Here are some things to keep in mind as you are planning your Values & Visions Circle.
• Reasons to Join. In his study of the small group movement, Sharing the Journey, Robert Wuthnow identified some of the reasons people become involved in a group. The top three reasons were "the desire to grow as a person," "being invited by someone you know," and "wanting to become more disciplined in your spiritual life." Certainly these reasons could all apply to a Values & Visions Circle. We would add that it is good to have people in your circle who are looking for companions on their spiritual journey and who want to apply their beliefs to everyday experiences. A good circle should challenge and support its members.
• Being Intentional. A circle should not try to be all things to all people. As you think about individuals to invite or as you prepare publicity for an open call you need to decide how intentional you want to be about soulmaking. Many people might like to talk about movies but a percentage of them will not enjoy "being so serious about this," as was said in a group we once attended. Some book discussion programs, like Great Books, discourage members from talking about anything but the book; they frown upon the sharing of personal feelings and stories.
You may discover that a Values & Visions Circle, as described here, is something out-of-the-ordinary for many of the people you would like to include. Good! Take a risk! Do something different from the typical discussion club. Remember, however, that if you decide to take an uncommon approach and use the film, book, or audio mainly as a catalyst for soulmaking, you need to communicate this intention to prospective members. Otherwise, your circle conversations may get sidetracked by people who really haven't bought into your process. Be very clear that you will be reading and viewing with a soulmaking purpose. And there is even homework! (More on this later.)
• People Types. Early on, you will want to make some decisions about the makeup of your circle. Do you want it to be comprised of people who are already friends or be a mix of friends and strangers? Do you want a single-sex or coed group? Most likely, you would love to be as inclusive as possible. Nevertheless, you need to look at personality issues as you consider what kinds of conversations you want to have.
You want people who are willing to share their feelings and are not uncomfortable when others share theirs. You want to encourage respect for a diversity of views and acceptance of different life experiences. All need to feel that the circle is a safe place where they can bare their souls. A Values & Visions Circle is not a traditional support group, like a 12-step program, but it does have the same needs for confidentiality and trust.
• Commitment. A few agreements at the beginning can make any group run more smoothly. Decide in your planning stage what kind of commitment you want members to make. A commitment not only insures the viability of the circle, it also tends to reinforce your decisions about the soulmaking process. Will your circle be a come-if-you-can occasional thing? Or will you expect everyone to make every effort to be at your meetings and inform another member when that is not possible? What happens if someone misses more than half of your meetings? Consider not only how you invite members but also how you might ask someone to leave. And remember, too, that if someone joins the circle after it has been going for some time, it is only courteous of you to take some time to make sure they understand your rules and unwritten agreements.
• Expenses. Over the years, we have prepared more than 200 Values & Visions Guides to specific films and books. There may be occasions when you want to purchase some of these guides to expand your program; most are $2 each. Email brussat@SpiritualityandPractice.com for the list of available guides.
Some circles may want to start a DVD collection, buying the movies they plan to talk about. Most DVD today cost under $30. You would collectively spend that much if 15 people paid $2 for a rental. And once you own the DVDs, uou can share them with other circles or give them to your church, synagogue, or community library.
Many bookstores offer discounts on books for reading groups, but they do require a bulk order. Your circle expenses might include a cost of bulk orders of the books you are going to read.
Other costs for your circle might include (1) copier costs for making copies of Values & Visions Guides, (2) refreshments for your meetings, (3) child care covered by the circle to make it easier for caregivers to attend, and (4) transportation costs (parking fees, bus fares, etc.) pooled to make it easier for distant members to attend.
Logistics: When, Where, How Long
When, where, and how long to meet are decisions best taken up once your circle has assembled. The time commitment, however, may be a factor in someone's ability to participate.
• Monthly. Most ongoing circles find a monthly schedule is the easiest to coordinate with other commitments. It also allows plenty of time for book reading, movie viewing, or tape listening between meetings.
• Weekly. A weekly schedule works best for very focused discussions on a theme: a Lenten program, for example, or a month-long emphasis on moral mentors. Groups organized in churches or synagogues may find that this kind of series naturally grows out of other religious education and community building programs. Be sure to announce your series in advance, however, and allow enough time for people to see several of the movies, begin reading the books, or start listening to the tapes before the first meeting. Without some kind of head start, busy members may find it difficult to keep up with a weekly schedule.
• Retreat. A retreat is also a good setting for Values & Visions Circles activities. A weekly group that may not have time for long intimate discussions, or one that finds a monthly schedule does not provide enough community sharing to create intimacy, may respond well to this format. Some circles plan a weekend retreat after a long program focus. It provides an opportunity to share your reflections about what you have experienced together. On retreat you can also decide what you would like to do next.
• Meeting Places. Any place can be home to a Values & Visions Circle as long as it has room for chairs in a circle. Take turns meeting in each other's homes. Or find a space in a church, synagogue, or library. No matter where you are, try to make the place into a welcoming room. Comfortable chairs are nice. Warm lighting, even candles, enhance the atmosphere.
• Distractions. It is important to minimize distractions if you are to have a good soulmaking experience. There are reasons why so many sacred spaces honor silence! Wherever you meet, understand that your time together is special and allow no distractions. This means: no phone calls, children playing in the room, wandering pets, or loud television and radio noises coming from other parts of the house.
Food can also be a distraction, although many groups find that serving refreshments is both an expected and treasured part of their sharing. You may want to eat first and then make a ritualistic transition into your conversation. In your case, the dinner bell might signal that it is time to move from eating to conversing.
• Time. Great stress is caused by time. People today constantly complain about not having enough of it for almost every aspect of their lives. Do not let the clock be your ruler but do maintain a healthy respect for it. Start your circles at a specific time; the perpetually late ones will soon learn that they are missing something when they do not come on time. Begin winding down at a specific time so that those who must leave do not feel that they are missing something because they have other obligations. Respecting time is one of the ways we show respect for each other.