It doesn’t have to have a spiritual-journey focus, actually. Small-group dynamics are useful for business teams (where I’m sure there are a lot of frameworks already in place), common-interest groups (from knitting to Star Wars fans), and even online (Google+ Hangouts). So, for the following, just substitute whatever your common interest or purpose is; I’ll be using a spiritual common interest for my examples.
Purpose and Focus
Give your group meaning from the start and it will last a lot longer and provide more satisfaction for everyone. That’s what I liked about my meditation group; we always started with a short meditation to get everyone centered, and then we’d talk about different meditation techniques or some inspirational book we’d been reading. But we kept to the overall focus, and practiced rather than just talking about it.
On the other hand, though, depending on the range of interest and initial purpose of your group, you may want to actually focus on being more loose about exactly what your group talks about or does. In my spiritual discussion group, we began by being primarily a book study group looking at the inspirational books by Neale Donald Walsch. As time has gone on, we’ve used the size of our group and the members’ common interest in New Age spiritual ideas and practices to expand our study into other books, and also other aspects of personal spirituality (we’re currently talking about the chakra energy system). Notice that the focus still has an outer limit (we’re not a Christian bible study group, that’s for sure!), but we allow the group to move into different areas as our interests shift and expand.
This is the beauty of the small group. Focus and flexibility can both work at the same time because the group is small enough for everyone to fully participate and be heard.
Nice thing about having up to ten people or so and no more than, say, fifteen, is that consensus governance can actually work pretty well. Assuming yours is a purposeful SI group (you have focus like meditation, bible study, comparative mythology, charity projects, religious education, etc.), the small size ensures that in most cases everyone will have full say in any decision making, and that all will come to a common consensus. So debate will be much, much shorter than in the U.S. Congress (thank goodness!), and factions are incredibly unlikely to develop. Leadership becomes facilitative rather than dictatorial, and everyone gets a chance to initiate ideas and activities.
Now, I have seen small groups become dictatorial fiefdoms or back-stabbing gossip pits, but in those cases, maybe the group needs a complete overhaul of their purpose, transparency, or even members. Intimacy has its price when it goes negative.
One way to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to negative organizational vibes even at this group size is to put the governance structure in writing. Kind of like the behavior rules for discussion forums or chat rooms online, you can make a few basic rules on the conduct of your get-togethers, and this will go far to avoid problems or resolve them as necessary. Then again, you may not need anything formal at all; my spiritual discussion group has been going on for twelve years at least with no formal governance structure, totally on consensus.
The Gift of Physical Intimacy
Back to that Google+ Hangout model: Yep, that works, to a degree. You get the ten-people interaction dynamic, sound and visual feedback, but…something’s still missing.
Even though I believe that people’s energies can span great distances in an instant through the quantum “ether,” there’s no real substitute for physical proximity in a small group environment. If you’re doing a workshop to get folks to shift their thinking or behavior, small-group work is where the real transformation occurs. A pat on the back, and handshake, a hug; all these aspects of support are crucial to real change for people. Being inside someone’s actual personal energy field, making eye contact, seeing, smelling, hearing, and most of all, touching are just magical. This is the intimacy of the small group and its greatest gift. Doesn’t matter if that intimacy is bounded by handshakes or hugs, it still works at whatever level the group and its purpose are comfortable with.
So, take advantage of this gift, particularly if you want your group to provide the opportunity for folks to change their perspective or behavior around a given issue or activity. Until we have true virtual reality (as in Star Trek’s holodeck), there will be no substitute for the face-to-face real-world group dynamic.
Which brings me to leadership. Even though small groups are often run on consensus, each one I’ve belonged to has always had at least one person who was the driving force behind keeping it going. This leadership role can be shared, of course, but I’ve rarely seen a group that survived for long without a founder or later volunteer who kept communication going between face-to-face sessions, came up with ideas for activities when no one else had any, and facilitated decision making on what to do next. Two things to remember about leadership: 1) support it and 2) don’t wear it out.
It’s really important to remember that someone who steps up with ideas or facilitating skills needs everyone else not only to support their choices at times, but also to support by challenging and being honest about what the member want from the group. Neither sheep nor snakes does the leader need. And don’t assume that the fearless leader will always have the energy and want to come up with all the ideas. I’ve lived through several situations in which I’ve had a terrible time getting out of a leadership position after my time was really up because no one else wanted to take it on. If everyone takes a turn, it will improve the group dynamic and provide the volunteer with a great opportunity for growth. Remember, the group is small, so the responsibility will be smaller, and often easily shared.
So, whether you are all sitting in a circle knitting or meditating, or talking about books or your latest hiking adventure, take advantage of the opportunity to step away from your virtual group experiences to participate in an ongoing relationship with real people in the real world.
I do it primarily for the hugs, 😉 but even if that’s not your thing, there are so many advantages to the small group environment, that I urge you to participate, and if you are a workshop leader, to use it to inspire others and build your tribe.