co op?)

To be honest, I don’t like the official dictionary definitions for the word hospitality. Words like “providing services” and also “entertainment” pop up, and I think that is only one very small, niche aspect of hospitality. In Hebrews, the word hospitality means to actually “pursue the love of strangers.” Additionally, I have heard some people say that hospitality is just a fancy way of saying “welcome others.”

So as Christians, we are called to welcome others. We are called to pursue the love of strangers. We are called to contribute to the needs of others (Romans 12:13) and consider their interests as more important than our own (Philippians 2:3-4).

But just because there is a need doesn’t mean that you are automatically the one who is called to meet it. I am not going to take the time to unpack that or defend it by philosophy from my underlying convictions. But I would be remiss if I did not at least make that statement. Another point which I feel the need to simply mention in passing is that if you start something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will continue it. I went into my first year hosting the Paideia Northwest conference hoping that it would be an annual thing, but being willing for it to end up being a one-time event. I am going into the fifth annual conference with no particular desire to call it quits any time soon. But if the Lord leads me to step away, I hope to have the humility and discerning wisdom to follow Him. Either to let it go altogether or to pass it along to someone else who felt the call to carry it on next. I hope that I would have that same attitude in relation to my co op or any other place where I minister.

I show hospitality by welcoming hundreds of women each November to an event where I seek to bless their souls, encourage their hearts, and equip them to stand fast in the trench of raising children for the Lord. I show hospitality by organizing a weekly homeschool co op and its attendant planning meetings, and facilitating all the communication that is necessary for that to run smoothly. I show hospitality by opening my home every Sunday during Advent to multiple families. I show hospitality by having an open door policy for anyone who needs to swing by for fellowship, a play date, babysitting — while I have not often had people take me up on that open door policy, I am committed to keeping my life flexible enough that I can serve others through my home whenever it is needed. I show hospitality by willingly opening my home to two dozen employees of my husband — I am genuinely eager to welcome them to our home, as a small act of gratitude and care for the work they pursue alongside us day by day each year. I show hospitality by having a small, dedicated guest room in our house that always has a bed made in case somebody requires a place to crash — and a particular nuance of that hospitality is that my husband’s parents know that they always have first dibs on it.

And each of those examples of hospitality could be reworded to show that they are different ways that I cultivate community. These are the things that the Lord has impressed upon me, and my family, as the important places to prioritize hospitality. If you have not read Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, I do recommend it — but with a reminder: not every family practices hospitality or community building in the same way. I have very much in common with the Butterfields’ philosophy and theology on the topic, but it is lived out in a vastly different way here in my home, and in my current phase of life. I feel like she and I are shoulder to shoulder with linked elbows — we don’t do the same thing, but we serve the same King with the same passion for His Kingdom, and we pursue hospitality and community according to the gifts with which He equipped us as uniquely individual women as well as within the means He has provided (location, phase of life, finances). At any rate, here is a great article Rosaria wrote that will be a great intro or recap for you. Read it with these questions in mind:

  • What do I see here that I find winsome?
  • What are the underlying principles that make this look beneficial?
  • How could I glean wisdom or practical tips from this?
  • How could I apply these tips to my own opportunities for serving?
  • What needs do I see around me, and how am I equipped to meet them?

And then ponder what the Lord might want you to do with the answers. Are you feeling the need to start a large but infrequent community, like I did with the Paideia Northwest conference? Do you see a local need for something like a weekly homeschool co op? What about a monthly women’s book club or Bible study? A quarterly dance or soccer playoffs or neighborhood food drive?

There are all kinds of ways to expand your hospitality practices and build community. But you can not pursue them all. That is a recipe for burnout. Once people recognize you as someone who loves to show hospitality or who is gifted at creating or cultivating a specific community… you may find that more and more people ask you to do more and more things. We need wisdom. Discernment. Boundaries. People like me need to learn how to say no, or how to offer advice rather than taking reins.

In conclusion, this is my personal story. These are the areas where I have felt the call of the Lord to take up a cross and follow Him. To gird up my loins and build my strength for particular tasks. I bring my family along in it with me. I’m iterating as well as learning to delegate. I seek to pursue leadership within the bounds of a joyful humility. And I will probably always want to say yes more often than I should… so my husband will probably always need to be hedging me and shepherding me in these things.

My encouragement to you is this: when you feel the call of the Lord, seek Him first and follow where He leads. Give something a try. Large or small or medium. Occasionally or frequently or annually. If each of us were to follow His call to pursue hospitality more regularly, wouldn’t that be a joy? If there were more opportunities to embrace Christian community, wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Romans 12:4-6
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one or another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…

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, 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.

Practical Attributes

Paul teaches and exhorts us in detail about Christian qualities—everything from diligence to sacrifice to patience to piety. Let us seek to grow in these virtues by practice, and through prayer. (Romans 12:11-13 “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”) How can we practice these attributes in a co op setting?

The epistles, or letters, of Apostle Paul have a place of prominence in Scripture—in fact, they take up most of the New Testament. These letters that he writes are mostly to individual churches, where he is encouraging the people in congregations (which were made up of the people in a community—because churches weren’t really formed around specific theologies but around geographical proximity) to love one another, to pursue godly virtue, to turn from sin, and to seek holy living according to the will of God. He expounded on the good news of Christ through practical application. In his letter to the church in Rome, he listed out a lot of different virtues that the people ought to prioritize and pursue, as well as things which they ought to run from with haste. Let’s read a few:

Present your body as a living sacrifice.
Discern what is the will of God.
Think with sober judgment.
Use the gifts God has given you.
Love genuinely.
Abhor evil.
Hold fast to the good things.
Love in a brotherly way.
Do not be slothful.
Serve the Lord.
Show honor.
Rejoice.
Have hope.
Be patient.
Endure.
Pray.
Share with those in need.
Show hospitality.
Have empathy.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Seek harmony.
Pursue peace.
Do not be haughty.
Be humble.
Don’t avenge yourselves.
Feed your enemy.
Overcome evil with good.

