Circling around

I’m going public. I’m not going to keep it a semi-secret any longer! Besides, those most closely affected don’t read my blog, as far as I know.

I am running a social experiment on my congregation. I am planting a Presbyterian Women circle, to see whether it will grow. I just haven’t told any of the participants that.

We haven’t had a formally-affiliated PW circle at my church since I don’t even know when. We do have one group that refers to itself as a circle, and it seems to be thriving… and the average age of its participants is over 75. Say “Circle” at my church, and folk say, “Oh yeah, those ladies are still truckin’! Isn’t it amazing?”

Those ladies. What a not-me statement!

When I began to mull over this project seriously, I did what I usually do in the face of uncertainty: research. Back when I began as an (unpaid) ‘hired gun’ managing the web presence for the Presbyterian Women of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, I did a fair amount of similar research just so I could get my bearings. Knowing where to find the goods is half the research battle!

One of the packets I found is “PW Circle Basics.” Sounds promising! It begins with what’s-his-face’s four stages of team-building, but without the “storming,” okay. It goes on to say, “Circles shaped around heartfelt needs will achieve the purpose of Presbyterian Women.” Good; I’m completely on board with that. Without a heartfelt need I don’t think any group coalesces. Need being met = group.

And then… Then there is polling, informal and formal. There are dates, times, and leaders chosen. There are focus groups and brainstorming sessions. There are binding commitments of future time promised-! There are AARs called by another name.

Oh. My. Gravy. My poor tiny possibility of a sprout just got squashed.


I haven’t used anything from this packet. I simply set up a Bible study opportunity. Study is something we do a lot of together as a congregation; that, and service. My study differs not in content (though it kinda does) but in structure: it’s a monthly study, and nearly all of our other Bible studies meet weekly. (The group that calls itself “Circle” also meets monthly, but I’m not a Circle, remember?) I have a nascent gathering of five, maybe six. Half of them have commented that the weekly studies intimidate them; this felt like something they could manage. I light a Christ-candle as we open; our study book is the one published by Presbyterian Women; we close by praying for each other—which is not unique to formal Presbyterian Women groups, but is also our congregational norm. We’ll see what the year brings as we walk together.

Today I pulled the packet out of a jumble of material I’d been carrying around in my Thursday-study tote. (Shall we call it Thursday-study for now?) It struck me again with its armature, heavy in its advance concerns and pre-preparedness.

The groups I know of, in my congregation or my geographic area, form around a given seed, a purpose for joining together for a particular (often short!) season. First the seed, then the people, then the community. Some of the groups formed that way stay in community after the first seed grows, flourishes, and dies—they find new seeds to plant together. Some groups are only together for that season, but the affinities developed continue to weave the people together.

I’m wondering: is this part of what the wider Presbyterian Women leadership is groping around in the dark to find? Ever-shrinking participation has these saints panicky and flustered. They know from the crown of their heads to the bottom of their souls that PW offers a life-giving work. But getting even a match-flame of that life into… say… a congregation like mine is harder than digging holes in my backyard. (My dirt is 18″ deep. Then it’s limestone all the way down. So yeah.)

I don’t know, either, how to describe a world of purpose-driven joint alliances to a century-old organization of lovingly-built armatures that have served well for generations. If what PW wishes to stress is an unbounded web of connection, I don’t know how to make a bridge over to “tell me why we’re here again, and why I gave up <XXX> to do this?”

Maybe all we can do is offer seeds that take more than one person and one session to plant. And pray that in that shared time, more takes root than merely, “Good job!”

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