by Carol Fryer
Editor’s note: Many Centering Prayer group participants experience the organic nature of ongoing soul-friending, a deep witnessing of each other’s journeys during a time of sacred sharing and listening that follows a time of Centering Prayer and perhaps Lectio Divina. It includes many of the characteristics mentioned below, but without a trained spiritual director as facilitator.
When Lindsay Boyer (Contemplative Outreach coordinator emeritus) invited me to consider facilitating an online spiritual direction group, I was thrilled by the idea. My previous experience was all with in-person groups, so doing a group online would be a wholly new experience and I was very excited to try it. Since the participants were all recommended by Lindsay, I knew they would already have experience with silence and some measure of spiritual maturity. If I were to start a group without Lindsay’s referrals, I would want to interview the potential participants to make sure they were appropriate for such intimate group work.
After the invitation to participate in the group was accepted, I scheduled an initial Zoom meeting and proposed a schedule for six monthly meetings. I also sent everyone a copy of the Guidelines for Group Spiritual Direction (see below) saying that we could go over them at the initial meeting. As it turned out, everyone read the guidelines and very few questions were asked about them.
When we met for the first time I began with a brief reading and about five minutes of silence. As the silence came to an end, I invited each participant to introduce themselves and say something about why they were there and what they were hoping for from the group. I asked for any questions or comments about the guidelines. Then I described the format that we would follow during our 90 minute sessions. I invited their feedback and asked them to let me know in the next few days if they would be willing to commit to meeting together for six monthly sessions. Six of them agreed and two people decided that it was not the right time for them to do so.
Since then I have started a second group, also with referrals from Lindsay. The second group has five participants while the first group has six. Both groups have unanimously elected to continue meeting beyond the initial six months. As time goes by, the members of the group have gotten to know each other better and their lives are becoming more and more connected. Because we meet by way of Zoom, the participants can join from any location. Our participants come from as far away as Hawaii and Germany, though most are located in the northeastern U.S. We value our time together and I know they all pray for each other in between meetings, especially if some particular concern is shared in the group.
Two things amaze me about this work. First, I am amazed at how quickly trust developed in the group. This level of trust enables everyone to be openly vulnerable as they share their spiritual journeys with each other. The group provides everyone with the opportunity to talk honestly about the deepest matters of their hearts and spirits. We offer a safe place to share things that cannot be shared anywhere else.
Participants speak to the group about their spiritual life. Sometimes they share about their struggles with various people in their lives. I remember one session in which it seemed almost everyone was reflecting on their relationships with their mothers. We have talked about how our prayer life helps us in the midst of tense situations, frustrations and angry feelings. Others have spoken about their struggle to believe that God truly loves them. Several people have spoken about an experience with the death of a loved one. Other topics that come up are forgiveness, peace in the midst of change, anxiety about an upcoming event or responsibility, and how their prayer life has changed them.
Month by month, each participant brings to the group whatever is happening in their spiritual life. One month someone may be troubled about something or cannot feel the Spirit’s presence in their lives. The next month things have changed: the situation has improved or been resolved; the light and joy of the Spirit is evident once again. We learn from each other that the spiritual life has its ups and downs, but the Spirit continues to support and guide us in every situation.
After each person shares, the group holds that person in prayer. We ask what the Holy Spirit would like us to say to that person. After a few moments of silence, participants are invited to respond to the one who has just shared. This is the second thing that always amazes me – the wisdom of the group. I believe that taking time for silence and prayer allows our initial responses to dissipate as we listen more deeply to what we have heard. Invariably each response adds a depth of meaning and understanding to what has been shared in the group. As a result, every member of the group feels that they have truly been heard and understood.
Someone once said that the greatest gift we can give to one another is to truly listen to them. To truly listen is also to truly understand at a deep level. I believe that group spiritual direction offers that kind of gift for each person who participates in it. My experience has revealed that this can happen face to face, and also by way of an online format like Zoom.
In my experience, the format that I have used is one that works. The participants tell me that they feel surrounded by and held in prayer throughout. They are grateful for the times of silent prayer after they have shared. As the facilitator, I do my best to remain a non-anxious presence throughout our time together so that each member of the group may feel at ease and safe to share whatever is on their heart. Creating a balance between flexibility and structure enables those who have the need to say more may have that space, while ensuring that the others also have opportunity to speak. Because it is important to begin and end on time, I will occasionally and gently make the group aware of the time frame so that each person has time to share.
A participant in group spiritual direction writes:
“Being in Carol’s group has been a sacred invitation to share from my heart with pretty much total strangers in the beginning. It has deepened beyond my expectations, so much so that at the end of the six months that I agreed to, I looked around at the squares on my Zoom screen and felt such love for the people in each part that I knew if the group was going to continue on, so must I.”
Another participant writes:
“My experience with group spiritual direction has been unique & wonderful. Having a small group praying & sharing together creates a space and context [that is] very special. Sitting together in trust and love and sharing silence together, greatly deepens my experience of God’s presence. The meetings always bring to light new insights & understanding unlike any other time.”
About Rev. Carol E. A. Fryer
Carol Fryer is a Lutheran pastor ordained in 1985, currently serving Immanuel Lutheran Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York, USA. In 2001 she received a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) in Spiritual Direction from the Center for Christian Spirituality at The General Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. She has over 20 years of experience working with people from various faith traditions in both individual and group spiritual direction. She can be reached at email@example.com.
About the Guidelines for Group Spiritual Direction: I developed and honed these over the years, in addition to borrowing wisdom from Rose Mary Dougherty’s books on the topic. These guidelines include group agreements (e.g., confidentiality, listening, respect, promptness, etc.); what group spiritual direction is and is not; a review of the format, including the role of the facilitator; guidelines for sharing, praying and responding; and a note about times of discernment.