“The power to act,” the Universal House of Justice has stated, “resides primarily in the entire body of the believers. This power is unlocked at the level of individual initiative and at the level of collective volition.” “If the Cause is to realize Bahá’u’lláh’s purpose for humankind,” attention must be given to “the release of power in both these expressions.” In this light, the House of Justice has explained that “it is the duty and privilege of the individual” to take initiative “in teaching the Cause and in obtaining a deeper understanding of the purpose and requirements of the Faith.” “Parallel with the exercise of such initiative,” it has indicated, “is the necessity of the individual’s participation in collective endeavors, such as community functions and projects.”
The role of the individual is of unique importance in the work of the Cause. It is the individual who manifests the vitality of faith upon which the success of the teaching work and the development of the community depend. Bahá’u’lláh’s command to each believer to teach His Faith confers an inescapable responsibility which cannot be transferred to, or assumed by, any institution of the Cause. The individual alone can exercise those capacities which include the ability to take initiative, to seize opportunities, to form friendships, to interact personally with others, to build relationships, to win the cooperation of others in common service to the Faith and society, and to convert into action the decisions made by consultative bodies. It is the individual’s duty to “consider every avenue of approach which he might utilize in his personal attempts to capture the attention, maintain the interest, and deepen the faith, of those whom he seeks to bring into the fold of his Faith.”
To optimize the use of these capacities, the individual draws upon his love for Bahá’u’lláh, the power of the Covenant, the dynamics of prayer, the inspiration and education derived from regular reading and study of the Holy Texts, and the transformative forces that operate upon his soul as he strives to behave in accordance with the divine laws and principles. In addition to these, the individual, having been given the duty to teach the Cause, is endowed with the capacity to attract particular blessings promised by Bahá’u’lláh. “Whoso openeth his lips in this Day,” the Blessed Beauty asserts, “and maketh mention of the name of his Lord, the hosts of Divine inspiration shall descend upon him from the heaven of My name, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. On him shall also descend the Concourse on high, each bearing aloft a chalice of pure light.”
Shoghi Effendi underscored the absolute necessity of individual initiative and action. He explained that without the support of the individual, “at once wholehearted, continuous and generous,” every measure and plan of his National Spiritual Assembly is “foredoomed to failure,” the purpose of the Master’s Divine Plan is “impeded”; furthermore, the sustaining strength of Bahá’u’lláh Himself “will be withheld from every and each individual who fails in the long run to arise and play his part.” Hence, at the very crux of any progress to be made is the individual believer, who possesses the power of execution which only he can release through his own initiative and sustained action. Regarding the sense of inadequacy that sometimes hampers individual initiative, a letter written on his behalf conveys the Guardian’s advice: “Chief among these, you mention the lack of courage and of initiative on the part of the believers, and a feeling of inferiority which prevents them from addressing the public. It is precisely these weaknesses that he wishes the friends to overcome, for these do not only paralyze their efforts but actually serve to quench the flame of faith in their hearts. Not until all the friends come to realize that every one of them is able, in his own measure, to deliver the Message, can they ever hope to reach the goal that has been set before them by a loving and wise Master.… Everyone is a potential teacher. He has only to use what God has given him and thus prove that he is faithful to his trust.”
Two years into the Plan, at Riḍván 1998, the House of Justice made an assessment of the progress achieved. At that time the majority of communities were still developing the institutional capacity needed to raise up human resources called for at the beginning of the Plan. It was in this context that the Riḍván message emphasized the need for training and preparing the believers to meet the challenges before them:
Towards ensuring an orderly evolution of the community, a function of Bahá’í institutions is to organize and maintain a process of developing human resources whereby Bahá’ís, new and veteran alike, can acquire the knowledge and capacity to sustain a continuous expansion and consolidation of the community. The establishment of training institutes is critical to such effort, since they are centers through which large numbers of individuals can acquire and improve their ability to teach and administer the Faith. Their existence underscores the importance of knowledge of the Faith as a source of power for invigorating the life of the Bahá’í community and of the individuals who compose it.
In this way, participation in the courses of the institute would help the friends over the next few years to develop the capabilities they would need to respond to the requirements of the Plan. Equally important to the process of empowering the individual believer, the House of Justice explained in “The Institution of the Counsellors,” would be the Auxiliary Board member:
Stimulating individual initiative is one of the paramount duties of the Auxiliary Board members, a duty they can perform with the help of assistants they must carefully select, train and nurture. It involves constant encouragement of the friends, evoking the valor of the heroes of the Faith and bringing to their attention the importance of exemplifying in their lives the glory of the Teachings. It calls for fervent and moving appeals to the believers to be the cause of unity and harmony at all times, to attract receptive souls to the Cause, to teach them, nourish their faith and lead them to the shores of certitude. It requires building confidence and changing fear and hesitation into courage and perseverance. It asks of the Board members and those they serve alike to forget their own weaknesses and fix their reliance on the power of divine confirmations. Further, it implies accompanying the friends in their endeavors as they develop the capabilities of effective service.
The role of the training institute in the development of these capabilities can hardly be overemphasized. The Auxiliary Board members are to use this powerful instrument to change passive acceptance of the Faith into a passion for teaching. As they generate enthusiasm, they need to help guide it into channels of systematic endeavor. It is in this context of systematic action that fostering sound individual initiative and promoting united collective action become two complementary aims ever engaging the Auxiliary Board member.
With the launch of the Five Year Plan at Riḍván 2001, and the call to establish devotional meetings, children’s classes and study circles in cluster after cluster, this process of spiritual empowerment began to reach fruition and the level of participation of the individual believer in the work of the Cause increased markedly. A letter dated 22 August 2002 written on behalf of the House of Justice noted,
The culture now emerging is one in which groups of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers explore together the truths in His Teachings, freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children’s classes to their friends and neighbors, and invest their efforts confidently in plans of action designed at the level of the cluster, that makes growth a manageable goal.
