When I was a child, I remember Lent as a time for “giving up,” which generally meant refraining from consuming something tangible like candy or soda. Since we didn’t have everyday access to such treats, giving them up was not much of a sacrifice. The forty days of Lenten preparation are like New Year’s resolutions with a spiritual focus. During this intense period, Christians might introduce or deepen practices of reflection, prayer, reading, fasting, or charitable giving. It’s a time to pausing, and perhaps changing direction.
Lent is often a time for an Examination of Conscience, a review of thoughts, words, and actions. Like individuals, groups can benefit from periodically stepping back to examine their commitment, not only evaluating each individual member’s willingness to support the group, but even whether the group should continue.
My spirituality group has been in existence for ten years. While members have come and gone, its purpose is consistent: a gathering of seekers and contemplative activists interested in balancing social justice and spirituality. The median time of membership is over five years, so we’ve sustained an ongoing relationship for a significant time.
Whether a work team or spiritual circle, groups experience growing pains. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman used the terms forming, storming, norming, and performing to describe the developmental path most groups follow. Forming a group takes time and effort as members evolve from being strangers to a united group with common goals. The forming stage requires a leader to help members get the lay of the land and feel like a part of the whole. What are we about? Is the commitment worth my time? What are the other group members like? Do I like them? Do they like me?
During the storming phase, people push against established boundaries. Conflicts lead to frustrations. Members may challenge authority or guidelines: “You’re not my boss!” Some may want to re-negotiate the group’s purpose. If certain members resist taking on tasks, others end up doing more than their fair share to keep the group functioning.
After a while, group members move into the norming stage. Members are more comfortable with one another. They appreciate others’ strengths and figure out how to resolve differences. People feel committed to the group and trust the other members. Everyone takes responsibility for maintaining the group and its progress.
While performing may seem more relevant to a work team, achieving this stage is a marker of sustainability. The group self-maintains because structures and processes allow for focusing on the group’s defined purpose. The group knows what it’s about and members are intent on keeping it going. If there’s a need for redirection, the group can self-police because they trust everyone has the group’s best interests at heart. The group is established, the people are known, and everyone is working together. It feels easy to be part of the group, until it’s not… Spring is in the air and the daffodils are bursting, but a storm is brewing.
The group’s guidelines have become negotiable rather than an integral part of what the group is. Reviewing norms clarifies the values that define who we are, offer direction, and help build “thread count” — weaving the fabric of community by investing in it. Members hear the guidelines twice a year at the first and last meetings. Wouldn’t someone say if they objected, rather than ignoring the guidelines?
A simple hybrid facilitation system would go a long way to a sustainable structure. Members could choose: pick a theme and facilitate 3 sessions in a row (or 6 with a partner for a longer topic like a book), OR each member goes into the “batting rotation,” taking her turn when it comes up. Facilitation is commitment and an investment — it takes effort. With the understanding of “Your meeting, your topic,” each facilitator can bring her special gifts to the table. Grace notes.
Objections to the “new” guidelines have also arisen. The “new” ones represent a distillation of the old ones and make assumptions that most members now know when the group starts and ends, among other things. Take a look to compare.
OLD Long-form Group Guidelines:
Consider these guidelines like a filter. You know yourself best. Even if the group’s purpose resonates with you, if you can’t accept these guidelines, the group is not a good fit. Commitment builds trust. To ensure a safe space for intimate spiritual sharing, we choose to abide by these guidelines and hold each other accountable for honoring them.
At this time, with these people, for this purpose, these are the rules:
- Share the air: use invitational sharing technique OR ensure that each group member has the opportunity to speak once, if she desires, before speaking again.
- Speak from the heart. Tell your story rather than piggybacking or providing commentary. Our sharing time is about expressing and affirming our story NOT fixing or advising someone else.
- Reciprocity: We share responsibility for programs and facilitation. Your meeting, your topic.
- Respect people by respecting their time: Arriving late disrupts group dynamics. Everyone ensures that the group begins and ends on time (7 – 8:30 PM).
- Be “all in”: Attentive presence, not perfect attendance. We are an “opt out” group. If you will miss a meeting, mark it on the google doc or let the schedule-keeper or another group member know.
- Confidentiality: What is said in the group, stays in the group.
Each year, members re-commit to the group. If a member leaves, others may be welcomed into the group by mutual agreement. We want a group that’s not too big or too small to ensure everyone has time and attention. New members will have one facilitation cycle to observe before they lead.
NEW Distilled Group Guidelines:
- Respect: relationships, process, time
- Responsibility: Show up ~ on time ~ prepared
- Reciprocity: Give what you want to receive
Sadly, one of the things I’m “giving up for Lent” is my spirituality group, while I discern my next steps.
© Joan S Grey, 6 MAR 2020
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