Recently, at Integral Church, we had what I felt was our worst Circle ever. But when I voiced my frustration about it, my wife surprisingly said she thought it was the best Circle she’d ever been to.
What happened during the Circle that could have been so polarizing?
In my mind, many things had gone “wrong“ over the course of the morning. It was our outdoor circle so I had to get there early and set up the blankets, chairs and altar. I had forgotten to bring the cash box to pay for our childcare. It started raining halfway through (the first time in 6 years) and we were forced to pack up and move to a nearby pavilion. The children came scampering back early from the playground (due to concerns about lightning) and joined us. We reconvened under the pavilion at one of the picnic tables but were now looking more like a rectangle than a circle. I had intended to sing one song but was moved at the last minute (due to the small group) to sing another. I felt like that morning’s selected reading (a work of science fiction) fell a bit flat with some of the participants and those who I’d hoped would be there to participate in the discussion couldn’t make it. We passed the offering bowl and got the least amount of money we’ve ever collected. Because I had asked for a volunteer, the closing meditation ended up being led by my six-year-old (as I whispered prompts in his year).
Now, none of these things on their own are particularly negative experiences, but in the aggregate I felt like I had lost control of the circle. And, therein lay my dilemma. The circles aren’t something that are controlled. They are facilitated. And the next day I had to do some deep inquiry into why I felt so exhausted after facilitating a circle that felt so bad to me and so good to my best friend.
Part of the problem is that I put so much stress and such a high level of expectation on myself. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m second-guessing the music, the message or the themes that emerge. I want to provide the utmost experience for people in my circles and at my events. And, in instances where I have had a team of volunteers or a staff that is committed to working toward a specific goal and a vision (i.e. a festival or concert), that experience comes to life and is a beautiful thing.
But, when it comes to these types of Circles, 99% of the time I am preparing for them, setting them up and facilitating them on my own. And 100% of the time they are never the same.
This is the difference between a pastor or minister of a church and a facilitator of Circles.
In a church, the sacred space is explicit — the walls of the building, the sanctuary door, the altar or chancel. In a Circle (especially ones held outdoors), sacred space may be delineated and consecrated through the use of smoke, incense, sound and vibration. When we are in the Circle, it is sacred time. We have moved out of world time and into a deeper connection with nature and cosmology.
In the Circle, when someone speaks, I am focused on them and listening for cues in emotion or language in order to keep them in the present moment, speaking for themselves, and not giving advice to others. When someone steps out of bounds, I gently prompt them back toward using “I” language or into their own body.
When there are shifts or movements in the subtle energy of the Circle — the space between participants — I try to take notice and make any necessary adjustments. I ask people to check in with how they feel, to remain centered or grounded. I prepare them for a circle that is not only pluralistic and interfaith but also comprised of people along different levels of the ideological spectrum and developmental spiral. I remind them to release and not hold onto what’s been shared by others. I remind them to simply navigate what is arising within (and between) them without judgment.
When someone speaks for too long, I gently and kindly remind them to “finish their thought.”
When someone from outside the Circle (facilities, childcare, etc.) has a question or a need, I put down what I am doing and respond.
When someone joins the Circle late, I greet and welcome them, ask them to get comfortable and potentially recap some of what they’ve missed in order to provide important context.
This degree of participation is another distinction between the role of a facilitator and the role of a traditional pastor or minister. There is an immediacy woven into the circle that cannot be avoided. In most cases, pastors (especially if they are salaried, and part of a denomination) will have an associate or group leader who will handle any questions that arise, any technical needs that day, any conflict between congregants and participants, or any financial issues. They will have volunteers, deacons or chaplains to greet people as they enter, creating a buffer or barrier between the group and its “leader.”
In traditional church settings, that leader is usually positioned behind a podium on a raised dais or stage. Separated, elevated and untouchable. They are in control of the experience primarily because it is a scripted one. Yes, ministers and pastors are always available to their congregants for pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. However, in most cases, you must schedule that time with them during non-Sunday hours. Even when visiting the sick or sitting with the dying, the pastor or minister has chosen whether to pray for them, make the trip and be with them physically or (if they’re able) assign it to someone else.
In an institution that is able to provide staffing and infrastructure, this kind of hierarchical and detached leadership is not only possible, it’s expected. This is not to say that pastors or ministers are emotionally and spiritually detached from their “flock.” It is to say that they are intentionally distanced from them by layers of other people who have been trained to address specific needs and point them in the right direction. Churches have a Sunday morning show to put on and a business to run.
But in small groups, healing/sacred spaces and intentional communities, this kind of facilitation and spiritual direction can be ongoing. These kind of Circles — where people are deeply sharing their feelings and emotions, discussing complex ideas (spirituality, philosophy, theology) and literally facing one another, looking each other in the eye — are not to be confused with traditional “worship.”
They are visceral and immersive experiences that can be both heavily exhausting and intensely ecstatic. It is of utmost importance that a facilitator of these circles be trained in the management of the group itself (and its expectations) and also disciplined in self-preservation and self-care. As leaders, when we are closed in on ourselves, we create a coordinate where all the reiki, metta and positive affirmations in the world cannot reach. There comes a time when the only thing to do is lay down and sleep. And anyone who has managed or led other people has been there.
It is in this place of fear, self-doubt, frustration, anger and grief that we must allow ourselves to dissolve. We must carry our lantern (our joy) into the cave of our emptiness, knowing that on the other side we will be rearranged and emerge transformed. By holding on too tightly — or trying to control the situation — we risk burning our hands away at the rope. By letting go and making room in ourselves for more grace, more Spirit and more breath, we open to the opportunity and the potential for creativity and beauty.
Not everyone will come away from a Circle feeling seen, heard or fulfilled. Not everyone who attends Integral Church will feel like they’ve “been to church.” But as a facilitator, it is our job to be Spirit-in-Action — to be present, to do the work and move on.
As for the Circle in question, my wife enjoyed watching the dark storm clouds roll in and the feeling of those first drops of rain on her face. She connected with the reading (Chapter 12 of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness) in a way that was more deeply spiritual than any sacred text, poem or prayer we’d shared in 6 years. She loved the spontaneity of the kids rushing the circle and the mad dash to pack up in the rain. She thought our son’s meditation was adorable — as I held him on my lap, whispering in his ear, teaching him to gently guide the others in focusing on their breath. She claimed that the song (a chant about Mother Earth being fed by a great flowing river) acted, for her, as a healing salve on the pollution, red tide and other recent damage to our Central Florida waterways. And, because there were fewer people in the Circle, she got to share longer than usual.
“When you’re pushed outside your comfort zone,” she said, “you can worry or you can just be in it. And that morning, I had a moment of connectedness with what it was supposed to be.”