The two loops model emerged from many years of conversations amongst people working in the Berkana Exchange and their friends and mates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As my friend Tim Merry pointed out on a comment at LinkedIn, the model itself was an emergent framework of how organizing happens on what we called back then “trans local” communities of practice. The Berkana Exchange was made up of many learning hubs around the world in places like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Senegal, India, Brazil, Mexico and Canada. These learning centres supported all kinds of experiments in living and the Art of Hosting took root and was co-created and developed in many of these places too, notably at Kufunda Village in Zimbabwe and The Shire in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Part of the origin of the two loops model was from the network making sense of itself and trying to understand what was required to create and sustain these kinds of experiments in an increasingly connected way. In the early 2000s there was so much talk about the way in which networks enabled by the open web were bringing people together and making interesting new forms of activism and organizing possible. Berkana was at the forefront of this lived inquiry and at some point prior to 2010, Deborah Frieze and Meg Wheatley published a pamphlet called Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale, summarizing the Berkana approach to developing leadership in communities, which sought to build on the promise of networks by discussing the role of emergence and how to support communities of practice so that they can grow into systems of influence. Although this diagram above is not in the published document, the “Name-Connect-Nourish-Illuminate” pathway was named.
My earliest photo of a skecth of the model in my handwriting from 2009
I’m trying to remember when I first encountered this model. This is probably the earliest version of it I have in my photos, dated March 9, 2009. At that time, I was working a lot with Tenneson Woolf, Teresa Posakony, Tim Merry, Tuesday Rivera (Ryan-Hart) (who now offer an online course on their version of the model) and Phil Cass, all of whom were deeply involved with the Berkana Institute and the Exchange. So this was in our conversations then. We started sharing the model in Art of Hosting workshops and in some client work. I think the first time I was involved in teaching it “on the floor” was at an Art of Hosting in Springfield, Illinois, in March 2009.
That particular way of working with the two loops has become my preferred way of teaching when we are in person. In 2009, Teresa, Tenneson and I were in a convent in Springfield when we had the idea of making a map on the floor and asking people to position themselves on it according to where they were in the systems in which they were working (which in this case was the Illinois education system). We asked people to quietly walk around the map until they “felt” the right place to be. Once there, we asked them to talk about what it was like in that spot with others and then offer insights to the whole. I remember the poignant moment a teacher who stood on the legacy side of Transition broke down into tears, saying that she could see the education system dying around her, and all she was trying to do was throw children across the gap and into the new system. She had no idea if anyone was there to catch them. And in that moment, a tall man who worked for a Foundation pointed to a woman who was on the other end of the Transition bridge and said, “We’ve got you. We fund those programs. Keep throwing those children our way.” It was a powerful lesson about what happens when folks can see others in the wider world to whom they are connected.
Around that time, work carried me into a few other places where this model just made sense. Tenneson and I started working with Canadian Labour unions back then, especially the Canadian Union of Public Employees and in October 2010, we used this model on the floor of the Canadian Labour Congress Training Centre in Port Elgin, Ontario, to talk about how the labour movement was changing. That was the first time I saw people position themselves entirely outside the map. In this case, the two that stood outside were Executives of the CLC, both vice presidents of their provincial labour federations. They both agreed that their job was to care for the whole system, see everybody in it, and try to meet everybody’s needs.
Perhaps the most influential moment in my own development of the model came when I was working with churches in 2012. I had been working with the United Church of Canada at that time working with congregations and presbyteries to look at the changes that were accelerating across the church at that time. As a mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church, like all the others, is going through a massive generational shift in the structure and future of the denomination. After its founding in 1925, the Church grew rapidly and became an influential progressive social and spiritual force in Canada. Membership in the church peaked in the 1960s and since then has been declining. In the last 15 years, many congregations have closed their doors, and very few churches are growing or evolving within the denomination anymore. The two loops model captured this moment incredibly well and asks the question of what is already amongst us that gives us a clue about how progressive Christianity will take form in its next iteration.
