Archive: The Circle Way at the heart of change processes

by Robin Caruthers
May 2015

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This month’s Circle Tale is written by Robin Caruthers. Robin is a longtime colleague and friend of The Circle Way who has done important circle work both with young women and women religious. Her steadfast energetic presence in any gathering encourages participants to trust that their voice is welcome. Thank you Robin, for sharing this story.

In his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block asserts that communal transformation begins with the form in which we meet, and moves forward through language. The small group is the basic unit of the change. Change comes through relationship and conversation and is relational, not imparted. Those of us who have used The Circle Way in group change process have seen the truth of this. The circle is a wonderful container in which to experience communal transformation.

Over the course of six years using various Circle Way practitioners, the Sisters of St. Francis, Redwood City, California have courageously, steadily planned for their future in the reality of the enormous change occurring in religious life. In 2014, I joined the team helping to facilitate Province Days and a few other gatherings. Like so many orders of Catholic sisters, the Redwood Franciscans have seen a decline in the number of women wanting to become vowed sisters and the current cohort are aging and dying. The way they do their amazing work in the world has to change and they have to plan for the housing and long-term care of many retiring and ailing sisters.

On the last weekend of February, 2015, Redwood Franciscan sisters met with sisters from other orders around the San Francisco Bay area to hear Mary Jo Nelson, OLVM, lead a workshop about transitions and future planning. The event was sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Religious orders, as well as churches, are facing a fast-changing and ever-shifting landscape with regards to the traditions, practices, and services they have experienced for centuries. It may possibly be a time of the greatest change most of them have ever seen.

Theory U and the Bottom of the Well

Mary Jo Nelson spoke of many facts of religious life in the workshop: declining numbers, aging sisters, loss of income. She referenced C. Otto Scharmer’s Theory U to encourage all the religious orders to pursue the challenging work of engaging the change together, as sisters, in order to birth something new. She cautioned against trying to skim over from one side of the U (the side of something dying) to the upward swing of the U (the side of something new emerging) too quickly or without settling into the bottom of the U, where the hard work, the pain, the frustration, the creativity, and the seeds of new life, are found.

As I sat there listening, my heart sang. These Redwood Franciscan women have been sitting at the bottom of the U for a while now, coming together in times of grief, uncertainty, and excitement, using The Circle Way to engage the sometimes frightening process of change. There has been some confusion and resistance, but with patient persistence, there is forward movement in their discernment process. The Circle Way has helped the sisters stay in the well of the U in order to get the hard, important work done. They are ahead of the curve, so to speak, by taking the time to discern, dream, and converse together rather than just react to the environment around them. Much of the information Sister Mary Jo shared appeared to be new to many of the other orders at the gathering. Later, during our own circles, it was very gratifying to me to be able to affirm them in their journey.

It has been fascinating for me personally, since I have been involved in The Circle Way work, to see and hear leaders in various arenas speak of community in ways that resonate with The Circle Way practices. Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, Peter Senge, Parker Palmer, Juanita Brown, Barbara Brown Taylor, Otto Scharmer are but a few. Coincidentally, my husband just took a new job and his management uses collaboration and Appreciative Inquiry. Many streams feeding into the same ocean. I feel like a part of a wave swelling in sea of possibility.

It has been a privilege watching the growth of the Redwood Franciscan sisters. I feel much gratitude that they have chosen a path of continuing consultation with Circle Way practitioners. We have been able to grow together. Hopefully, this mutuality will continue to spread as we all widen our circles of contact, pushing the Circle wave onto new shores.