Creating Belonging During a Pandemic

How and where to start creating belonging

A man with a cane walks alone at sunset.

Faith+Lead is grateful for this interview with Cat Moore, innovator, consultant and the Director of Belonging at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Read Part 1 of the interview here. This is part 2. 

Faith+Lead: How does design thinking set the stage for creative solutions to a social problem like loneliness?

Cat Moore: Yes, I guess I used design thinking, without knowing that’s what I was doing. Really I was creating from motherly and womanly intuition, gut instinct, trial and error. Then I found out design thinking is a respected thing, so I started saying I was using it so people’s eyebrows went up less often. So, yes, I pair design thinking with applied philosophy, and I don’t think either can get far without the other. We have to start with experience and allow theory and frameworks to emerge from it. And as a strategy for engaging with people where they’re at, we have to start with their experience, not with our ideas. There’s an atrophied muscle we have to work to suspend our own training and stories to actually attend to the lived, complex experience of the person in front of us. That takes humility, self-awareness, imagination and a lot of coffee. Applied philosophy will get us the simple, deep set of questions that bond us in shared humanity, and design thinking will get us the process of living into the answers.

Faith+Lead: How has COVID raised the stakes for this mission and clarified that we need to pursue it? 

Cat Moore: Social isolation and loneliness have increased—in a shock to absolutely no one. I think it has raised awareness and empathy by plunging most everyone into a state that half the population was experiencing pre-covid. Organizational leadership had to face issues of disconnection with remote workforces, ranging from turnover concerns to mental health issues to technical changes in how we actually connect when there’s no water cooler or happy hour. I’m not sure any industry or region has been immune to having to think intentionally about “culture,” which really just means, “whether or not people feel like they belong and matter.” Because of the sustained period of isolation, people have largely formed a different relationship to work itself, preventing most places from being able to go back to a business-as-usual approach. Yet the vision, intention and means for co-creating a better way is something most places are still grappling with WWF-style. 

Faith+Lead: If a congregation were to make it a priority to create belonging in their surrounding community, how might you coach them to start? Are there any warnings or disclaimers you’d give? 

Cat Moore: Start as you are, where you are within your own congregation and the member’s current spheres of influence. I would not have you start to look outward into the community until the members are rooted with their own spheres and effectively rooting for each other. We’ve got to find ways to get real about where we’re really at as congregants and leaders with each other and with our moms and annoying neighbors, for example. If we’re not experiencing a sufficient measure of belonging in the Kingdom with a real body of real rough and quirky people, we quite literally have no idea how to offer the experience to anyone else. And for the love of God, have a sense of humor in the process because this stuff is hard and heavy and gets nowhere without joy.

Start with personal and communal histories of belonging, as far back as you need to go to locate the experience you’re looking for, and trace it into the present moment. Got to activate the experiential vision of what we’re aiming to create. Give people in the congregation 10x as much time as you think you can carve out for them to get to know each other deeply and broadly. Create more simple opportunities for joy—the superglue of bonding. And start creating space for members themselves to hear from the Spirit in community about where they want to start more meaningfully connecting with those in their lives. Coach them into that path of love, with opportunities to re-gather and problem-solve the obstacles and celebrate the wins.

Then you can start doing micro-field trips and scavenger hunts into the real neighborhoods in pairs or small groups to simply discover what God’s already up to. Where is there life? Where is there beauty? Where is there chaos? Pain? Who has God already placed on that particular piece of earth at this specific time? Wonder about the stories of those you’re walking by and how you can bless their existence with an inward affirmation of their goodness or a smile. Wonder too how God intends your stories to intersect and whether God may be sending them to you in this moment as an answer to your own prayers. 

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