By MaryAnn McKibben Dana
For the past several years I’ve been in a group of clergy called “The Well.” We patterned ourselves after the Moveable Feast, a group that’s been meeting together for more than 25 years. People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s not that complicated to put a group together. We in The Well would love to see these groups propagate, and in fact, we first got started thanks to the support and guidance of Feast member Tom Are, who invited us to meet at Village Church our first year.
Our basic format: We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, chosen randomly by one of our members; I believe there is a sorting hat involved. For each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing an exegetical paper of about 3,500 words that will be read at our gathering. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” With 18 people in our group, we leave our gathering with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.
1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider, but ensures that each member is personally connected to someone in the group. This helps with accountability.
Decide what kind of denominational/ regional/ theological/ seminary diversity you want, or don’t want. We went for cohesion more than intentionally seeking diversity, which is probably why we’ve succeeded, but it means we need to seek out other venues for engaging with people who differ dramatically from us. We started with 15 members and when we’ve added folks, we’ve always added at least 2 at a time so those people can integrate as a group rather than be the odd person out. Eighteen feels like a good size for our purposes.
2. Have a basic covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.
3. Have a “dues guy/gal.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on the size of people’s continuing education budgets, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.
4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person, as I mentioned, draws names out of a hat to figure out who gets which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations several months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on beforehand).
We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t necessarily mean it takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet during the day (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are the decider for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group—if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”—so it’s good to have someone in charge.
5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptops, or print them if they’re a scribbling type. We have them due by the Friday morning before we leave so printing people can print. If you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies.
6. Schedule for the week: We schedule 35 minutes per paper. The person reads the scripture, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and lately we’ve been able to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.
7. Leave evenings free. By the time we finish for the afternoon, we’re fried. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy. So we schedule a night for sharing these stories.
I hope these tips help groups form and thrive. But I also know there is an X factor in group dynamics. Here are some additional thoughts on what helps us succeed. But sometimes, all the ingredients are there and it just doesn’t work. Don’t beat yourself up; it happens. But give a group a try. It might be one of the most important things you do.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA, and co-chair of NEXT Church. She was also the proud winner of this year’s trophy at the Well. Connect with her at The Blue Room.