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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Facilitating Discussion in Adult Studies

Teaching is such a core part of ministry, but I doubt that few of us like to be “talking heads” all the time.  We aim to facilitate learning settings where people engage and wrestle with scripture and faith.  Today’s question invites us to think about the interplay between discussion and the desire for privacy…

Dear Matriarchs-

Our large church typically teaches Sunday school classes lecture-style, often with the clergy at the front. But from time to time, we try to have a class that includes discussion questions. We've seen that conversations work best when folks gather around round tables with 5-7 chairs each.

Where we'd appreciate some wisdom is around norms for sharing these table conversations. We have some who believe sharing/reporting out the table discussions should be done carefully with the utmost regard for privacy, even if it means not much gets shared, because folks need to feel safety at church. We have others who believe that sharing should be more strongly encouraged, not to the point of creating angst, but at least enough to overcome that stony stillness that often settles over a classroom of 30+ (sometimes 100+) people who don't yet know each other very well.

We don't see this as an either/or dilemma, but it would be nice to hear how others have navigated these choices. We know some people cringe, sometimes quite visibly, at the prospect of these "sharing" settings, but we also know they are community-builders. Our utmost desire is to offer a variety of ways to hear the voice of God.


Muthah+ was our sole respondent this week:

What a great question!  I think that when groups gather around their tables they should be encouraged to set up their own rules about reporting out.  Will conversations or incidents be considered anonymous? Is confidentiality a value for everyone around the table?  Or perhaps confidentiality needs to be addressed by the whole of the group before sharing begins.

I have moderated all kinds of groups, some which reported out on the conversations and those who were trying to build safe support groups.  It needs to be clear what kind of group you are trying to encourage.  You really can't do both at the same time and have people feel comfortable.  I am of the mind that there needs to be a discussion with the whole of the group as to what kind of reporting is going to be done.

Thanks Muthah+...

Do you have some wisdom to offer?  How have you navigated these waters?  Please post your comments below.  And while you are at it, send a question or two our way at  Our mailbox is empty right now - we need something to chew on!

May you live in God's amazing grace today+


  1. This is a great question, as I'm moderating a group around spiritual reading at my parish with 20ish people, broken out into small groups. Confidentiality wasn't something we talked about at the first meeting, but this prompts me to think about how to gently address it at our next.

  2. For several years now, I have used the Respectful Communication Guidelines and Mutual Invitation from the Kaleidoscope Institute and The Rev. Eric Law for such discussions (as well as vestry/board meetings, workshops, etc. They make sense, offer some structure and in nearly every instance, the feedback from groups is that they promoted conversation.

  3. One way to report out without breaking the sense of safety in a smaller table group is to ask for the "report" to be of themes that came up in what was shared. You aren't asking for people's personal stories to be announced to the whole group, but just some common threads that moved through each person's sharing. It also encourages a different kind of listening and paying attention.

  4. One way I've talked about confidentiality before:

    The person speaking wants to have confidence in the group's ability to hold the space for their story without the group (or individuals in the group) poking holes into that space. Poking holes would be making fun of them (this can be helpful to point out both to children and to big children), implying or indicating that their story doesn't matter or telling their story without their permission. I sometimes ask how else we might poke holes in the space. With very young children and one group of adults, I used a blown up balloon to illustrate this. The kids completely get it and for the group of adults who were having trouble with confidentiality -- they finally got it.


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