Dave Muscato here again, with some more practical ideas for running your group meetings as successfully as possible. My last article focused on the importance of choosing the right room for your meetings. Today, I’m going to talk about a few easy, low-cost things you can do to make your meetings more effective, and to encourage more interaction from your members.
Skeptics’ groups can serve many different purposes. Your regular, weekly meetings should be only one part of what your group does. Not everyone is interested in the same types of activities, and by casting your net a little wider, you can make your group more useful and more interesting to a wider variety of members–and potential members.
For example, some people are very interested in things like field trips to museums or zoos, or even just things like nature hikes (perhaps guided by your resident botany or entomology grad student!). Other people might be more interested in a TED-style lecture followed by discussion, while still others might be more interested in a skeptics-in-the-pub type of meeting, a book club, or a service work/volunteering activity.
These are not mutually exclusive, and I recommend applying as many of these as possible to reflect the tastes of your members, on alternating weeks if needed. If your group is sizable enough to support it, you can try doing these throughout each week, on different days rather than alternating weeks. To paraphrase Greta Christina, the most successful groups of which I am aware tend to host lots of different activities regularly, and can therefore appeal to lots of different types of people.
One easy idea that is often overlooked is the provision of name tags. Name tags help your members familiarize themselves with each other, and encourage the idea that yes, they are allowed to chat during meetings. Often, especially in lecture-style meetings, members might feel like they’re supposed to be listening, rather than interacting, even after the talk has ended. By providing name tags, you can make it easier for members to feel comfortable interacting with each other, which encourages budding friendships.
Not everyone will want to wear a name tag, and that’s fine. Officers can set an example by wearing one if they’d like. A roll of 1,000 adhesive, disposable nametags–enough to last all year–can be found online for about $30. For a few dollars each, you can even have reusable engraved plastic nametags made for your officers, which can help them feel more inspired to represent the cause, and to regard their own positions more professionally. These are also GREAT for your officers to have at your events, e.g. debates and conferences, or just at your regular Ask-an-Atheist or other tables.
In my group, we really try to put a priority on making our weekly meetings a place of community for our members, not just a place to learn about this week’s topic. Humans are social animals, and we thrive in groups. Often, people who are doubting their religious doctrines or have questions about atheism feel isolated, or even guilty. It is natural for them, if they are involved in a church group, to turn to their pastors for advice. This is precisely when we need to be there for them, to help answer questions, and to be a guide through this often painful and intense process.
One way you can make your group be a better place of community is by taking 5 minutes at the beginning of your meetings to break into small groups of 3-5 people, and just talk about things that are going on in your lives. If you have a paper coming up that you’re worried about, sometimes it feels good just to say so, even if it’s just to a few brand-new friends. If you’re having problems with your boyfriend, sometimes it helps just to talk about it. And unlike praying during group meetings, as we see in churches–which is demonstrably useless beyond placebo effect–humanists can focus on actually addressing and even resolving some of these problems. If one of your members is feeling stressed about an upcoming chemistry test, it’s likely that someone in your group knows chemistry well and can help her study. If someone is your group is going through a nasty breakup and needs a hug, these are things your group can provide, but only if you know about them.
Within skeptics’ groups, we have at our disposal people who are not only very educated, compassionate, and intelligent, but people who value critical thinking, logic, and rational problem-solving. Don’t be afraid to use this information to help your group members make progress toward resolving their everyday concerns. This also helps people get to know each other, and to know that your meetings are a safe place for them. This is especially important if they are still on the fence about their doubts.
The great part about being a humanist is that humans really exist. That means that, unlike imaginary friends, we can actually be there for each other.
If there is one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: Strive to make your group feel small. Take the time to chat with your members, especially if you see new faces. This is where true friendships are forged, and that’s what humanism is all about.
Until next time!