Program Planning

A diverse cast of people reading together.
  • How do I plan meaningful programming for diverse audiences?
  • How do I bring people together who are and who are not in community with one another?
  • What are ways of creating realistic goals for these gatherings?
  • Plan meaningful gatherings down to practical details.
  • Learn how to set efficient and practical goals for program planning and otherwise.
  • Know how to evaluate the efficacy of different programs.
  • Two versions of the poem, “Come, Come Whoever You Are” by Rumi–one accompanied by music and sand art.
  • Podcast episode:, “How is This Night Different From All Other Nights?” from The Art of Gathering.
  • A blog post about goal setting from State of Formation.
Excerpt of "Come, Come Whoever You Are," by Jalaluddin Rumi

Come, come whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

Watch a beautiful sand-art video performance of the song here.

Come, Whoever You Are

This unit is about program planning. Yet, we start with a poem by a 13th-century Sufi poet. Likely the most widely known Sufi poet in world history, it’s likely you have encountered his work before. Read the full poem, or perhaps watch the sand art and song version accompanied above. What might “Come, Come Whoever You Are” have to do with program planning?

It might be easiest to think of the poem from the perspective of the poet who sings “Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times / Come, yet again, come, come.” But instead try to imagine yourself as the person being sung to. Have you ever felt intentionally and specially welcomed into a special, invited space? How did that make you feel?

The Importance of Gathering

“The way we gather matters,” Priya Parker teaches in the introduction to her book The Art of Gathering. An acclaimed author and speaker, Parker works in the field of conflict resolution and group dialogue. She has worked on college campuses to help race relations and facilitate peace processes in the Arabic speaking world, southern Africa, and India. She writes, later in the introduction, “My lens on gathering…places people and what happens between them at the center of every coming together.”

In the first episode of The New York Times podcast The Art of Gathering, hosted by Parker, titled “How Is This Night Different Than All Other Nights?”, she works with a leader in a local Jewish community to adapt the Passover Seder to the Age of Covid.

The Passover Principle of Gatherings: understand the deeper purpose, which should be specific and unique to the moment. Ask yourself the question that is foundational to Passover Seder: How is this night different from all other nights?

How does this principle relate to meaningful moments you have experienced in your life? Is rarity and uniqueness a key element? How does it elevate moments within your wisdom tradition?

Reflect on and pick seven songs to represent, in part, your autobiography. Participants do not need to play whole songs. Agree on a time to meet outside of any regularly allotted gathering times. It is important for the meeting to be in the future for two reasons: 1) so both learners have adequate time to select their songs, and 2) because, as Parker reminds us in “How is this night different than all other nights?” gatherings begin with the moment of invitation. This small group gathering aims for you to understand your peers better and for you to be understood by your peers/co-learners. Allow each group to decide how each person will present their song and what else might accompany the moment (i.e. food and beverage? Commentary and conversation? Allow for creativity and ritual).

Planning Your Own Program

The Miller Center’s Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative (BILI) is designed for outstanding undergraduate students with a demonstrated commitment to interreligious and cross-cultural engagement on their respective campuses. Part of the program structure includes planning meaningful programming for the wider community as an important mode of learning by doing. For example, the 2021-22 cohort organized an interfaith home build for Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte. The home was to be built for a Muslim immigrant family and the team brought together Sikhs, Muslims, and African American Christian communities to build and learn together. BILI fellows developed training for volunteers to go deeper into the opportunity for interreligious engagement, knowledge sharing, and relationship building. Another example of the importance of learning by doing was the partnership that the Boston-area BILI fellows developed with the community organization We Got Us and the resulting event they created together at a local homeless shelter. The event began with a community conversation around healthcare, faith, and homelessness. It was followed by a shared meal and distribution of supplies needed by people experiencing homelessness as they prepared for warmer weather and continued to navigate the COVID pandemic.

The value of partnering with community organizations such as We Got Us was a key lesson for the BILI fellows. The organization which connects Black community members and organizations with trusted Black healthcare professionals and students to provide public health resources and scientifically based health information brought its valuable experience and expertise to the planning process and the conversation.

We encourage you to consider developing a program of your own in your own community in the spirit of the BILI fellowship. Putting your learning into action is one of the best ways to deepen your learning and integrate it into your life as a member of your community, as a professional, and as a person with your unique worldview.