In its 17 January 2003 message, the Universal House of Justice attributed “the rise in activity around the world” to the success of the institute courses “in evoking the spirit of enterprise required to carry out the divers actions that growth in a cluster, at whatever stage, demands.” “Particularly heartwarming to observe,” it wrote, “is a growing sense of initiative and resourcefulness throughout the Bahá’í world, along with courage and audacity. Consecration, zeal, confidence and tenacity—these are among the qualities that are distinguishing the believers in every continent.” There was little doubt that the pattern of growth emerging in the Bahá’í world was the result of individual initiative. One letter commented that
With the emphasis in the Five Year Plan on the multiplication of devotional meetings, children’s and junior youth classes, and study circles, the believers all over the world have learned to open their homes, or to use other suitable places in their localities, for holding these events.
In some places, the effects on the life of the community have been extraordinary. “The multiplication of the core activities in the Five Year Plan,” another letter indicated, “has created a vibrant Bahá’í community life. In some clusters, a host of individual initiatives have filled every night of the calendar with one or more events.”
What is important to note is that the individual initiative that has been exercised by the friends everywhere adheres to certain requirements. It is not the kind of unrestricted individualism that, if left free to reign in a community, results in alienation and, eventually, stagnation:
From its early days, the Bahá’í community in…has been blessed by having devoted, competent and energetic members, among both native believers and pioneers from abroad. Its potential was, and remains, very great. Alas, the sound development of the community has been repeatedly hampered by the upsurge of disunity, arising largely from the strong-mindedness of individual believers who had conflicting opinions of what was best for the community at any one time. Thus, a characteristic that can be a source of strength for the Faith in…has become, too easily, a source of division and thus of hindrance to the advancement of the Cause.
In our Faith, as you know, individuals are allowed a reasonable latitude for initiative in this area [i.e., teaching] and are free to offer the Message to others in the manner best suited to their circumstances and opportunities. However, difficulties arise when individual views of a method or approach are seen to be the key for others to use in their endeavors—a perception which all too frequently leads to debates that are endless, usually inducing inaction.
It is an individual initiative that recognizes that “mistakes will be made” and is willing “to learn from these mistakes.” For it understands the intimate connection between doing and being:
As you know, taking to an extreme the exhortation that a teacher should, before all else, teach his own self can lead to a decline in the level of teaching activity, as more and more attention becomes focused on one’s own perfection. There are, of course, numerous passages in the Writings which ask us to make daily effort so that our inner lives increasingly reflect the Teachings of the Faith. Moreover, it is evident that our inner state has a direct bearing on the success of our teaching efforts. But the Writings also tell us not to look at our own shortcomings, but to rely on the power of divine assistance in delivering His Message. The question of the development of one’s inner life and its relation to teaching has to be viewed in this broader context. In doing so, we should remember that all Bahá’ís are called upon to teach the Cause, whatever their spiritual attainments may be. Furthermore, the act of sharing the Word of God with others profoundly affects the refinement of one’s inner life.
In all of this great endeavor…you must be driven by a passion to teach the Faith. Let regular study of the Writings feed the flame of your enthusiasm. Let His Words so shape your thoughts that the most pressing obligation of your lives becomes the sharing of His Message with others.
Arise, then, to engage more and more trusted members of your families, friends, neighbors and coworkers in the sequence of courses and assist them to walk the path of service so that a sizeable expansion of the Bahá’í community is hastened and sustained. The time for action is now.…
Ultimately, success is assured by the faith in Bahá’u’lláh that animates every conscientious believer. Faith is a state of conscience imbued with a compulsion to express itself in word and deed. Teaching combines these two aspects. Your assistance and encouragement as tutors can foster in the participants of study circles the spirit of initiative to follow your example so that a stream of receptive souls may find their home and haven in the Cause. Do your utmost to carry out this noble and meritorious service with dispatch, losing no opportunity. Surely, the forces of the Concourse on high are ever ready to confirm your endeavors.
This individual initiative does not find satisfaction in pursuing whatever the heart desires. Nor is it characterized by random motion according to some romantic notion about creativity. It is an individual initiative that is sparked by a vision of possibilities and moves in the direction of oneness. “Through its messages on the global Plans,” as one letter has explained, “the Universal House of Justice provides a vision to the Bahá’í world of the opportunities and possibilities open to the Faith. The provisions of these Plans do not remain the same from one to the next. They build on one another in order to move the community forward to ever great accomplishments.” In the case of the Five Year Plan, the exercise of dividing countries into clusters and categorizing them according to stages of development helped the friends to proceed with unity of thought, for it “served to galvanize the believers,” who “were able to evaluate in realistic terms their strengths and weaknesses and to see with striking clarity a way forward.”
Perhaps above all else, then, it is an individual initiative that appreciates the value of operating within a framework, a framework that is derived from the messages of the House of Justice outlining the global Plans. In this connection, it understands that discipline is not something that is imposed from without but rather comes from an inner conviction. This inner conviction is not simply the result of willpower, however. For the soul manifests its powers as it learns to submit to higher authority, ultimately the laws that govern material and spiritual existence. An understanding of these laws influences the conscience of the individual and gives meaning to the authority conferred upon, and the course set by, the institutions. The House of Justice has remarked in this regard that “even though individuals may strive to be guided in their actions by their personal understanding of the Divine Texts, and much can be accomplished thereby, such actions, untempered by the overall direction provided by authorized institutions, are incapable of attaining the thrust necessary for the unencumbered advancement of civilization.”
