Experience suggests that in small groups gathered for the purpose, conversation is a fragile plant, which needs a good deal of care and attention. This is best achieved when it becomes the collective responsibility of the whole group. Nevertheless, it does seem to be necessary, especially when a group is forming (or is meeting only once) that a specific individual takes responsibility for how things develop. It is a time for sensitive leadership by someone who models the best way of operating, manages the interaction and looks after the developing needs of participants, particularly if they are in conflict with one another. This type of leadership is often referred to as facilitation.
Actually the term ‘facilitator’ is one of those titles currently in vogue and it is, therefore, found in a great variety of different contexts. Our use of the word comes from its Latin root, ‘facilis’ meaning ‘easy’. A facilitator, therefore, is someone who tries to make it easy for others to successfully accomplish what they set out to do. In the case of the type of small group we are considering, the desire of the group is to talk about life and faith. In each small conversation group it is the task of the facilitator to help those involved find a positive way of relating, so that the truth they each possess may be expressed, appreciated and explored.
Leadership and Facilitation
In the various small group settings found in the life of a local church different styles of leadership may be evident. This is not necessarily a bad thing as each type of group may be seeking different outcomes. In spiritual conversation groups, however, the type of activity the group is designed to encourage makes particular demands. The life of this kind of group is undermined by a leadership style that is too dominant but it may also be harmed if everyone is simply left to their own devices. While there is sometimes a temptation to take responsibility for keeping the group focussed on this narrow interface between faith and life experience there is an implied equality that underpins the interaction and this demands something else.
The facilitator does not take on the responsibilities of leadership in the accepted sense but simply attempts to encourage an atmosphere in which leadership is shared. In this case leadership is not a quality seen to reside within a particular person but is viewed as a series of actions that need to be performed in order for the group to function effectively. Different group members performing a variety of relevant behaviours may fulfil any leadership function. The role of the facilitator is to manage the group process, monitor the interaction and to intervene only when necessary to protect the safety of the group. In this she may well adopt some leadership behaviour but as the group develops this should happen less and less.
Inside or Out?
A key issue in facilitation is that of relationship between the facilitator and the rest of the group. Is she part of the group or detached from it? Should she contribute to the conversation or be somewhat apart? Should she express her own reflections or put them aside to concentrate exclusively on the facilitative tasks.
Some schools of thought come down strongly on the side of the latter thereby stressing the anonymity of the facilitator. In faith-sharing groups, however, this can present a problem because the facilitator is inviting groups members to share something of their personal reality. If the facilitator does not do the same, particularly at the beginning of the life of a group, then participants can feel like patients rather than partners in the process.
On the other hand there are dangers in getting too involved in the group. If the facilitator enters the conversation completely she may lose the detachment required to observe, include and hold together the flowing exchange.
While recognising that we are faced with something of a paradox, I do believe that facilitators of faith-sharing groups should occupy the borderlands. They should be sufficiently involved so as to undertake the same risks of self-disclosure as anyone else, while remaining detached enough to intervene appropriately.
I am persuaded to adopt a similar attitude to that which Margaret Guenther expresses in her book ‘Holy Listening’ about the relationship between a spiritual director and her client. She writes:
“The director is primarily a listener, but as such, a participant in her own right. Sometimes her participation appears passive, consisting chiefly of keeping quiet and staying out of the way… But sometimes the director’s participation is more active, for she does not fear the self-revelation that comes from joining the conversation.”
‘Walking On The Shore’