Before you think about specifics like programming and event planning, let’s talk about goals. Goals are a critical part of effective program planning. In order to get somewhere, it helps to start by knowing and agreeing on our intended destination. S.M.A.R.T. is a great acronym and mnemonic device that provides an easy-to-remember toolset for effective goal setting. Make sure your goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

The word “realistic” could work as a summary of the acronym. Sometimes, the “R” reflects this instead of “relevant.” But relevance is important too: do you have the resources to attain this goal? Why do you want to plan your event at a particular school? Of all the members on this team, why should you be the one to work on this rather than that? And we should all be sure to ask ourselves, is this something the community you are wanting to serve wants and needs? If you do not know or are not sure, then talk to the people and ask them. That is the best way to make sure you are responding to the actual wants and needs of the people involved.

English teachers often speak of “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.” A lower-order concern refers to the correct placement of a comma, verb conjugations, and a host of other often-dreaded grammatical terms. Higher-order concerns refer to argumentation, coherence, themes, and other things related to the ideas that govern a piece of writing. The latter is almost always more important. After all, your commas do not make much of a difference if your whole argument is gibberish.

Higher-order and lower-order concerns can also be helpful in program planning. Lower order event planning amounts to decisions that at some point have to be made, and perhaps are stressors until they are decided upon. Ultimately, they are of lesser consequence to the success of the event: does the difference between a Chef and Caesar Salad alter the trajectory of your program? Probably not. What about the difference between an open and closed-door event? Certainly. You can also think about it like a triage system in a hospital. What are the critical issues that need your attention most urgently? Make sure you are giving sufficient attention to the patients that are in the most dire need before you attend to the ones without life-threatening issues. You only have so much time and so many resources. Aim to use them in the most effective way possible.

Use the following set of questions to think through the higher-order concerns of your program:

Use the following set of questions to think through the higher-order concerns of your program:

  • What do you want to accomplish with and/or at your program?
  • What would a successful program look like to you? What is your goal?
  • What do you (the organizers) want to leave with?
  • What do you want participants to leave with?
  • How do you want (everyone) to feel?
  • What is the intended arc of the program?

Before reading the following article, break into small groups and consider what could make an interfaith event go wrong. What factors in play might hamper its effectiveness? What risks are involved in opening an event to the public?

In 2017, the Portland State University student newspaper, The Vanguard, reported on an interfaith event gone wrong on their campus. The event, titled “Unpacking Misconceptions,” was a panel discussion with six participants of various faiths, according to The Vanguard. Their intended purpose was “[to] humanize [the] varying perspectives and educate one another through mutual understanding [and unpack misconceptions].” The full article can be found on their website. The drama in the event, eventually picked up by major alt-right news outlets, concerned a response by the organizer and Muslim panelist.

A Christian audience member pulled a verse from an English Quran translation that mentioned the killing of an “innocent” is like killing all of humanity, although “infidels,” according to the questioner’s interpretation, were not included. This student, it seems but we cannot be certain, was trying to make a point about a perceived hostility to Christians.

The ayat (a “verse” in the Qur’an) in question is likely 5:32, a commonly quoted passage in both Muslim social work and interreligious contexts. It reads, “That is why We ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever takes a life—unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land—it will be as if they killed all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity. Although Our messengers already came to them with clear proofs, many of them still transgressed afterwards through the land.”

The Muslim organizer of the event then said, “So, I can confidently tell you, when the Quran says an innocent life, it means an innocent life, regardless of the faith, the race…whatever you can think about as a characteristic.” This student then mentioned that apostasy is “only considered a crime when the country’s law…is based on Quranic law—that means there is no other law than the Quran.” They added that in some countries that govern themselves based on interpretations of Quranic law, non-Muslims or disbelievers have the ability and choice to emigrate.

The newspaper reported that a video clip of this response, out of context, circulated on social media that only included the “quote that addressed the Quranic law about non-believers or infidels being ‘given a choice.’” From here, the audience and social media users—including a prominent philosophy professor critical of religion—incorrectly and inappropriately misconstrued this Muslim student’s account to be advocating “mass murder.” The professor reportedly said, “The same people who want to punch ‘Nazis’ are completely silent when it comes to certain people advocating mass murder.”

Based on what we know from the information described above, what, in your opinion, went wrong? Was it just a handful of angry people? How did the way the event was planned and structured contribute to what transpired? Is it possible some of these responses could have been anticipated by the moderators?

After skimming the article “Goal Setting: Discovering Subjective Perspectives in Interfaith Retreat Planning” in State of Formation, would you have organized the event a different way but still stayed true to the original event’s goal of “Unpacking Misconceptions”?