Organizations as communities: lessons from Deir Mar Musa in Syria

Successful communities welcome disagreement and approach conflict constructively. Maybe the 21st century is the time to think about all organizations as communities, and to see where this radical change in direction might take us. 

Alessandra Pigni
24 March 2014

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. Credit: All rights reserved.

A couple of years ago I suffered a severe attack of nostalgia while listening to the voice of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio on Italian radio, a frontline Catholic priest and peace activist in Syria. Being an expatriate Italian myself, and a lapsed Catholic with a deep connection to the Middle East, I loved the story of Deir Mar Musa, the mixed community he founded in 1984 on the ruins of a 6th century monastery.

Nostalgia aside, what caught my attention - as a specialist in burnout prevention among organizations and individuals that work with conflict - was the priest’s insistence that people with different views can live and work together successfully, instead of getting stuck in a quagmire of dysfunctional relationships and institutions.

So as I think about the challenges I’m facing in my work, it’s telling that the best example that sticks in my mind is not an organization, but a community. Maybe the 21st century is the time to think about all organizations as communities, and to see where this radical change in direction might take us.

Father Paolo (or “Abuna” as he is known locally) has made Syria his home for the last thirty years. He’s become a loved and respected leader, though not without his share of opposition from within and outside the Church. Paolo dall'Oglio took an abandoned monastery north of Damascus, and gave it new life by building a centre for interfaith dialogue.

As I listened to his words on the radio I was drawn into his vision of a community that welcomes diversity, where Christians and Muslims, people of all faith and no faith can meet and build projects together. Over time, it’s become a place for deep healing and recognition of the other: a space of dialogue - real dialogue - where there is room for agreement, disagreement, and conflict.

Father Paolo insists that people should not shy away from interpersonal conflict, but rather open up to it, because conflict can transform us, and show us another side of ourselves and others. Even amidst a civil war, "acts of sanity" as he calls them are possible when trust is built through seemingly-unimportant gestures of daily kindness.

His words ring true: it takes courage to disagree without spiraling into hatred. Societies need peace, but they don’t need more conflict-avoidant or compliant people.

How does a remote community like Deir Mar Musa become a catalyst for change? How do we build more communities where there is room for disagreement, and where conflict becomes a catalyst for transformation rather than destruction? And how do we stick to our ideals and vision without becoming self-righteous, as Father Paolo has done throughout his life and work?

I have no answers to these questions. Maybe that’s why the interview with Father Paolo attracted me so much. But it did encourage me to write a letter to him shortly afterwards. To my astonishment, I got a quick reply, in which he invited me to visit his community whenever I was able: "the situation in Syria is critical" he said "but up here things are very quiet, come when you want."

It’s then that I make a mistake that I still regret: instead of putting my work on hold and getting on the first flight to Damascus, I decided to postpone my visit to Deir Mar Musa until ‘my work is done’. Three years later, the civil war in Syria has brought the country to its knees. Father Paolo, a supporter of freedom, justice and peace, was expelled from the country in 2012 by the Assad regime, and when he returned to continue his work in 2013 he was kidnapped by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a rebel group. Since his kidnapping on July 29, 2013, there has been no news of his health or location. Some say he has been executed, but there is no confirmation one way or the other.

Nevertheless, my virtual encounter with Father Paolo turned my priorities upside down, and it taught me some important lessons.

The first is never to miss a transformational opportunity. While work comes and goes, there are encounters and possibilities that occur only once. The second lesson is that people crave meaningful relationships in every aspect of their lives, so it’s high time we took the idea of building organizations as communities more seriously.

What do I mean? Like successful communities, transformative organizations foster connections between different people, and have a sense of shared humanity at their core. Workplaces, factories and offices aren’t just places where people happen to spend most of their day in order to make a living; at least potentially, they are places that can 'grow goodness' inside the organization and outside, in the wider society they serve.

Organizations as communities demonstrate a capacity for dialogue, trust, mutual respect and responsibility in the way they face up to differences and disagreements. They provide burnout-proof workplaces: environments where conflict is addressed constructively, individuals are given more control, and people are able to see their personal values reflected in their work.

Skeptical? I hear you: how could any organization like this survive, and how could an isolated monastic community be a model in the future?

In his book “The Necessary Revolution,” Peter Senge, one of the originators of the ‘learning organization’ wrote this:

“People and organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for new ways of living and working together. Yes, they are a minority. No, they are not part of the mainstream, either within their industries or usually within their own organizations. But, unlike previous periods of profound change, it is unlikely these seeds will take centuries to mature and spread, because in today’s interconnected world, the problems are global, and the changes will be as well”.

As more and more people come to value sustainable livelihoods and a sense of community, and seek a learning experience from their work instead of simply a career, a new kind of organizational culture is emerging. Once the bills are paid, most people I know want meaningful work. The old Fordian-style mechanistic organization - whether for-profit or not-for-profit - is becoming obsolete. In the post-industrial era, values and meaning are core features of the work that most people seek.

Organizations with these features don’t emerge by chance; neither is there a fixed recipe for their success. Their secret lies not in how people connect with the external social landscape but in how they connect with each other. Studies have found that such groups pay attention to the inner experience of their staff through an ongoing process of learning and care that becomes embedded in the life of the organization.

For example, I recently facilitated a process of team consolidation at a time of transition in a community-based organization in Palestine. Staff had decided to experiment with a new way of providing feedback to each other by discussing statements such as, “Here’s what I appreciate most about my working relationship with you,” and “Here’s what I find most difficult.” When regularly revisited, learning practices like this one show how time and space for personal and professional growth become part of how the world is changed. In this way organizations can become communities instead of bureaucratic institutions.

The experience of Deir Mar Musa shows that the world does not change one person at a time; it changes through connections. Small and nimble grassroots organizations that act as communities can have a deep impact on society. And while there’s no ‘how to’ guide to build such organizations, it always helps to explore beyond the limits of conventional wisdom - to go against the grain and break the rules.

That’s what Father Paolo did when he took over an abandoned building in Syria and turned it into a community instead of yet another hierarchy. In doing so he showed that the ways in which people connect with the external social landscape mirror the ways in which they connect with each other.

Deir Mar Musa is now a community living under attack. In my heart it is a place that embraces transformation, a place where even those of us who don’t know where to start or how to pray can learn how to do both. Let us pray that Abuna Paolo will return safely soon and help to lead his beloved Syria out of the nightmare of civil war.

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