And by the way, that is a list just from one chapter of one letter. (Romans 12)

The thing is, this isn’t a list that Paul gives us in order to put a burden of performance on our shoulders. This is actually a description of freedom. This is a whole lot of “get to’s” right here. Because we belong to Jesus and a community of fellow believers through faith, we get to: _____________. Fill in the blank with all the above things.

So if Paul writes extensively about virtues, and we know that these Scriptures were not just meant for the early churches to whom he specifically wrote but also were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for our sake here and now… how are some ways that we can live out these virtues right here and right now?

Well, anywhere where there are people gathered, it is a group of sinners. And whenever a group of sinners is gathered, there will be sin tossed around from time to time. So even today—in the car, on the playground, in your classrooms, around the dinner table—you will be faced with opportunities to GET TO be humble, to overcome evil with good, to not avenge yourself, to seek harmony rather than haughtiness.

As a co op student today, you will have multiple chances to GET TO not be slothful, to be patient, to discern well and think wisely, to show honor, to have empathy.

And guess what mamas, as teachers at co op today, we will have those very same opportunities. So our prayer this morning as we go forth into a day of working and living and loving and studying alongside one another, is that God would give us eyes to see these opportunities for virtue because He is good, and because He loves us. We get to obey Him and follow Him because of His grace. Not because of a heavy hand of domination. But because He is a good shepherd who gently leads those with young, and who uses a rod and staff as our comfort.

Paul wants us to learn this from his epistles: that we ought to live out our faith internally and externally acknowledging that we are sinners saved by grace, and that Jesus is our Lord. By the working of the Holy Spirit granted to us, we can follow the example of Paul in pursuing these practical attributes and encourage one another in these applications of love and good works.

Leading with Vision

I wouldn’t say that I generally consider myself a leader. It has always been more comfortable for me to be a follower. Now, that is not to say that I am naturally submissive or obedient: I am just as human and sinful as the next person. But whether it is because I have long-tended to be a people-pleaser or because I don’t particularly enjoy conflict or because bearing the weight of leadership has provoked too much inner anxiety for me… well, I can not discern nor explain for you. But there it is. I have never thought of myself as much of a leader.

Yet I have long recognized that, like my father, I tend toward “being a visionary.” Sometimes I chuckle and think, man, I’m such a dreamer. I remember when I was twelve years old, sprawled out in the back of a rented RV, as my family toured the Pacific Northwest… and my dad and I together came up with a dream. We dreamed that we could move away from my childhood locale of northern California, and end up in the panhandle of Idaho or the nearby northeastern corner of Washington state. We dreamed up property, and house building, and gardens and animals and church plants… we even dreamed of having some of our close friends move north with us.

Lo, and behold: it actually happened. Here I am, twenty-five years later, living on that very property we originally dreamed about back in 1996 while our RV bumped along highways I wasn’t sure I would ever visit again.

All that to say, sometimes being a dreamer, or even a visionary, isn’t just about pipe dreams. And sometimes it is about sitting back and watching the Lord do crazy, surprising things. Sometimes you don’t even have to bang doors down, the Lord just opens them wide and brings you through without even realizing what just happened.

But other times, He gives you a dream and calls you to create a vision, and then makes it a journey of labor and prayer and seeking His face without knowing which doors are open or closed, or perhaps even where you ought to begin knocking.

That’s the part where being a leader has seemed scary to me. Needing to be bold and tough and willing to take risks. Being someone who actually finds leadership and headship of my father and husband throughout my life to be a real hedge of protection and place of rest, I have often trembled at the idea of stepping out to take charge of something.

And yet… I am a leader.

I lead my children in their education. I lead a local co op. I lead an annual regional conference. I have lead book studies and Bible studies and the compilation & editing of a pregnancy-after-loss devotional. I have lead in an online Christian forum for women suffering infertility and pregnancy/infant loss. I have acted in leading roles on organizational teams and group efforts.

And here is the thing I have learned about myself in a leadership position. I need a vision. In fact, I need a well-defined vision. I need to be able to describe it, articulate it, point it out, and share it. It isn’t enough to wield authority. That is not what makes a wise leader. That is what makes a tyrannical leader or a dictator. To be a godly, wise leader, I need to prayerfully pursue the face of the Lord, follow His guiding, seek wise counselors, and iterate specific direction in the honing of the vision.

Being attentive to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit doesn’t always come easily. It can be difficult to jump into something that I was not seeking to do… it can be difficult to stop myself doing something that I really want to grasp… it can be difficult to simply tell the difference.

I have been thrown into some areas of leadership in recent years that I did not personally seek, yet now as I ponder my place, I am humbled and grateful that God saw fit to put me in situations that I couldn’t deny were created for me by Him.

How do you identify the vision? How do you articulate the vision? How firm, yet how fluid, ought the vision to be? These are good starting points. I am looking forward to articulating some of that bit by bit, sharing my experiences and pondering the process, here at JoyfulDomesticity.