This is the second of several installments on "small faith groups" I composed as part of a project earlier this month.
2. WHAT IS THE IDENTITY OF OUR GROUP?
The purpose of a group identifies what we do, but the identity of the group involves the interactions among us the members. The very nature of a small group—church or otherwise—is a level of intentional companionship between the members. The assumption is that a cluster of us develop a closer fraternity than that available in the multi-thousand congregation to which we all belong. We have a responsibility toward each other to insure a maximum and rewarding experience, to enrich the group by our good will and insights, to take each other seriously, and to protect one another from harm resulting from group experience.
A very basic question we have not addressed in our group is what we expect from each other. The profits of group membership rise or fall with the level of commitment of each member, or put another way, how well we come to know each other and invest our interest in each other. My sense of two years’ experience in our group is that there is some divergence on the level of personal investment—the group may be more essential to some than to others. This is to be expected. There is no present contract between us that we will commit to more personal bonding in faith. We are currently under more of a gentleman’s agreement. There has not been a moment for all of us to step back and say, “Well, this is a bit more than I can manage right now.” There is no shame in any of us admitting that lifestyle or disposition makes a more intense commitment to the group inadvisable at a particular time. A formal recommitment to the group at set intervals (perhaps in a recurring January meeting prayer segment) might attract more individuals to join, particularly those leery of an open-ended commitment.
As a group matures, its responsibilities toward its members grows. When I began therapeutic groups, and today when I begin theological seminars for professionals, I state at the beginning that I as the leader will hold all shared information confidential (a legal requirement in mental health groups) and I encourage all the participants to give each other the moral courtesy of doing the same. I must warn participants in my groups, though, that I cannot guarantee everyone in the group will respect confidentiality. At some level the group’s health and survival depends upon our faith in each other that “what happens in the group stays in the group.” The operative word is trust, and the intimacy of significant group experience will over the course of time encourage us to know and understand each other better. The degree of openness in the group cannot be mandated or coerced, but at any level it commands adult discretion.
This is particularly true in issues of faith or health, or of third parties not present in the group. The sharing of a faith journey will of necessity involve personal experiences that command confidentiality within the group.
Similarly, the use of our email addresses and phone numbers should be protected and restricted to internal correspondence within the group.