To date, the combined effect of the efforts of individuals within the framework provided by the House of Justice has been considerable. Efforts to engage in collective action, however, have yet to reach their full potential. It is only in the latter part of the Five Year Plan, as intensive programs of growth have become more widespread, that significant experience has been gained in participating in collective endeavors. Describing such programs of growth, the 9 January 2001 message of the House of Justice had indicated that “a range of teaching efforts” would need to be carried out “involving both activities undertaken by the individual and campaigns promoted by the institutions.” A recent letter dated 18 August 2005 to the National Assembly of Germany underscores this point:
Like their fellow believers in many clusters around the world, the friends in Frankfurt have labored systematically throughout the Five Year Plan to establish the conditions necessary for launching an intensive program of growth. Central to their efforts has been the goal of bringing more and more coworkers into the institute process so that a sufficient number would be prepared to perform the acts of service needed to sustain the accelerated expansion of the Faith. Now that the friends have crossed that threshold and stand ready to embark on an intensive program, they will be challenged to set in motion a pattern of activity which integrates individual initiative and community endeavor in order to embrace an ever-wider circle of people and teach receptive souls.
No doubt it will take time for communities to learn the dynamics of such a pattern of activity. As this learning proceeds, the friends will see the confusion and the clash of opinions that can occasionally attend their efforts to promote intensive programs of growth recede and a new power come into focus:
Your sincere concerns regarding the unfoldment of the processes of the Five Year Plan in…are noted with appreciation. You are encouraged to have patience, recognizing that the friends have made a very rapid advance in their understanding and action in the past few years in that country. This has enabled them to launch intensive programs of growth in as many as seventeen clusters, more than ten percent of the total number in the entire country. It is not surprising, given such a dramatic transformation that encompasses the efforts of so many well-intentioned believers, that some additional time must pass and additional experience be gained before a further unity of thought and action in matters associated with the various aspects of administration, teaching, or the functioning of the institute becomes apparent. Confusion and the clash of opinion will gradually give way to a culture of learning in which the institutions serving the friends will be able to support the initiatives of individuals and merge diverse efforts into a powerful collective thrust.
The attributes the friends have acquired throughout the Five Year Plan will surely assist them in meeting this new challenge. It is of course imperative that they do so, for while the present pattern of growth through the multiplication of core activities is sufficient to welcome individuals into the Faith and integrate them into community life, it is only through collective action that expansion and consolidation will occur on a large scale. And as the friends succeed in further acquiring the knowledge, qualities, skills and abilities needed to participate effectively in collective action, their communities will move closer to the vision presented by the House of Justice at the start of the Four Year Plan. In its 26 December 1995 message, it explained that
… those who enter the Faith must be integrated into vibrant local communities, characterized by tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will, environments in which the capacities of all components—men, women, youth and children—are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.
Though clearly a concern of the individual, the challenge of learning to exercise disciplined initiative and participate in collective action appears to be central to the question of community development. For, as suggested by the above quotation, the challenge is in reality to achieve universal participation in the work of the Cause. It seems to speak to the very nature of social organization envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh and to the welfare of society as a whole:
“Regard the world as the human body,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh to Queen Victoria. We can surely regard the Bahá’í world, the army of God, in the same way. In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each and all with talents and faculties,” and is supremely true of the body of the Bahá’í world community, for this body is already an organism, united in its aspirations, unified in its methods, seeking assistance and confirmation from the same Source, and illumined with the conscious knowledge of its unity. Therefore, in this organic, divinely guided, blessed and illumined body the participation of every believer is of the utmost importance, and is a source of power and vitality as yet unknown to us.
The message below addressed by the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of India in May 2004 highlights a fundamental challenge that the growth of the Faith brought to the institutions everywhere:
That a steadily growing number of the rank and file of the Indian Bahá’í community would, cognizant of their duties to the Cause, assume their rightful place in the forefront of Bahá’í activity was one of our most ardent aspirations at the outset of the Four Year Plan, and it has been a source of immeasurable joy to us to witness the progress that has been made towards the fulfillment of this cherished goal, especially over the last year. The processes that you set in motion, which have been vigorously pursued during the current Plan, are beginning to bear their long-awaited fruits. The challenge now falls on the institutions of the Faith to learn to administer the affairs of a community of active supporters of the Cause, and we have every confidence that, through the sustaining grace of Bahá’u’lláh, this important requirement will be met.
As the two movements gathered momentum at the cluster level during the Five Year Plan, it became clear that some kind of scheme of coordination would need to be put in place to ensure continued progress. In its Riḍván 2004 message, the House of Justice acknowledged the relationship between the growth of the Faith at the cluster level and the need for administrative structures:
The movement of clusters from each level of activity to a higher one is well in hand and, as it proceeds, the kernel of avowed believers is being joined by a larger circle of people, still not Bahá’ís but enthusiastically involved in core activities of the Plan. Structures for administering intensive growth are already appearing in certain advanced clusters.
Such structures, then, began to emerge as a response to the demands of growth itself and became the object of learning in clusters where the two essential movements were well under way. The following letter dated 26 November 2003 written on behalf of the House of Justice to the National Assembly of India commended its efforts to find a suitable mechanism at the cluster level to coordinate the multiplication and deployment of human resources:
The House of Justice is greatly pleased to know that your Assembly is giving the question of growth at the level of the cluster such serious consideration. That you are, on the one hand, concerned to ensure that the institute process continues to gather momentum in each cluster and, on the other, eager to see the human resources thus generated systematically deployed in the field of service is a sign of the clarity with which you see the essential relationship between the various elements that sustain growth. The House of Justice will be interested to know how the efforts to establish appropriate structures at the cluster level progress and how the learning in the area advances.
Meeting the challenge of fostering such growth will depend on the establishment and effective functioning of certain administrative mechanisms at the level of the cluster. It will require, on the one hand, an individual believer named by the institute in each priority cluster who would act as a coordinator, responsible for ensuring that the number of study circles, children’s classes, and junior youth groups steadily multiplies. On the other hand, it will call for the formation of some kind of cluster-level committee with a capable secretary in charge of promoting the gradual increase in devotional meetings, arranging for systematic visits to the homes of newly enrolled believers, holding periodic reflection meetings, collecting vital statistics and encouraging the development of the Nineteen Day Feast and the strengthening of the Local Spiritual Assembly in each locality, with the help of the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants.
