How to build an atheist church

The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of life. We feel explosively excited about being alive, and believe that harnessing this simple joyful feeling can help people change their own lives, encourage them to help out others and build communities of action leading lives of purpose. One reason we didn't start it? To talk about Governance.

Call me a dreamer, if you must, but the word "governance" does not stir my soul the way joy, wonder, kindness or compassion do. Nevertheless, use it we must. When Pippa and I started the first Assembly in London in January, we had no idea that we’d have branches all over the world by June, and have discussions about federated structures, unincorporated associations and social franchising.

The moment we realized that this thing was way bigger than we thought, we got our heads around these pretty dull, but super important matters. Earlier in the year, I wrote a blogpost called Notes on Transparency and Structure and the preliminary outline for Sunday Assembly Everywhere (our social franchise programme), which gave the roadmap for our future. This didn’t stop one person writing a letter to say we had “the worst possible organisational design for a body that wants to be a non-theistic church”.

This was, unsurprisingly, not our goal. In fact, our chief aim is to allow as many people as possible to start a Sunday Assembly as soon as possible. It’s great doing something to help a thousand people in London, but it is INCREDIBLE to do something that will help millions of people across the world celebrate this one life we know we have.

One thing we had to do was ensure it stays true to the spirit and ethos of The Sunday Assembly. A single rogue assembly could spoil everything for everyone (remember Waco?). In order to allow expansion, there have to be certain checks on the folk setting them up, and certain balances on us, to protect the local chapters.

The first model we looked at for this was TEDx. The system that allowed the TED conference to spread the TED experience across the globe. There have been couple of times that this system was abused, but the furore surrounding these talks, and the prompt response by TED, showed how strong the framework was.

Of equal interest to us is social franchising, where social enterprises are able to franchise out their methodologies and brands to other groups who wish to do their work. Admittedly, "franchise" is an ugly word, but it is a very effective organizational tool. Marie Stopes International use it to spread their health work to communities they wouldn't be able to reach otherwise (on the dark side, Al-Qae’eda use to great effect too).

We’re already seeing the importance of having clear documentation, processes and guidelines in New York. The New York Sunday Assembly was meant to be a one off but, on the day of the Assembly, at the request of the organizers, I decided they should go monthly and join our system of pilot Assemblies (including Exeter, Bristol and Melbourne, Brighton to join in September). There was so much energy in the room it seemed a shame to waste it.

The problem was that the organizing group had not been through the training process. This led to some confusion on the vision of The Sunday Assembly, and how the Sunday Assembly Everywhere initiative works. It is now all being resolved (apparently we have been "storming" – stage two of the Tuckman Stages of Group Development) but it showed both how useful having a pilot scheme was, and the importance of clear documentation ("documentation" – another warm and fuzzy word).

However, governance cuts both ways and, tomorrow, I’ll write about how we will ensure that the local chapters also have representation and can feedback into the rules.

Happy Wednesday, readers. Remember, email us with questions, use this form to express an interest in starting your own, and watch this video to find out more about the #40Dates campaign.