by Tree Bressen
How do your meetings start? Do you hold hands, sing a song, or read a mission statement? These are some of the most time-honored ways to signal the beginning of an official gathering. While this type of opening ceremony is not strictly necessary, taking a few extra minutes to bring the group together offers a host of benefits, from bringing focus to the work ahead to getting to know each other more deeply.
For some communitarians, the idea of reading a mission statement brings back bad memories of being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school. Given that community is an alternative to mainstream lifestyle, it's not surprising that some who choose it are suspicious of anything that seems conformist. In addition, because communities are sometimes subject to accusations of being "cults," members may want to avoid activities that have any overtones of "group-think."
Yet communities also need unity. While steps to unity can take many different forms, communities need to be pro-active in order to overcome the conditioning of an individualist culture. This may be particularly true for groups who do not have a common religion or clear goals to hold them together.
One approach to opening meetings that addresses both these needs is to consistently include an opening event, but let the form vary. The type of opening can be determined by the facilitator or the agenda planners, or sponsoring openings can be a special role that is rotated throughout the membership. The latter option may give those who don't normally volunteer to help run meetings a chance to shine and contribute in a new way. If someone is going to try out a new opening on the group, they should think through each step ahead of time and plan for efficient instructions; delivery can be practiced on family or friends before taking up the whole community's time.
One of the most common openings is the "check-in." This gives each person a few minutes to say how they're doing, what's up lately, and any big issues that might get in the way of them focusing on the meeting agenda. Besides offering each person the attention of the group, check-ins also alert the other members if they need to be particularly sensitive to someone because, say, the person just received an upsetting phone call from their cousin.
Here are a few more examples of the classic go-round (a go-round means that every person is invited to respond in turn; usually passing is also an option):
News & Goods - each person says something new or good that happened since the last meeting.
Appreciations - each person says something they appreciate about someone else or the community.
Sharing Answers - Questions can range from "What is your favorite food?" to "If I were queen of the community I would . . ." to "As a child, what did you most dislike about your parents?" Pick something appropriate to the time limit and level of intimacy in your group.
Where Were You When? - someone picks a date (e.g., January 5, 1978, or three months after your twelfth birthday) and everyone tells where they were and what they remember doing at that time.
If each person is going to share, providing clear guidance on how much time to speak helps keep things moving. Passing around a timer allows participants to self-regulate, neatly avoiding both the awkwardness of one person speaking longer than is appropriate and the awkwardness of telling someone else their time is up. If having each person address the whole group would take too long (e.g., if your meeting has 50 attendees), splitting into pairs or small groups is also an option.
Another fun way to find out a bit more about each other is a variation on the game Big Wind Blows. Someone calls out a survey question, such as "Who has sisters?" or "Who's visited five or more intentional communities?" or "Who listens to music by Ani DiFranco?" Everyone who fits the description pops up out of their seat, then sits down again to hear the next question. The extra physical activityand laughterserve as a nice prelude to an hour or two of seated discussion.
Because meetings usually focus explicitly on the verbal, openings can be a great time to try something different. Has your group tried alternatives such as music, pictures, movement, or ritual?
If you want to teach a song, choose one that's short and simple. Writing out the words in advance on poster paper at the front or passing out song-sheets makes it much easier to learn. You can also have each person sing their name to the group and have the group sing it back, sing wordless tones and harmonize with each other, or join in a reverberating "Om." If you have a decent sense of rhythm, try starting a beat with everyone, then directing each individual in a form that meshes with the whole. Percussion in this setting, like voice, needs no special equipment-tap on a table or on your legs.
Making art can be individual (each person draws a picture) or communal (everyone contributes to a mural). Brightly colored markers, crayons or pastels are fun for all ages. For the purpose of opening a meeting, anything like paint or glue that needs time to dry, or a craft like origami that requires a leader to teach steps, is probably too complicated. Invite members to draw their fantasy community house, their favorite tree, or the person sitting next to them.
Any activity that gets people up and moving is to the good. Stand up and imagine you are seaweed waving in the ocean, or a heron flying overhead. Improvise a human sculpture. Spin around in circles. At one of my favorite Acorn community meetings, one member jumped on her chair and led everyone in being a locomotive: starting with a low chug-chug and slow circles of the hands, the group revved up faster and faster, peaking with a piercing train whistle call: "CHOO! CHOO!"
Less dramatic activities to bring folks together include short meditations or visualizations, or breathing and centering exercises. Getting people relaxed and in their bodies brings them into the present moment, laying aside whatever unfinished business they left to come to the meeting. And of course, there's always a simple moment of silence, a technique that is timeless and priceless.
For some, calling for a moment of silence has religious overtones. Quakers, for whom silence is a foundation, officially refer to their business meetings as "Meeting for Worship for Business," explicitly acknowledging their religious basis. While many spiritual communities have rituals in place to gather the group, secular communities vary in their comfort level with such rituals. At FIC, we want to welcome both secular and spiritual communitarians, so we aim for rituals that are open to interpretation and don't require specialized knowledge. In recent years, we've started sessions by lighting a candle. Then we draw a tarot card to see what lies ahead, reading a description of its symbolism aloud from a book. (We also draw a second card to leave covered until the end of the day's sessions, thus tying together the opening and closing.)
The ritual element can bring up particularly strong feelings based on people's backgrounds, so as with any community activity, "Know thy group" and select accordingly. Just as some people prefer variety and others prefer routine in areas such as food and sex, so it is with meeting openings. For groups that enjoy trying something different, it can be a great time to let creativity fly. My basic guideline for openings is: keep it snappy and happy!