From all reports received at the World Center, it is clear that there are now a few clusters in the Philippines primed for accelerated growth. However, for such growth to occur, administrative structures will need to be put into place at the level of the cluster to support the processes of expansion and consolidation. The Universal House of Justice is happy to know that consultations are giving rise to a scheme that identifies clearly the roles of the institute and Regional Councils. According to this scheme, the Dawnbreakers Foundation [the national agency responsible for human resource development] will, we understand, name a coordinator for each of the clusters selected who will be responsible for ensuring that the number of study circles for adults and older youth, Bahá’í children’s classes and junior youth groups systematically multiplies. Such a coordinator would be required to work with a growing contingent of tutors and children’s class teachers in the cluster, maintaining their enthusiasm and helping them to improve the quality of their services.
As this educational process gains in strength, there will be a corresponding increase in the number of those eager to render service to the Cause, to share their newly acquired knowledge, and to put into practice what they have been studying. In order to facilitate the efforts of such friends and channel their energies into effective collective action, a strong committee with a highly capable secretary will, it is assumed, be named by the Regional Council to operate at the cluster level. This committee would be assigned tasks such as promoting the spread of short-term teaching projects and devotional meetings in the cluster, in addition to overseeing a program of visits to the homes of newly enrolled believers and those less active in the community in order to deepen them in the fundamentals of the Faith. The establishment of the Nineteen Day Feast and the strengthening of the Local Spiritual Assemblies in the localities would also constitute one of the committee’s primary concerns, as would the collection of statistical information. The latter will be vital to the efforts to monitor the growth process not only at the cluster level, but also at the regional and national levels, and in this connection, the House of Justice welcomes the news that your member Mrs.…has been asked to assume the responsibility for encouraging the implementation of the Statistical Report Program throughout the country.
It is to be expected that much of the committee’s work could be carried out by its secretary, but it would also be possible for a few designated believers to discharge certain administrative functions. While maintaining clearly defined spheres of service, the institute coordinator and committee would collaborate closely to ensure that activities are synchronized effectively. For instance, an intensive campaign to raise the number of those who have completed the second course in the institute’s main sequence, which prepares them to share deepening themes, might well be followed by an equally intensive campaign of home visits. Similarly, although the committee would be charged with the task of arranging periodic meetings of consultations to reflect on progress in the cluster, the timing and the program of such events would be fully discussed with the institute coordinator. In the performance of all their functions, the committee and the institute coordinator would, of course, receive the unflagging support of the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants.
Of course, at the outset of the Five Year Plan, the House of Justice explained that the implementation of intensive programs of growth would “require the close collaboration of the institute, the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants, and an Area Teaching Committee.” It was not until a sufficient number of clusters around the world began to reach the stage where they were ready to launch such programs, however, that the implications of this statement came to be realized. Some of these implications have been described by the House of Justice in “The Institution of the Counsellors”:
The involvement of the Auxiliary Board members in this process of design and implementation is multifaceted. They contribute to deliberations in which the worldwide aims and accomplishments of the Faith are analyzed, the condition of society and the forces operating within it are examined, opportunities and needs are detected. They bring their knowledge of the Faith to bear on consultations that generate shared vision and strategies for growth. Their familiarity with the friends and their talents, particularly as these are developed through the efforts of the training institute, enables them to draw attention to the characteristics of plans of action that are realistic and within the grasp of the believers. The network of assistants they each can name provides them with the means for stimulating activity at the local level and following it to completion. And above all, the love and respect in which they are held create for them the opportunity to act as standard-bearers and lead the community in action.
The House of Justice has further explained that “this challenging conception” of the work of the Auxiliary Board members with local communities calls for
… a fundamental departure from limited assumptions about social order which, in the world today, determine administrative theory and practice. For it aspires to infuse every act, individual and collective, with spiritual meaning. It places the sacred at the heart of community life, making it the focus of all reflection on activity.
Undoubtedly a great deal of learning about administering the affairs of communities made up of active supporters of the Cause will continue in the months and years ahead as expansion accelerates. Already, however, some of the challenges are beginning to emerge. The aforementioned letter to the National Assembly of the Philippines pointed to an important one:
As you can well imagine, if the gathering momentum in your community is to accelerate significantly, some of the friends will have to be called upon to dedicate a period of full-time service to the Faith at the level of the cluster. But a word of caution is in order. A system of the magnitude being considered will not come into existence and flourish if it depends primarily on the efforts of a cadre of remunerated workers. Such a system must receive its impetus from the spiritual energies of those steadfast and devoted souls who long to labor without expectation of financial reward in the path of God and experience the joy of contributing purely as volunteers to plans to build His Kingdom on earth, whether by acting as tutors, holding devotional meetings or participating in a teaching project. It is such selfless joy that should distinguish your community.
This is not to say that material means are not necessary. Clearly some financial resources will have to be channeled into each cluster when it reaches a certain level of development, and some funds may need to go towards the subsidies of a few individual believers who are charged with duties related to administration and coordination, but are lacking the personal material means that would allow them to provide such full-time services without financial support. However, if such subsidies are given to perform the kinds of services that the institute process is preparing the generality of the believers to carry out as part of the natural unfoldment of Bahá’í community life, for example conducting devotional meetings and children’s classes, confusion will set in and the promise for growth will remain unfulfilled. In general, the utmost wisdom and care will have to be exercised in channeling resources into the clusters; otherwise budgets will soon reach unsustainable proportions, and the entire enterprise will become prohibitively expensive.
