Every couple of weeks in Appleton, Wisconsin, five clergywomen gather over chicken Caesars at the Olive Garden restaurant in their quest for solace, support, and even the sacred. The ubiquitous Olive Garden, a fixture in Middle America, may seem an unlikely spot for cutting-edge thought, but the women seated around this table represent a phenomenon that's sweeping the country: the "small group" movement.
"It would be very lonely without them," says the Reverend Jane Weeden, 40, of the women who have helped her find clarity about leading her life and her ministry. "We share wisdom. We share the common experience of being women in ministry. No one else, no place else, can give me what this group gives me."
In search of life's deeper meanings, an unprecedented number of Americans are meeting in small groups to share dreams, tell stories, explore their creative natures. Together, in intimate settings, they are praying, dancing, meditating -- connecting. Call it adult ed for the spirit.
"A lot of us are feeling isolated in our work and in our lives," says Celeste Smeland, a program director for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which sponsors 300 community groups in the United States and abroad from its headquarters in Northern California. "We don't have that soul connection. In small groups, people can really speak from their hearts in what seems like a sacred and safe space."
Not long ago, I sat in on a dream-sharing group of six women who have been meeting weekly at writer Tina James's house outside Baltimore for four years. The night I joined in, James, 45, seemed fragile. A book proposal had just been rejected, she was recovering from a debilitating cold, and she was anxious about the health of the planet. After listening to the others disclose the contents of their dreams -- which ranged from a tour of a bra factory to a cover-up at a crime scene -- James shared her own night's visions: a wounded cat, a purse, and a bicycle. These are the symbols that recur in James's dreams, and the group worked up various interpretations: The wounded cat represented James's vulnerable self, perhaps; the purse, her uterus; the bicycle, the road not taken.
"This is sharing on a deep, personal level in a way that's safe. It's self-revealing, but it stays within bounds," says James, who also belongs to a meditation group. "People are hungry for an intensive reflection and interaction. There's something about one that feeds the other. If it's missing, you start to feel you are existing in a series of unexamined actions."
Later, talking with a woman who belongs to a dream-sharing group in Northern Virginia, I asked, "Do you consider this therapy?"
"Oh, no," she responded.
According to a 1994 Gallup poll, 4 out of 10 American adults belong to small groups (a figure that includes those in Twelve Step recovery programs). As an example, consider Reverend Weeden's congregation, First Congregational United Church of Christ. The 1,800-member congregation has started up 28 small groups, ranging from a spiritual support group for young mothers to people who examine popular movies and books through a theological framework called Values & Visions Circles.
"People are yearning for spiritual and theological discussions," says Weeden, a minister of pastoral care who oversees the groups. "There is a yearning for community, and in a large church like ours it's the only way to really connect on a personal level. There's a sense of wisdom residing in a communal pool. In that context, we can ask ourselves: What is it we have to teach one another about daily life?"
Apparently, a lot. Some of the groups at First Congregational, for instance, are exploring issues such as personal responsibility, dependability, hospitality, and community.
"One of the great things about the small group is that it makes generational connections, which is where some of our best learning and healing come from," says Weeden. "People are making time for the meetings not because they're get-togethers but because they're helping them in a common desire to deepen their relationship with God and with one another."
Last fall at Judson Memorial Church, a multidenominational church in New York City's Greenwich Village, clergy instituted "Learning Night," a program that brings members together in small groups to hear outside speakers -- Jewish rabbis, say, or Catholic priests -- on everything from the Book of Genesis to spiritual, artistic, and political privilege. "Even in very liberal settings, sometimes, we think we're quite broad and open to difference. When we come up against it, we're not," says Louise Green, an associate minister at the church. "Part of the reason we started this was to encounter people who don't necessarily agree with us. When you dig into something and try to engage it, you change in the process. It's not just you in your head anymore. The thing you find is that people move you. They challenge you. And that should be of help to you."
Scholar Robert Wuthnow, whose 1994 book, Sharing the Journey, is considered the bible of the movement, believes that the 1990s will be remembered as a significant decade for small groups in America. Two of the major developments, according to Wuthnow: a desire to make small groups more heterogeneous and "some very promising signs of deepening spirituality," particularly among longtime members of groups conceived of as prayer fellowships.
