Experiencing the small group study in Tasmania

This is the text of an article by Peter Wilde which was published in the Australian Friend.

“Hearts and Minds Prepared” seems well suited to our situation in Australia, a group of nine Friends and attenders in Hobart decided to try it out. We settled very quickly into a trusting, learning, spiritually growing group, and our Thursday evenings became a refuge of calm, deep sharing and sensitivity. We found the course as a whole enriching and enjoyable, if quite demanding of commitment and energy. We can thoroughly recommend it to others. Tasmania’s course package is now being used in northwest Tasmania and South Australian Friends are using their own.

Our experience

The sub-title – “Grounding the faith and practice of Quakers today” – emphasises the concern of “Hearts and Minds Prepared” with Quaker history and heritage on the one hand, and the ways this is interpreted today on the other. These emphases are very evident throughout the course. Some sessions use writings of early Friends to deepen our understanding of our Quaker heritage, while challenging us to articulate and own our individual and corporate faith and practice today, and reflect on the ways in which these are linked to but different from their origins. Other sessions ask us to read, listen to, and on one occasion watch a video of modern Friends sharing their sense of being grounded in their faith and practice as a stimulus to considering our own positions. Throughout the course there is constant encouragement to examine our individual spiritual grounding, practices and spiritual journeys, and to share them with the group.

But content – a greater understanding of our own spirituality and the Quaker way – is only one aspect of the course. Perhaps as important is the development of our skills of listening and sharing, which in turn help to create a growing sense trust and community among participants, and an increasing depth and sensitivity in appreciating and learning from the spirituality of others. These skills are encouraged by a carefully structured course, in which early sessions focus on less personal and potentially challenging subjects, while activities, such as one-to-one sharing, encourage disclosure in a non-threatening environment, and build skills of creative listening and worship sharing. We slowly came to appreciate the power of silent, positive listening over conversation and discussion, and our whole-group worship sharing, so important later in the course, became very deep.

Structure and content

As suggested above, the course is tightly structured overall and each session has a very specific focus; this is not a course for a group wanting, open, wide-ranging and self-directed discussion. Despite the focus and structure, and the critical role of the facilitator in guiding the sessions, we did not find the course to be ‘top-down’ teaching or restrictive in any way. Participants were comfortable with the course’s overall structure and were almost invariably happy with the approach and activities of the evening, and fully occupied with the issues being considered. Just occasionally we had to foreshadow that something would be covered in a week or two. We always felt we were being gently encouraged to explore matters important to all of us.

The subject matter of each session is clearly established, the facilitator’s introductions are remarkably brief, the resources, whether reading, cards, audio or video presentation are excellent, the activities based on these are varied and engaging, and outcomes and learning depended on the group as a whole. The course is designed for groups with a mix of experienced Friends and newcomers, and we found this enriching for everyone. We were often reminded that there are no right answers to the many questions, while our own experiences were affirmed and validated by the group. Preparatory reading was not required, an aspect which was very important for the busy people taking part in the course. There were, however, suggestions for reading and handouts specific to most sessions, and many of us read some of these before or after related sessions.

Early sessions ask us to share our own experiences of Meeting for Worship, personal spiritual practices and different sorts of ministry, against a background of listening to or reading several short extracts on the experiences of others. Next, in what I found quite challenging, we consider our own positions in relation to our Christian inheritance and whether we each consider ourselves Christian, but not before acknowledging and sharing our attachment to or discomfort with particular words relating to spiritual matters. The next group of sessions cover our corporate testimony, emphasising its spiritual base and dynamic nature; personal testimony including individuals’ call to non-violent direct action and how we might support others while remaining true to ourselves; and both personal and corporate discernment and decision making.

The final three sessions ask us to talk about our own spiritual journeys, to share what we feel the Society offers us and challenges us about, and to reach agreement on what we feel is the essence of ‘being Quaker’. The trusting, listening, community we had become allowed considerable depth, insight and vulnerability to be shared in these final sessions and left us feeling a deeper and richer sense of our own spirituality and a better understanding of that of others. We feel invigorated and emboldened as we continue our personal spiritual journeys with the Quaker way as a guide.

Practical aspects

The course is designed for small groups, with a recommended size of eight including two facilitators. Suggestions for timing are given within sessions lasting either for one and a half or for two hours. The recommended timing works extremely well, with adjustments easily made for occasional over-runs, and rarer under-runs. Each session begins and ends with a period of much appreciated silent worship, and in a two hour session time is set aside for sharing with the group our feelings about the course or other aspects of our life. Our experience suggests that two hours is needed for a group of seven or more (we undertook to take no more than two and a quarter hours each session) and that a group of over ten participants may compromise both group dynamics and time for individual inputs. Group coherence is helped by continuity, and weekly or at least fortnightly meetings are recommended, though a brief break at various points is possible. Other patterns are being tried in Adelaide. One group is currently fitting the course into their pre-existing study structure, which involves a larger group of varying composition and less frequent meetings. In the Fleurieu Meeting a concentrated course over a few weekends is being tried. It will be interesting to see how the course works in varied group settings.

The excellent course package includes a facilitator’s handbook of over 100 pages written in a clear, consistent style, with several pages devoted to each session. It is a model of thoroughness and simplicity which considerably eases the facilitator’s preparation. All the materials for sessions – handouts, videos, CDs, cards with words or pictures, even pens and post-it notes – are included in the package. Materials are designed to be readily photocopied so that the package can be used time and time again. There are also nine substantial but very pertinent pamphlets and journals provided as resource material (including Janie O’Shea’s 1993 Backhouse Lecture Living the Way). And there is a list of recommended books for a Meeting Library, many of which our Regional Meetings would have.

The success of “Hearts and Minds Prepared” is partly due to its very careful preparation, editing and trialling. Not only are the content, structure, activities and resources excellent, but the words and phrases in notes, introductions and questions seem always very carefully thought about and well-chosen. Such preparation takes time, and this, together with an undertaking that the project would be self-funding leads to its substantial price tag – around $400. Nevertheless we are sure that it is worth paying this for such a professional piece of work and to recoup its value through a series of small group courses.

Another aspect of the care put into the course is the insistence by its developers that would-be facilitators undertake a day’s training before the package is used – something which is relatively easy to organise in UK, if a bigger job than expected because of its success – but more tricky for Australian purchasers. By an accumulation of coincidences, I participated in training in Exeter even though at the time there was no expectation that we would buy the package, but as a result I am now authorised to train potential facilitators in Australia.

I feel that this course-specific training is useful, even for those well-versed in facilitation in general. It focuses on trainees participating in, and taking turns in leading, the specific sorts of activity the course entails – but with the training content focused on the process of facilitation rather than course content. I and others feel that the training allowed us to approach each week’s content confident about the facilitation methods and activities involved. My major experience as a trainer is in South Australia where sixteen potential facilitators met in two groups. We all found the days extraordinarily worthwhile – some said that they found it an important and deep event even if they did not become facilitators. If there is any interest, I have agreed to offer a training day at Yearly Meeting in Hobart in 2007.

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