Not only is the flow of financial resources into the cluster an immediate concern. So, too, is the need to channel contributions from the cluster to the regional or state level and up to the national level. A letter written on behalf of the House of Justice warmly acknowledged the efforts of the National Assembly of India to think about this two-way flow:
Obviously only in those states that have attained a certain level of growth will you want to open up the possibility of having the State Treasurer appoint a trustworthy person in each of the more advanced clusters to serve as his or her assistant. It is understood from the document submitted to you by Mr.…that such an assistant would be primarily responsible for collecting and forwarding contributions to the State Council and for disbursing funds to the Cluster Growth Committee on behalf of the Treasurer. This is a promising idea, and you are advised to make sure the plan of action takes a systematic approach to its implementation. The House of Justice will look forward to learning about your experience in this regard.
From the passage above it becomes clear that “related to the judicious use of material resources at the cluster level is the question of the administration of funds at all levels of the community—the national level, including the National Spiritual Assembly and its agency [for human resource development], the regional level and the local level.” It is in this light that the following was written on behalf of the House of Justice:
As the growth of the Faith steadily gathers momentum in country after country, and provisions are put in place to sustain the processes of expansion and consolidation in clusters around the world, the question of sound financial management by National Spiritual Assemblies and their agencies assumes increasing importance. Specifically, it seems that, if some National Assemblies are to succeed in taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities now presenting themselves, they will require assistance in developing their capacity to manage their fiscal affairs and in refining a financial system which ensures efficiency, transparency and accountability at all levels of the community, from the national to the local.
But the flow of material resources to and from the cluster is not the only one requiring attention. Equally important is the flow of information, largely in the form of statistics. The following paragraph from a letter written by the Department of Statistics at the World Centre to several National Assemblies explains the nature of a computer application designed to assist in maintaining this flow of information:
The program, referred to as the “Statistical Report Program,” is conceived on the premise that a country is divided into clusters, most of which consist of a number of local communities. When the program is fully operational in a country, the membership and other data for each locality will be collected and recorded at the cluster level, transmitted to the regional and national levels, and eventually to the Bahá’í World Centre, where it will be incorporated into the worldwide statistics on the Bahá’í community. It is hoped that adopting this system will foster a dynamic process in which membership and locality records are continually being updated and the information shared from one level to the next. In this sense, the program is intended to provide a picture of the current situation at a given date (a statistical snapshot) in a locality, cluster, region, or country, and not a historical record. The program can generate a set of reports at every level and thus be used as a tool for monitoring and planning growth.
In this connection, the House of Justice understands that you are among a small number of National Spiritual Assemblies that have achieved an accurate baseline of data on their communities in the Statistical Report Program, the instrument designed here at the World Centre for collecting and maintaining statistics from the cluster to the national levels. You are commended for this achievement and are encouraged to ensure that the information provided by the program is used as a means for keeping abreast of the developments in the community at all levels and for guiding it accordingly.
It is important to note from the above that the House of Justice views both the flow of material resources and information as a means of supporting the work of the Faith at the grassroots. Further, what is becoming clear is that the administration at each level of the community is directly affected by the one below it. “It is quite likely that by looking to the requirements at the regional level,” a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice has advised, “you will gain a better idea of how the practices and procedures at the national level should be established.” In this connection, the National Assembly of India was encouraged to proceed with plans to begin examining its administrative machinery at the cluster level and to observe
… the workings of the new structures you are putting in place to support the processes of expansion and consolidation, with the aim of determining their implications for the administrative affairs of the State Bahá’í Councils and then, of course, for the operation of your National Center and the functioning of your national agencies.
Clearly, then, the refinement of the administrative machinery at the regional and national levels is another area of learning that will need to receive increasing attention. The passage below from a letter dated 27 May 2005 written on behalf of the House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Russian Federation offers insights in this respect. Noting that “with the division of countries into small geographic areas, clusters have become a new arena of activity,” the letter explains that “in practical terms, this means that many decisions having to do with the expansion and consolidation of the Faith are now made at that level.” It goes on to state,
With such far-reaching developments occurring at the cluster level, the strengthening of Regional Bahá’í Councils takes on special significance. You yourself have recognized that it would indeed be difficult in a country as widespread and diverse as Russia for your Assembly to be in close and continual contact with communities and believers. The Regional Councils, on the other hand, have an intimate knowledge of the resources of the believers in their regions, the capacity of the local Bahá’í communities, and the capabilities of the Local Spiritual Assemblies. As they assume increasing responsibility for the promotion of the Faith within their regions, they will continue to grow in their ability to analyze the strengths and needs in their areas and, based on this analysis, to devise ways to assist in the implementation of the Plan. It is thus in the effective functioning of the Regional Councils that the House of Justice feels the answers to your concerns lie.
At the national level, your Assembly has the responsibility to reinforce the efforts of the Regional Bahá’í Councils to carry out their challenging duties. This will involve keeping a loving and watchful eye over them, providing encouragement and guidance when needed, ensuring the availability of basic literature, augmenting their financial resources to take care of their ever-expanding activities, and implementing an efficient system for the collection and dissemination of statistics—that is to say, serving the manifold needs of the Regional Councils with the aim of empowering them to act with confidence and efficiency. Regional Bahá’í Councils will, of course, go through various stages of development; some will initially require a greater degree of direction, while others can even now function with a wide degree of latitude.
It is within the context of such weighty responsibilities that the Universal House of Justice described to one National Spiritual Assembly some of the characteristics of those to be appointed as members of Regional Bahá’í Councils:
As you know, the [Regional] Bahá’í Councils have a crucial role to play in the effective prosecution of the Five Year Plan. Your greatly blessed community, standing among the front ranks of the supporters of Bahá’u’lláh in Africa, is already moving a sizeable number of clusters to the point where intensive programs of growth can be established and sustained. The next Plan must witness a further multiplication of this number. It is therefore vital that the National Assembly exercise wisdom in its selection of the members of the Councils from among the nominees, both those elected by members of Local Spiritual Assemblies and those recommended by the Auxiliary Board members. With the specific duties of the Councils in mind, you should choose those women and men who, through their proven experience in the activities of the Plan, their capacity to participate in the learning process, and their upright character and constructive attitudes, can best advance the process of entry by troops in the various provinces. Much will depend on the quality of your deliberations, which should be carried out in a true Bahá’í spirit, standing humbly in the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, forgoing self-interest and all partisan concerns, and thinking only of the best interests of the Faith that you all hold dear.
