The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir, Part 2

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Bradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic groupBradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic group

In my last post I started the process analysing the problems faced by ageing choirs in terms of the routinization of charisma. If you missed it, the back-story is only a click away; I'll wait here for you to see where we'd got to so far.

All caught up? Right, we were about to look at the group dynamic of a once-charismatic organisation that had settled into a happy and successful mode of operation. For this we are going to revisit Bradley and Pibram's diagram of the relationship between two key elements of a charismatic group: control and flux.

Flux (originally theorised as 'communion') is that sense of euphoric inter-connection where individuals merge their identities into the group. It is generated by certain specific forms of relationship within the group, characterised by each member having access to every other member without exclusionary sub-groups or cliques. Control (originally described as 'power') is the top-down authority that keeps the emotional energy thus generated in check.

So you can see how a choir can very easily be a charismatic group. The ethos of every individual counting, contributing their voice to a meaningful whole, but not permitted to dominate gives the opportunity to generate flux. The authority of the conductor and choir management, meanwhile, provides the control to keep this energy coherent and productive.

What we are seeing in the case of ageing choirs is a drift towards ossification. The control of the conductor and committee remain in place, but the emotional temperature of the whole has cooled. This may be from a diminution in the sense of urgency that forged the original bonds; it may also be from some of those members who were part of the original state of communion leaving and either not being replaced, or being replaced by people who just slot into an existing structure without that sense of helping create a wonderful thing from the ground up.

In the absence of the proselytising impulse of a cause, the strong internal bonds generated in the original charismatic phase create a kind of surface tension that actually repels outsiders.

Anecdotal example: I was at a meeting where an ageing organisation was considering its recruitment strategy. A lot of the people present had been members for more than 20 years; there were a good smattering of founder members. These people talked very warmly of the friendships and community offered by the organisation. Another, much more recent member, spoke of feeling left out.

At the same meeting, more than one of the long-standing, post-holding members railed against the problems of apathetic membership. The people who join but never volunteer, and are even rather intermittent in the extent to which they even turn up. Anybody who has been involved in activities that are largely volunteer-run will have heard this before, I know. But it was striking to hear it juxtaposed so closely with the contrasting accounts of how people felt about the group.

In this kind of case, what has happened is that the boundary between insider and outsider that is so vital to the emotional heat of a charismatic group has stayed in the same place it had been in the group's early days. As the original expansionist fire cooled, a social skin formed on the surface of the group such that the bonds between later-joiners and first-comers were never quite as strong as between the first-comers themselves.

What sometimes happens in this scenario is schism. The later joiners who feel more or less excluded from the original core define their own cause in opposition to the original group and go and set up a new group, bound together in flux by their shared experience. This may sound the death-knell of the original group; alternatively, it may breathe new life into it as the need to triumph over adversity brings the remaining members together to form new bonds. Crisis is after all the originating spark for any charismatic group.

Short of schism, you sometimes get in-fighting. This can be purely interpersonal politics (especially in smaller groups such as the individual choir), and/or it can manifest as the emergence of special interest groups. When people start identifying with a faction rather than with the group as a whole, this is a sign that ratio of power to flux is too high: controlling structures proportionate to a highly energised group become too tight as communion diminishes and the whole starts to implode.

So, what to do? I have a number of suggestions emerging from this analysis, but again they would take the post to excessive length, so I'm going to give you another cliff-hanger...

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