Continuing my Milwaukee presentation: I focused on why building and sustaining connected community is so important for family ministry.

Two things to consider from Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, by the Commission on Children at Risk:

First, a great deal of evidence shows that we are hardwired for close attachments to other people, beginning with our parents and extended family, and then moving out to the broader community.


Second, a less definitive but still significant body of evidence suggests that we are hardwired for meaning, born with a built-in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate ends.

The report offers a basic definition and then lists 10 components of a Connected (Authoritative) Community, which to mean sound remarkably like a healthy, vital, multigenerational congregation.

Authoritative communities are groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.

Authoritative communities have 10 key characteristics. Based on careful analysis of both the new science of nurture and the existing child development literature, the Commission identified the following 10 principal characteristics of an ideal authoritative community:

  • [Connected] communities include children and youth.
  • They treat children as ends in themselves.
  • They are warm and nurturing.
  • They establish clear limits and expectations.
  • Their core work is performed largely by nonspecialists.
  • They are multigenerational.
  • They have a long-term focus.
  • They encourage spiritual and religious development.
  • They reflect and transmit a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
  • They are philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all people and to the principle of love of neighbor.

If congregations really want to attend to the needs of families, we must begin with the needs of children—and building connected communities is the best place to start. Now two of these 10 characteristics may cause some Unitarian Universalists some discomfort: clear limits and expectations, and a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person. So I offered the following interpretations of those concepts. The first is from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work around optimal experience (or flow) I’ve found to be very helpful. Here’s what he has to say about clear limits and expectations:

There is ample evidence to suggest that how parents interact with a child will have a lasting effect on the kind of person that child grows up to be…. The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them—goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job [which is exactly the kind of parental pressure Madeline Levine talks about]. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules—as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.

I think all of these characteristics apply to the kind of connected community we’re talking about—especially the religious education programs within our congregations.

As far as a shared understanding of what it means to live a good life, I think the Lifespan Faith Development Vision Statement from the UUA gives us some direction here.

We envision children, youth, and adults who:

  • know that they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul, and obligated to use their gifts, talents, and potentials in the service of life;
  • affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living;
  • accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith;
  • realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, promoting the health and wellbeing of the planet, acting in the service of diversity, justice and compassion;
  • recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among the generations;
  • appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life;
  • experience hope, joy, mystery, healing, and personal transformation in the midst of life’s challenges.

I especially like the multigenerational quality of this statement. It refers to all of us–children, youth, and adults. And it points to the next part of my presentation: values. More on that tomorrow.