Of course, not all countries have the conditions necessary to warrant the establishment of Regional Bahá’í Councils. Irrespective, it is the task of all National Spiritual Assemblies “to decide how to deploy the resources it has available to it at any time.” Whether a country is large or small, whether its current set of activities is relatively simple or complex, the National Assembly needs to give careful consideration to administrative arrangements at the national level. “While every Assembly must guard against over-administration,” the House of Justice has explained, “it is essential for a degree of administrative work to be performed in order to coordinate and assist the work of expansion and consolidation and carry out other essential functions at the national level.” In this connection, the House of Justice provided the following comments to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States:
Commitment to establishing sound intensive programs of growth in a realistic number of clusters across the nation should provide the basis for addressing the many questions associated with the necessary adjustment of your administrative and financial affairs to meet the challenges of massive expansion.… In considering the nature of these mechanisms, you will want to bear certain points in mind.
With learning about the nature of growth unfolding so rapidly at the grassroots, programs related to the expansion and consolidation of the Faith can best be managed at the regional or cluster level to ensure they evolve in accordance with practical experience. The efforts of national agencies should be examined to determine whether they overlap with the responsibilities granted to agencies at those levels. Where redundancies occur, the programs of national agencies may need to be modified significantly, or perhaps be eliminated altogether, so as to avoid creating confusion, diffusing focus, or dividing participation among an array of programs which, no matter how valuable in themselves, would end up at cross purposes, competing for the limited time and energies of the believers.
Referring to the planning process, the Universal House of Justice has stated that “at its core it is a spiritual process in which communities and institutions strive to align their pursuits with the Will of God.” The Major Plan and Minor Plan of God, it has explained, are “the two known ways in which His purpose for humankind is going forward. The Major Plan is associated with turbulence and calamity and proceeds with an apparent, random disorderliness, but is, in fact, inexorably driving humanity towards unity and maturity. Its agency for the most part is the people who are ignorant of its course and even antagonistic towards its aim.… Unlike His Major Plan, which works mysteriously, God’s Minor Plan is clearly delineated, operates according to orderly and well-known processes, and has been given to us to execute. Its ultimate goal is the Most Great Peace.” The Minor Plan unfolds in stages, each of which is governed by a global Plan articulated by the Head of the Faith. “It is to the achievement of its purpose,” the House of Justice has indicated, “that we must all devote our attention and energies.” In its 9 January 2001 message, the House of Justice referred specifically to the role of the institutions in ensuring that this purpose is achieved:
The Major Plan of God is at work and the forces it generates impel humanity towards its destiny. In their own plans of action, the institutions of the Faith must seek to gain insight into the operation of these great forces, explore the potentialities of the people they serve, measure the resources and strengths of their communities, and take practical steps to enlist the unreserved participation of the believers.
The planning process, in this sense, begins with the global Plans delineated by the Universal House of Justice. These global Plans set the direction for the Bahá’í world and provide the basis for the formulation of national plans by National Spiritual Assemblies in consultation with the Counsellors. Planning then moves down to the regional, cluster and local levels, as explained in “The Institution of the Counsellors”:
With the opening of the fourth epoch of the Formative Age, a procedure was activated whereby national plans are formulated in joint consultation between National Spiritual Assemblies and Continental Counsellors. This development ensures two significant benefits: It enables each institution to draw on the experience and insight particular to the other, thereby making available to the planning process two distinct channels of information from two levels of Bahá’í administration; and it also assures to the Counsellors a necessary familiarity with the background, rationale, and content of national plans, which as a matter of principle they are expected to support.
Creating a national plan involves far more than consultation between the Counsellors and the National Assembly. Excellent results can be achieved, for example, by holding consultative meetings among the various institutions in a country and with the active supporters of the Faith to discuss fully the possible provisions of the plan and their implications. Once the major elements of the national plan have been identified, it is desirable for the planning process to move quickly to the regional level, and subsequently to the level of smaller areas and finally to the local community. The balance that can be achieved in this process between nationally sponsored campaigns and grassroots efforts is a necessary condition for success.
National plans, formulated in the context of the global plans of the Faith, serve as the framework within which the friends can undertake action. Through them, National Assemblies not only set goals to be pursued by themselves and their agencies, but also give direction to the believers, define for them priorities and areas of action, and elicit from them wholehearted response to the directives of the Universal House of Justice. Accordingly, they adopt measures to provide resources—literature, pioneers and traveling teachers, regional and national events, and funds as required—to support the initiatives of the friends.
The plans of action that Regional Councils, Area Teaching Committees and Local Spiritual Assemblies devise in the ensuing process need to go beyond the mere enumeration of goals to include an analysis of approaches to be adopted and lines of action to be followed. Indeed, at this level, planning and implementation must go hand in hand. If learning is to be the primary mode of operation in a community, then visions, strategies, goals and methods have to be reexamined time and again. As tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied and lessons learned, modifications have to be made in goals and approaches, but in a way that continuity of action is maintained.
In a letter dated 12 December 2001 written on its behalf to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, the House of Justice described, in the specific context of the Five Year Plan, how the plan formulated at a given level is embedded in the plan above it:
Plans for the growth of the Faith are required at several distinct levels, each embedded in the level above it and each serving a specific purpose. A national plan is elaborated in the context of the global plan, whose features are set forth by the Universal House of Justice. Through it, the National Spiritual Assembly provides an overall vision of the tasks to be accomplished, defines the areas of action to be pursued, and elicits from the believers wholehearted response to the directives of the Universal House of Justice. In its letter to you of 28 June 2001, the House of Justice expressed its pleasure at reading your national plan, which offers a clear framework within which the various components of the community can carry out their activities during the Five Year Plan.
