Building Communities of Belonging
I could feel myself reddening from my neck to my forehead. My palms were sweating, dampening the paper reports in my lap. I was certain the other educators in the room could sense my discomfort.
My mind raced. “I’ve taught and tested every grade from kindergarten to community college. I have graduate degrees. Yet, I knew nothing about the reporting requirements being discussed. What other expectations do I not have a clue about?”
I had been excited to leave my administration post to teach at the Christian school with other philosophically and biblically like-minded educators. I wanted to fit in. And yet, instead of feeling like I finally found my community, I was flooded with feelings of not belonging. I didn’t know then that communities within Christian organizations frequently struggle with team members feeling like imposters.
Once we as leaders realize the value of diversifying the generations and cultures represented on teams, the need for fostering belonging becomes even more apparent. Intergenerational, intercultural teams in my own organization highlight the importance and effectiveness of building a community of belonging for every team member.
Jesus Built Community
In her book, Christianity After Religion, (HarperOne, 2013) Diane Butler Bass debunks a theory common in Christendom. It’s one I was raised with: “I believe these things, so I behave this way. Therefore, I will choose to belong to communities that believe and behave the way I do.”
Bass reveals the inverse is reality. She writes: “Instead of believing, behaving, and belonging we need to reverse the order to belonging, behaving, and believing. Jesus did not begin with questions of belief. Jesus’ public ministry started when he formed a community.”
Jesus understood our human need for belonging.
Jesus understood our human need for belonging. Sociologists, psychologists and theologians have since written about this fundamental need. In Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, belongingness is part of a major social need that motivates human behavior. Translated: we feel our need for belonging almost as much as our need for food and shelter.
Many team members just want to fit it, like I did. Dr. Brené Brown describes belonging as “being part of something bigger, but also having the courage to stand alone.” Brown cautions leaders against the danger of a “fitting in” culture. In it we are changing - even betraying - ourselves to make others like us; but belonging means being valued as we are.
Team members contribute more value when they belong. They believe they receive it, too. Charles Handy, leading researcher on organizational culture and values, writes: “A sense of belonging is something humans need if they are to commit themselves to more than simple selfishness.”
A Culture of Belonging
Creating a culture of belonging doesn’t just benefit the team. It benefits each member and the mission. Here are a few ways my team leaders have learned to build a belonging culture.
- Mentorship - We pair new team members and volunteers with “side guides” who check in on more than their work roles. These trained mentors learn about teammates’ families, share expectations, answer questions, and listen to concerns. (If only I had someone to explain those reports when I started my new job!) This purposeful companionship nurtures a sense of belonging. Intergenerational and intercultural pairings are especially effective for building belonging.
- Meetings – You know a lot about a culture by what it celebrates. We begin each meeting by inviting every team member to share celebrations. When we celebrate together, we value one another’s accomplishments. And we see ways God is at work. We invite team members to contribute to meeting agendas, sharing advance previews for new members. Tools like Slack help foster connection and inclusion, keeping staff and volunteers informed.
- Moments - Creating experiences around defining moments in team member roles invites everyone to feel seen and valued. In my organization, we memorialize transitions when team members step into new roles with an annual intergenerational leader ceremony. Each leader receives a shiny new name badge with lots of fanfare. Celebrating them, individually and as part of a new team, helps team members feel valued which promotes belonging.
Jesus began by building a community of belonging. It’s more than fitting in or becoming acquainted with teammates. Belongingness happens when our team members believe they are seen, accepted, and valued. And when we prioritize building communities of belonging, every person our organization touches, inside and outside, benefits.
Dr. Teresa M. Moon, founding President and CEO of the Institute for Cultural Communicators, is an internationally recognized seminar speaker, education consultant, author, and leadership coach. Each year, she equips students, teachers, and families around the globe to become genuine cultural communicators, transforming ordinary students into extraordinary leaders.