Most of us have topophilia -- strong attachments to a particular place like a childhood home, a beautiful church sanctuary, a favorite walking path, a ball park. Place does matter, because it has the power to shape and transform our imaginations, says former Banff Centre director Nick Nissley. He saw how the magnificent Canadian Rockies inspired creativity in leaders who came there to study.
How does place change us? How can we use place to help form or transform leaders and their teams in positive ways? A 2010 research forum led by the Fetzer Institute’s Powers of Place Initiative and hosted by the Banff Centre offers four ideas:
Learning about a place: Learners are transported to a place where they focus on learning about the place or its cultures. Lott Carey’s Pastoral Excellence Program transported pastors to areas of extreme poverty like the townships of South Africa to live and work for a time alongside local pastors. These experiences had dramatic impact on the U.S. pastors’ own ministries and perspectives. In URBANbuild, Tulane University architecture students design and build a house on site in lower-income neighborhoods of New Orleans. They first learn about the place in order to meet the needs of the community and tailor their work to those needs.
Learning in a place: Meetings at the O’Hare Hilton might get the work done, but they don’t always elicit creative thought, allow time for vital conversations or honor the time it takes to ponder. In 2003, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary took faculty on a “spiritual heritage tour,” with the intention of helping to form the faculty. They visited spots along the East Coast integral to the school’s heritage and took turns reading aloud from their own spiritual autobiographies. They formed community while learning about the roots of their institution in a particular place.
Learning from a place: Nissley says there are places where we “discover a greater reality than ourselves.” Such intentional border crossings can provide a chance to shake things up. For three years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Pastors and Scholars Studio met in locations across the country, where they made key connections about their own relationships and work, inspired by various settings replete in history, image and metaphor. The Everglades inspired reflection on the rich layers of relationship between congregations and seminaries, for example.
Learning for a place: Learning and community are closely tied in this instance, as the learning is meant to improve a specific community. Urban and rural community gardens in the U.S. like Anathoth Community Garden are linking local young leaders with learning opportunities about not only sustainable food production, but how to strengthen local communities. Working together in a garden growing food introduces people both to potential and problems in a community, leading all involved in a deeper and more honest understanding of place.
When we pay attention to setting, we discover transformational places, “spaces that facilitate generative thinking.” This kind of incarnational learning is at the heart of Christian faith.