It would, of course, be counterproductive for a Regional Council to design a plan of a similar kind, or to operate outside the context of the national plan. Here what is required is an analysis of the specific approaches to be adopted and a determination of the lines of action to be followed. In the case of the Five Year Plan, a regional plan consists essentially of those provisions needed to help each cluster in the region move from its current stage of growth to the next advanced stage. Such a plan identifies priorities and sets objectives for a given period of time—certain clusters to be opened to the Faith, others to be strengthened, and, in those deemed ready, intensive growth programs to be established. This implies that the Regional Council will base its plan on a categorization of the clusters in the region according to their current stage of development. Such a categorization should not be misconstrued as a judgment on the quality of local communities. It should be regarded, rather, as a means through which realistic strategies for growth can be devised and executed.
Detailed plans of action, with specific goals and the corresponding methods, rightly belong to the level of the cluster. While the institute process will constitute the engine for growth in all clusters, a diversity of action is bound to appear at this level. This diversity will be a natural outcome of plans of action that take into account the particular resources of the believers, the capacity of the local Bahá’í communities, and the strength of the Local Spiritual Assemblies.
Clearly, plans devised at each level serve different purposes and have different elements. Those closest to the grassroots are concerned as much with implementation and action as they are with planning. Of course, the concept of the cluster was introduced during the Five Year Plan precisely with this in mind. “It should be remembered,” a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice noted, “that ‘clusters’ are only a construct—albeit a highly useful one—that enables the friends to think about the growth of the Faith on a manageable scale and to design and implement plans close to the grassroots of the community.” At the current stage of development of the Bahá’í world, then, the cluster has proven to be a useful unit, in terms of size, for organizing the work of the Faith and mobilizing the believers so that growth can be realized:
With the division of countries into small geographic areas, clusters have become a new arena of activity, within which the training institutes are enhancing the capacity of an increasing number of believers to promote expansion and consolidation to the point where they are able to launch intensive programs of growth. One of the welcome outcomes of this process has been the sense of ownership exercised by the believers and institutions serving within the cluster. In practical terms, this means that many decisions having to do with the expansion and consolidation of the Faith are now made at that level.
Plans of action at the level of the cluster, then, are able to take into account conditions on the ground. Central to the success of such plans is, of course, the question of human resources. As indicated in the above passage, the training institute is an important element in mobilizing the friends. A message written by the House of Justice at the start of the Four Year Plan underscored the part the training institute would need to play in this mobilization:
Your past exploits were largely the result of the incessant labors of a comparatively few consecrated believers who devoted their time and resources to the spread of the Cause in locality after locality. If you are to sustain rapid expansion and consolidation in the coming years, it is imperative that far greater numbers of dedicated and committed souls arise to promote these twin processes. Training courses—widespread, regular and well-organized—constitute the most effective means to mobilize believers on the scale required.
Another message indicated that “plans focusing on these areas of large-scale expansion will necessarily seek to mobilize an appreciable number of believers within each population not only to labor diligently in their own local communities, but also to serve as long- and short-term pioneers and visiting teachers in other localities.” “Training programs,” the message went on to say, “constitute a most potent instrument for the accomplishment of such a vast mobilization.” It is of course the institutions of the Faith that are charged with directing this mobilization and deploying the human resources developed by the training institute:
As the believers advance through the sequence of courses and their skills and abilities are enhanced, the responsibility will then fall on you and your other agencies to see that their energies and talents are channeled in some form of active service to the Faith. Ample opportunities should be given to them to put into practice what they have learned, and in this connection, you will need to create within your community an encouraging environment, one in which the friends feel empowered to step forward, whatever their capacities may be, and take up the work of the Faith.
In addition to capitalizing on the capacities and talents of the friends, the institutions must, then, encourage them and help them to maintain clarity of vision if they are to successfully marshal their forces. Several National Spiritual Assemblies were counseled during the Four Year Plan:
What each of you must now ensure is that your community presses onward with clarity of vision and undiminished zeal. You should make every effort to see that, through the operation of your training institutes, the base of the human resources of each of your communities is steadily extended. While the number of those entering your institute programs increases, so too must the number of friends reaching the higher courses in the sequences you each have chosen. Cultivate an atmosphere of love in your communities and help the friends to become a source of encouragement to one another. Take every opportunity to focus the believers on the aim of the Four Year Plan. Do all within your powers to assist them in the field of action.
As a growing number of believers progress through the institute courses, the responsibility will fall on your Assembly, as well as the Local Spiritual Assemblies, to see that their enthusiasm is maintained. They will need to be assisted in setting goals for themselves and be encouraged to persevere in their endeavors until teaching becomes the dominating passion of their lives and they gain confidence in their ability to make a distinctive contribution towards the achievement of the central aim of the Four Year Plan.
Bringing these elements together to mobilize the friends in the field of service, then, is a capacity that must be developed in the institutions. What has become apparent during the Five Year Plan is that the reflection meeting provides the institutions with the instrument they need to mobilize the friends in this way, as explained in the 17 January 2003 message of the Universal House of Justice:
Meetings of consultation held at the cluster level serve to raise awareness of possibilities and generate enthusiasm. Here, free from the demands of formal decision-making, participants reflect on experience gained, share insights, explore approaches and acquire a better understanding of how each can contribute to achieving the aim of the Plan. In many cases, such interaction leads to consensus on a set of short-term goals, both individual and collective.