Using this framework and infusing it with the theology of progressive Christianity made for a deeply meaningful experience in the dozens of congregations I worked with during those years. It gave everyone a place in the system and opened up conversations about tradition, innovation, and what is required for the church to change. Some churches were just not up to the task, falling to strong traditional voices that squashed the new sprouts of innovation because they couldn’t reconcile them with the church they knew and loved. And I’ve seen some congregations embrace the emerging alongside the traditional and do well meeting the spiritual needs of their congregation members.
One lovely story I remember from this time that I want to record here happened when my friend Tom Brackett – at the time a bishop in the Episcopal Church in the USA – invited me to create a retreat with him for folks we loving referred to as “heretics” within the Church. The retreat was called “Can these bones live?” and the organizing scripture was Ezekial 37:1-14, the vision known as The Valley of Dry Bones. In this vision, Ezekial is taken to a box canyon that is full of the skeletons of slain soldiers, and God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekial sensibly replies “Oh God, you know.” And from that moment of paying attention to spirit and letting go of certainty, Ezekial and God wake up the bones and send the people home.
My notes from the day. I love the quote i jotted down that someone must have said “Heck: where the bad kids go.”
As we dove into this story and the framework, I invited people to walk contemplatively on the map and explore the Valley of Bones. It was indeed a deepening experience, and the rest of the retreat was full of stories, hopes, and real reckoning with what needs to die if the Episcopal Church is to live. Or even whether the Episcopal Church needed to die for progressive Christianity to live. Heretics indeed.
This particular gathering led to further engagements in the Episcopal Church in the USA and with ecumenical organizations like the Foundation for Theological Education (now known as the Foundation for Theological Exploration). That group sent a number of participants to a workshop that we did in Salt Lake City called “The Art of Convening in Faith-Based Communities,” and I worked closely with the FTE participants to think through this framework and its relationship to issues of justice, marginalization and equity. That single conversation would lead to many years long relationship and a pivotal event in the life of the two loops model in the United Church of Canada.
In 2013, as a part of a massive Comprehensive Review process, the United Church hosted a conversation about the future of theological education in Canada, with everything from academic seminaries to workshops on the spirituality of maple syrup on the table. I was invited to join a team hosting a huge gathering in Toronto to bring the whole system into the room for that conversation. To my delight, four of my friends from FTE were invited to attend as witnesses. The first two days were really hard, and there was a lot of conflict and rancour in the room. We had several conversations which served to surface the tensions and the conflicts. On the second evening, my friends from FTE took me aside and said that the group needed to take the gathering in a whole different direction. The host team from the General Council office didn’t know what else we should do, but my FTE friends and I sat in a hotel suite, watched by others and started to sketch out a plan to take the group through the two loops.
This would require changing the meeting room to accommodate a movement-based workshop for 175 people, so once we had settled on the design, we asked the hotel if they would change the room for the morning. They refused and wouldn’t let us change the room set up ourselves.
And so, at 11:00 at night, we snuck down to the conference room and persuaded a security guard to unlock the doors for us, saying we had a little prep to do for the morning. We locked ourselves in and took about an hour and a half to reset the room ourselves, taping a HUGE version of this model on one half of the floor and rearranging the tables and chairs to set up a World Cafe space.
We started the next day in a circle around the map, and I taught the model. Next, we had everyone place themselves on the map and go through the exercises of talking about what it was like where they were in the system. We followed that with a conversation about what gifts are offered from each place in the system, and the rest of the day was spent hearing about and discussing those together. It was a healthy, powerful conversation, and the moderator, Gary Paterson, absolutely fell in love with the model. Over the next two years, as he led the conversation on the Church’s future, he ran over 50 workshops using the model to talk to people across the country about the future of their Church. Here I am in 2014, teaching the model to the United Chruch’s EDGE Network as a part of the leadership development work at that time.
Of all the frameworks I have worked with over the years, this one has been as important as Cynefin. Both help us understand complexity, make sense of current conditions and both help people find affordances to action. I am immensely grateful for everyone I have ever worked with on this model, from my friends in Berkana to the Art of Hosting community to folks in the churches, transition movements, education systems, and elsewhere.