Sharing Circles

Summary:

Establishing a Sharing Circle can be a powerful way of creating meaningful community for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and Humanists. These groups might also be called Caring Circles, Reflection Groups, Discussion Groups, or Wisdom Circles. Whatever you call them, these intentional gatherings are an opportunity to:

  • Set the distractions of everyday life aside
  • Share your experiences
  • Reflect on life’s Big Questions
  • Explore your values
  • Listen deeply and empathetically
  • Learn from others’ experiences and lived wisdom
  • Make meaning
  • Obtain a better understanding of yourself and the world
  • Develop deep relationships
  • And be part of a supportive, caring community

Here, I’ll outline how to form your own Sharing Circle.

To get started, invite friends and acquaintances or put up fliers and post announcements in online communities. Look for three to twelve members. Allow the group togrow by encouraging those who join to invite others. Make your intentions and hopes for the Sharing Circle clear by informing everyone you invite of the first few topics you will be discussing and the structure of your meetings, including the time commitment. Begin meeting when there are at least three of you, and be open to welcoming new people who are interested in joining later on.

Meet on a regular basis at the same time and location for a predetermined period of time. I suggest meeting every other week for a year. Meeting this frequently and for such a long time will allow group members to share the ups and downs of every day life with one another and witness small and large changes in each other’s lives. This will enable you to develop strong bonds and a true sense of community, with stability and purpose. If this time commitment seems daunting, plan to meet every other week for six months (or even just three months) with the option of agreeing to spend more together later on. Make sure your meeting place feels safe and comfortable. Expect the meeting to be an hour and a half to two hours long.

A Sharing Circle might include:

  • An opening ritual
  • A check-in
  • A moment of silence
  • A reading
  • Five minutes of uninterrupted speaking time for each participant
  • A second reading
  • A brief, second round of responsive sharing
  • A closing ritual

In my Circle, the facilitator invites a participant to light a candle at the beginning of each meeting to symbolize “the light of truth, the warmth of love, and the energy of action.” You can use this or develop your own opening ritual that acts as a welcome and signals that your meeting has begun.

Then go around the Circle with a check-in. This is an important opportunity for each person to briefly share a highlight and lowlight in their life in the past two weeks. It’s also an opportunity to see if there’s anything participants need to “let go of” so they can be fully present. When everyone has finished sharing, allow for a minute of silence to hold the experiences and emotionsthat come up.

Check-in’s can reveal all sorts of life events, including: fun activities, accomplishments, goals, breakups, new partners, pregnancy, sickness, and death. Someone might need to let go of a stressful day at work or a fight with a loved one before being able to fully participate in the deep sharing and listening that’s about to begin. So we can honor the coexistence of the happiness, pride, excitement, anxiety, fear, frustration, and sadness associated with these experiences by holding them together in silence.

During this time, we can also begin to collect ourselves and turn our thoughts to the subject at hand. After this, the facilitator might share a reading on the topic such as a poem, a quote, or song lyrics. In our group, the facilitator has passed around a bowl with a collection of quotes written on pieces of paper and invited us to take one and read it aloud to the group. We found this practice to be an inclusive and intellectually stimulating way to begin our meetings.

Participants then speak as they feel moved, and the facilitator sets a five minute timer. During this period, the speaker shares thoughts, feelings, observations, and experiences related to the subject at hand­–and everyone else listens without comment. If a speaker falls silent, the rest of the group remains quiet for the remainder of that person’s time in case there is anything else he or she thinks of and would like to add. If a participant is still speaking after five minutes have elapsed, the facilitator can let them know by sounding a gentle chime or using a gesture to signal it’s time to start wrapping up.

Select a few topics before your Sharing Circle starts, so group members will know what they’ll be talking about at the first three or four gatherings. Here are some subjects my Circle has discussed, and for which I’ve adapted the preparation material, to help you get started (you can download these at the top of this post):

  • Changing the World
  • Technology
  • Growing Up
  • Books that Changed My Life
  • Parenting
  • Friendship
  • Who Do You Want to Be?
  • Life’s Many Pathways
  • Bring Your Favorite Song
  • Endings (for your last meeting)

When you’re ready to start picking your own topics, remember to keep them simple so they can be explored from a variety of angles and group-friendly so everyone can participate. Phrase your reflection questions in neutral and inclusive terms, and in such a way as to allow the conversation to go in a number of directions. Gather some quotes related to the topic, if you like, to demonstrate the broad range of opinions there are on the subject and to stimulate peoples’ thinking.

After the first few meetings, invite group members to suggest their own topics. If someone in the group suggests a topic, is interested in developing the preparation material, and would also like to facilitate that meeting, support him or her in doing so. Perhaps someone will have several ideas, and other members would like to prepare the reflection questions for them. Encourage participation and let each person participate at his or her comfort level.

Once everyone in the Sharing Circle has had an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the subject at hand, conclude the first sharing period with a second reading. The piece you choose might acknowledge the importance or complexity of the issue, or be an inspiring note to end on.

If you have any business items to attend to, such as deciding future topics and inviting participants to write the reflection questions, this is a good time to do it. I recommend always having the next two meeting topics planned, and soliciting ideas for the third and fourth meeting out. This will give your group direction and stability, and allow members who are assembling preparation material plenty of time.

You can then open the floor up for a brief, second round of sharing for members to make one or two more comments in response to what other participants have said. This is an opportunity for members to share the insights they have gained and epiphanies they have had as a result of sharing and listening, rather than a time to question other participants’ views or debate a point with them. Like the first round of sharing, the primary purpose of this practice is reflection.

Bring the Sharing Circle to an end with a closing ritual. In my group, we join hands around the candle in the center , read a final­–and usually uplifting–quote, and blow the candle out together. You could do this, develop your own closing ritual, or simply thank everyone for sharing their thoughts and listening deeply to one another. At the end of the meeting, pass out the reflection questions for your next gathering.

You can learn more about starting a Sharing Circle here, here, and here.

If you don’t feel like starting a group but want to participate in one and are comfortable visiting a non-creedal church, you could also see if there’s a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in your area and ask about joining their Small Group Ministry program. UU congregations generally include atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and Humanists, as well as people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” My recommendations for forming Sharing Circles are adapted from UU resources for Small Group Ministry and some UU congregations are in the habit of–or would be open to–forming groups like this specifically for Humanists.

About Crystal Alburger

Crystal Alburger is a candidate for a Master of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. As a Spiritual Activist Fellow with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California from 2011 to 2012, she lobbied for the Human Right to Water and designed a program for young adults to reflect on the relationship between their values and actions. She is interested in promoting religiously pluralistic community and bringing theists and nontheists together around shared Humanist values. She considers talking to people, reading, going to church, riding her motorcycle, and cooking to be some of her most spiritually fulfilling practices.

3 comments on “Sharing Circles

  1. Pingback: Temple of the Future

  2. Your circle is somewhat similar to our Neighborhood Circles of Care at the U.U, here in Westport, CT.

    With your OK I will share info of your Circle at our next Facilitators meet.

    Peace

    Ron

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