As the above passage suggests, the reflection meeting at the cluster level serves a twofold purpose. Not only does it provide a means for mobilizing the believers, but it also contributes greatly to the planning process. This is true whether the cluster is in an early stage of development or whether it has reached an advanced stage, in which cycles of activities are carried out as part of an intensive program of growth:
… the meetings of reflection called at various intervals during the cycles should serve to reinforce an attitude of learning among the participants in the program so that any fear of failure or criticism gives way to the joy of earnest striving. To achieve this, the friends involved in organizing the meetings should recognize that guided, participatory discussion can prove more instructive than elaborate presentations and prolonged theoretical analyses. A careful review of vital statistics, which highlight weaknesses that require remedial attention and point to strengths that can be built upon in the next cycle of activity, will go far in facilitating the planning process.
In this way, planning is a flexible process that is able to take advantage of rapidly changing circumstances. With so much organization being done in reflection meetings at the cluster level, one question that has arisen is whether “the plans arrived at through such consultations require ratification by the Local Assemblies before implementation can begin.” To this question, the House of Justice provided the following answer in a letter dated 9 December 2001:
As a matter of principle, any plans carried out in the jurisdiction of a Local Spiritual Assembly should meet with its approval. That being said, we are asked to point out that the planning process called for during the Five Year Plan, with its emphasis on the development of small geographic areas, allows for a great deal of flexibility. The Universal House of Justice hopes that the consultations which take place in periodic meetings at the level of the cluster will generate such unity of thought about the growth of the Faith that, in those cases where the lines of action affect localities with Local Assemblies, the requirement of receiving their approval will easily be met. It should be remembered that the aim of such consultations, beyond addressing certain practical considerations, is to maintain a high level of enthusiasm and to create a spirit of service and fellowship among those present. Discussions should not become bogged down by undue concern for procedural issues, but should focus on what can be achieved and on the joy of witnessing the fruits of hard work and diligent effort.
Activity at the level of the cluster is instilling a sense of unity and a spirit of service among the friends within units larger than the local community. Reflection meetings, which are an essential element of this endeavor, should certainly not be seen to exclude Local Spiritual Assemblies or to minimize the role of their designated functions, but, it is hoped, to include them in a highly collective enterprise, developing a more comprehensive sense of movement on a wide scale that is motivated by a greater understanding of the broad vision of the Faith.
All of this opens thrilling opportunities for Local Spiritual Assemblies. Theirs is the challenge, in collaboration with the Auxiliary Board members who counsel and assist them, to utilize the energies and talents of the swelling human resources available in their respective areas of jurisdiction both to create a vibrant community life and to begin influencing the society around them.
Auxiliary Board members are called upon “to work closely with these Assemblies, both in the formulation of plans and in their execution, helping them to shoulder the responsibility of systematic growth in their own communities and in localities adopted as extension goals.” It is this collaborative relationship that provides inspiration to the friends and elicits from them wholehearted response to plans:
Acting in their respective roles, the two institutions of the Counsellors and the Spiritual Assemblies share responsibility for the protection and propagation of the Faith. The harmonious interaction between them ensures the constant flow of guidance, love and encouragement to the believers and invigorates their individual and collective endeavors to advance the Cause.
Since Board members also work intimately with the training institute and Area Teaching Committee, they can ensure that the endeavors of such well-functioning Local Spiritual Assemblies are in accordance with plans of action at the level of the cluster. This is especially critical in the case of clusters that have become the focus of intensive programs of growth, through which all the institutions must learn “to support the initiatives of individuals and merge diverse efforts into a powerful collective thrust.” Of course, in most cases the work of the Board members is “not carried out in the context of communities that enjoy the leadership of a mature Spiritual Assembly.” Rather they work, with the help of their assistants, in localities where the Assemblies are not yet functioning at the necessary level, as described by the House of Justice in “The Institution of the Counsellors”:
In a community where the Local Assembly is at the very early stages of its development, the role of the assistants in promoting the establishment of study groups, devotional meetings, classes for the spiritual education of children, and the Nineteen Day Feast is even more crucial. Further, the Auxiliary Board members give attention to strengthening the Local Spiritual Assemblies, helping them to master the art of consultation, to gain confidence in making decisions, to adhere courageously to principle, and to learn how to mobilize the friends in unified action.
Whatever stage of growth the localities in a cluster have reached, the Auxiliary Board members “play a vital part in encouraging the friends” and “take it upon themselves to ensure that proper attention is devoted to the various components of the community,” that is, to every man, woman, youth and child. The latter two offer a special challenge. Board members “keep before everyone’s eyes the imperative of the spiritual education of children and do everything in their power to help establish and maintain regular classes for the children. And, with complete confidence in the capacity of youth for heroic service to the Cause, they assist them in realizing their full potential as vital agents for the expansion of the Faith and the transformation of society.” The Universal House of Justice has repeatedly called upon the institutions to “give consistent attention to involving the youth in the expansion and consolidation work.” In this connection, it stressed at the start of the Four Year Plan:
Youth will undoubtedly be the most enthusiastic supporters of the programs of your institutes. They are eager to make a significant contribution to the progress of their communities and have shown, time and again, their capacity to respond to the call to service. They can be trained to help shoulder the manifold responsibilities demanded by rapid expansion and consolidation. But it is especially important for large numbers of them to become capable teachers of Bahá’í children’s classes. As you are well aware, without the education of children it is impossible to maintain victories from one generation to the next.
With this in mind, the House of Justice has advised that “strategies to advance the process of entry by troops cannot ignore children and junior youth.” Junior youth, of course, “represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them.” The Bahá’í world will be focused on the aim of advancing the process of entry by troops until the end of the first century of the Faith’s Formative Age, when today’s children and junior youth will be young adults—the future teachers and administrators of the Faith. Auxiliary Board members have been urged to ensure that the friends raised up by training institutes are mobilized “to meet the spiritual requirements of children and junior youth.” “The youth, in particular, constitute a vast reservoir of energy and talent,” the House of Justice has indicated. “Developing and utilizing this immensely valuable resource” to meet the needs of children and junior youth, specifically, and to further the aim of the global Plans, in general, is surely one of the most pressing challenges ahead.