Indeed, Wuthnow was so struck by the latter development while researching the book that he has been studying small groups and their spiritual dimension ever since. "People talk about being hungry for spirituality," says Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University. "I always wanted to try to push that a little further and try to understand what people mean. Partly, there's always been a hunger for spirituality, and what we're seeing now in the 1990s is people turning to small groups because they don't find ways to satisfy that hunger in many of the more familiar places, such as the congregation. Other people interested in spirituality are reading books or watching programs on TV, and they're finding after a while that that's too shallow and impersonal, so they join a small group."
Patty McGrath, the manager of financial systems for a global-communications company in Northern Virginia, is such a person. McGrath, who is in her 50s, belongs to three small groups: One meets to worship, one to study dreams, and the other to dance. Recently, she dreamed that she had gone to Niagara Falls, where the water was lit up in brilliant bands of red and blue. Suddenly, a huge white dolphin appeared at the height of the falls, and around it other dolphins danced. McGrath couldn't figure out what her dream meant until she presented it to her group.
"I have a need, an unspoken thing, to redeem contemporary worship from its boring state to something that is as `wow' as a 1,200-foot dolphin. I know worship is boring when it's all locked up inside a place. Whatever my own confidence level is, I have the ability to call people to worship in a way that's meaningful. The dream is saying: Go for it!"
McGrath's groups meet in a circle, as many small groups do. "This is something I couldn't have gotten if I'd sat on my own and meditated for a week," says McGrath. "Why does it sometimes take a circle of people to get it? Look at the species. We have evolved [by] sitting around a fire, telling stories, sharing dreams," she says. "The groups bring the richness of other people's experience. It's very nourishing and warm. Everything that happens is, in a sense, enriching."
Some critics worry that small groups will lose their power because a group ultimately draws like-minded people, thinning its very lifeblood. Worse, they say, small groups aren't all that effective anyway because their members join for reasons that are selfish, social, and superficial.
"Small groups often have a self-selecting quality to them, so there's this false sense that you're meeting other people. In fact, you're meeting people just like yourself," says Kelly Bulkeley, who teaches psychology and religion at Santa Clara University in California. He cautions that people's narrow views of the world can get reinforced in small-group settings.
At the same time, small groups offer "almost a special way of knowing," continues Bulkeley, who facilitates a number of groups, including dream-sharing groups. "I can usually predict -- whether it's a second or third or fourth meeting -- when there's almost an audible click, where people go from being somewhat defensive or reserved to `Wow, I see that by talking about this, it's setting off things within me -- new ideas, new perspectives.'"
With dream-sharing in particular, he adds, "there's something that almost necessarily requires people to deal with each other in a very honest, open-minded, and direct way. Regardless of the actual content of the dreams, the simple process of interacting with others at that deep level reminds people of what community is all about. Suddenly, community is not this abstract term politicians throw around. It's something you feel. It's something you recognize."
In 1991, the Utne Reader magazine inspired a national movement when it published a cover story called "Salons: How to Revive the Endangered Art of Conversation and Start a Revolution in Your Living Room." At the end of the article, the magazine ran a small notice inviting readers who wanted to participate in a salon to send in their names. Within a year, nearly 10,000 people had joined its Neighborhood Salon Association.
Now the magazine has upgraded its small-group concept with Café Utne, one of the busiest Web communities. Some 2,800 people visit the café each month to join in on conversations with authors, visionaries, and experts on topics ranging from sacred rituals and spirituality to the meanings of illness.
"This is a new spin on the salon," says Patricia Cich, the on-line ringleader for Utne. "You're coming together with the same people to explore the same types of issues but in a different way. You can go when you want and leave when you want, and you don't have to wear any clothes. We all communicate differently. Some people would be intimidated to sit in a group and speak, but they can go on and on in text [on-line], so people who aren't ordinarily
heard from may be heard."
Odd that something as '90s as cyberspace is connecting us with our ancient forebears. We are still sitting around the fire, so to speak, painting pictures and telling stories.
"All of our ancestors met this same way, didn't they?' says Cindy Spring, whose new book, Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self-Discovery and Community Building and Small Groups, coauthored with Charles Garfield and Sedonia Cahill, will be published by Hyperion early next year. "Every single continent has evidence of people meeting around campfires, in circles. It's in our bones and in our psyches. So many of us have been reading the same books, looking the same way, but not looking at one another. Small groups are a way to find each other. In the end, that's what we're doing -- finding each other and, along the way, finding ourselves."
Copyright © 1997 Common Boundary, Inc. All rights reserved.
Ellen Uzelac is a freelance writer in Baltimore, Maryland.