‘There will be no shelter, no weapon, no barrier, no heaven, no lover, no religion, no treasure, or television to protect us when we’re overcome.’ (from Cam’s song during this week’s podcast)
Asking somebody what they do for a living is of course a typical question at a BBQ. Receiving an answer from that person that they don’t really enjoy what they are doing is not too out of the ordinary either. But hearing that person say that what they really want to be, what they are called to be, is a church pastor, even though they are not a Christian, certainly is quite unusual. And then to be a position where you can tell that person you are also dissatisfied with your job, and would also like to be a church pastor, is bordering on unheard of.
This is the situation Cameron Elliott, my guest for this week, and his co-founder Henry Churchill, found themselves in 18 months ago, which led them to pondering the question, ‘What is the secular equivalent of a church pastor?’
For them the answer seemed to be something like a secular counsellor: exploring what it means to be human; pulling up wisdom from within people; creating a community that met regularly; and helping and guiding that community in their exploration.
Cam had previously spent eight years researching a whole range of different religions and wisdom traditions. He was fascinated by Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism, Shamanism, even poetry: he wanted to know more about any way of explaining and understanding the mystery. This got him thinking about what an alternative to religion would look like. He was already taking the best of each of the traditions he was studying and applying them to his own life (while discarding the bits that got in the way). What then would this look like if applied in a group setting?
Cam and Henry continue their conversation over a number of month and started shaping an idea of a weekly, secular gathering, drawing upon their conversations and learnings as well as some of the ideas outlined by Alain de Botton in his book Religion for Atheists. They came up with some principles to help guide them in this process, things like:
- interacting directly
- being open and transparent in communication, with love
- helping people feel safe
- having faith: trusting that the right people will come, and the right thing will happen, at the right time
Then in September of 2015, after 6 months of planning, the first edition of The Weekly Service was held in Cam’s living room, gathering together a few of their close friends to test out their ideas. Learning as they go and now 22 editions in, a community of regulars is forming; a community that is helping them co-design a space to explore the mystery of existence.
As it currently looks The Weekly Service starts with an acknowledgment of country, and then the topic for the week is introduced. Before delving into the topic, participants are then led through a mindfulness exercise to help them reconnect with their body. The story-teller for the week then shares on the topic they have chosen. Listeners are then given a chance to talk about what the story has meant for them, which for Cam has led to some of the most fascinating and challenging times within the service. The service then concludes with some group singing, of which Cam gives us a wonderful taste of towards the end of the podcast.
Topics covered are diverse and left up to the story-teller, and have included everything from poetry to social media, cacao to sexuality. This has often led to moments of testing the group’s ability to listen without judgement, and to respond with transparency and love. As Cam points out, everything needs to be given the opportunity to be aired, and while this can create difficult moments, they also provide the opportunity for the most awakening moments. It is difficult to judge people when the full context of a situation is known.
As somebody that grew up in a pentecostal church and in my 20’s decided there were too many things I disagreed with to remain part of it, for me there are a number of potential triggers in gatherings of this sort. Things I am particularly sensitive to are the strict bounding of discussion, the ‘us v them’ mentality, and mismanagement and misappropriation of money. Cam talks about each of these in our conversation, and they are obviously things he has thought about and is very conscious about countering. In general things that could trigger people are called out during the service (for example group singing). Specifically, discussions are unbounded at The Weekly Service; inclusivity is at the core of what they are doing; and they are actively aware and grappling with how to create a revenue model that is aligned with their values and also allows them to do more good work.
And while there were things I rejected from my own church experience, there were also many things that were good about it, like the diversity of ages and backgrounds in the community, the group singing, and the process of elders passing on their wisdom. Things that I have struggled to find anywhere else, even 15 years later. Things that seem to be part of the DNA of The Weekly Service.
Cam daydreams about one day helping everyone come to the point of accepting, being completely comfortable with, and loving themselves. He also hopes that eventually there will be gatherings of The Weekly Service in every major city around the world, providing a platform for creating content on wisdom and mystery that can be shared with a global audience.
The subtle change Cam made in his own life was to move towards the things that made him anxious and fearful instead of moving away from them. For him he found that this was the only way through his anxieties.
The song Cam sings towards the end of the podcast (some of the lyrics of which I quote at the top of this post) is about allowing ourselves to be overcome – of going with nature instead of fighting against it, and allowing the wonder that is all around us to envelope us. He talks about designing organisations that are in-line with nature’s lack of hierarchy, mimicking natures ability to give each thing multiple functions, of being efficient, of being curved and bendy instead of straight and rigid. I love these ideas, both for myself and the organisations we build to help us along our way. I think The Weekly Service is in line with this philosophy, and I hope you enjoy our conversation.