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Is this a weird cult thing? Or a front for a church?

No. But we get it. When anyone talks about spirituality and community, it risks sounding weird, even dangerous. Most of us are aware of the many ways things can go wrong in community life. Did you see Wild, Wild Country or listen to the NXIVM podcast?! And nobody needs reminding of the pain and trauma caused by patriarchal religious institutions. 

We were only willing to co-create The Nearness because we were confident in our team’s training and the structures of accountability to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.

Leadership

Co-founder Casper ter Kuile has a Masters degree in Divinity and Public Policy from Harvard University, and served as a Ministry Innovation Fellow for five years at Harvard Divinity School. While there, his research with colleagues Angie Thurston and Sue Phillips explored how secular and spiritual communities thrive and struggle, resulting in widely acclaimed work, including the widely-acclaimed report “How We Gather.” Casper has received extensive training in community leadership, facilitation, group dynamics, anti-racism work, and spiritual formation, and is supported by a range of multi-religious mentors, elders, and a spiritual director.

As a gay man, Casper is hyper-aware of the dangers of organized religion. But he's also passionate about the ways in which spirituality and community can sustain the very best things about life - relationship, beauty, generosity, imagination, courage. Casper draws on his experiences as a child in a Waldorf school (think: lots of time outdoors, craft making, singing, and seasonal rituals), and is also influenced by his cultural context as a Brit (think: beautiful old buildings, Anglican choral singing, pomp and ceremony, royal weddings), as well as his Dutch family’s own traditions (think: lots of games, yet more singing, annual familiar gatherings.) Today, his spiritual life is a result of these childhood influences, as well as the rich friendships, and experiences he’s had as an adult - in particular Jewish friends and mentors who have welcomed him into their Shabbat and Passover festivities. His favorite personal practices include singing folk music with friends, keeping a tech sabbath, reading and talking about texts, making time for retreat, covenant, and prayer/meditation. 

Co-founder Alec Gewirtz studied Religion at Princeton University and worked as a caregiver for people with intellectual disabilities in the interfaith L’Arche community in Toronto. He’s from a secular Jewish family and he’s now religiously unaffiliated, shaped by a range of mentors and teachers from Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist backgrounds. He’s supported by a spiritual director, and some of his favorite practices include contemplative silence and reading and discussing sacred texts. 

Oversight

We know that leaders need support and oversight, which is why we have a spiritual advisory board – made up of four gifted, wise, smart, and courageous people with a variety of contexts and perspectives. 

  • Serena Bian is a public health advocate focused on building cultures of belonging and healing connection across America. Her work seeks to understand how Americans must rewrite our values in order to create a more socially connected and equitable democracy. She works with the Surgeon General addressing loneliness, community, and connection, with a focus on cultural and systems change. She’s been a student of Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation technique and is deeply interested in Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices.
  • Derrick Scott III is a same gender loving, proud black man who is the Creative Producer for Studio Wesley, serving college-aged young adults on their journeys of spiritual and personal discovery. He’s worked in campus ministry, congregations, and for the United Methodist Church, and when he’s not doing churchy things, he’s pouring craft beer as a part-time server at Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville, FL. 
  • Sr. Mary Dacey, SSJ is a straight-talking, full-hearted, Sister of Saint Joseph - i.e. a nun. She spend most of her life as educator - first an English teacher, and then the principal of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a high school in Philadelphia. Later, she served as President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She brings decades of experience in religious leadership and community to our spiritual advisory board. 
  • Elizabeth Oldfield is a writer, consultant and podcast host with a passion for intelligent public engagement on issues of reconciliation, identity, and healing our common life. Formerly the head of Theos, Britain’s leading think tank on faith and public life, Liz now hosts The Sacred, a podcast exploring deepest values, the stories that shape us and how we can build empathy and understanding between people who are very different.

Transparency

Just as important as leadership oversight is transparency with members. That’s we are structured as a cooperative, meaning that the legal foundations of the organization are built around shared governance and mutual benefit. Avoiding the exclusionary hierarchies of traditional religious institutions, we wanted a structure that allowed for rich participation and co-creation. (Check out these core cooperative principles to learn more about what all cooperatives sign up.) Within five years of The Nearness launching, the co-founders are legally obligated to hand over the governance of the organization to an elected board made of members of the cooperative - including workers, investors, founders, and community members. Choosing to become a cooperative was one of the most important decisions that we made in creating The Nearness, because it bakes into our legal structure many ingredients of a healthy community. 

Dignity

Even despite our best efforts, we know that every community will disappoint its members at some point. To believe otherwise is to be naive. But one key difference between a healthy community and a destructive cult is the ease with which people can leave, and the dignity they maintain when they decide to depart. 

We purposefully designed The Nearness to be seasonal. Namely, that there are individual Pathways that one can sign up to, rather than a single moment when one might decide to become a member. This builds in a natural cycle of reflection around whether to participate or step back on a regular basis.

In addition, when it comes to finances, we offer a full money-back guarantee to anyone who signs up, participates in the first four small group conversations, and decides it isn’t a fit. Just email hello@thenearness.coop if you decide that The Nearness isn’t for you, and we’ll refund you, no questions asked.

Taken together, we believe that the moral integrity and training of our team, our structures of oversight and transparency, and our commitment to dignity will enable us to continue to be a healthy community.