I wrote this in preparation for our first churchwide bookstudy.
Some of it is specific but much is general.
What does it take to run a book study group?
Here are some observations from my experience over the last two
years, plus some information from a study guide I purchased (but
did not use) for one of the books we studied.
1) Advertising. I don't like it (hate it!), but it's necessary.
Most people are not looking for something else to fill their time,
as they are already busy enough, or at least think they are.
That means you must convince them that their time would be better
spent reading a book, thinking about what they have read, and then
discussing their thoughts with their friends (or soon to be friends.)
For the Lenten book study, the advertising will be provided for you,
as Evelyn already has big plans and has started to put them into
service. Notice that we are 3 1/2 months ahead of the kick off time.
That is an appropriate lead time for a new venture, but may be a bit
much for a repeat. I have also posted on the church web site, and
announced to my group, the title of our next book, Profiles of Jesus.
1a) Advertising for "Profiles of Jesus", edited by Roy Hoover. This
book is a collection of profiles developed by members of the Jesus
Seminar after they had collected what they decided were authentic
sayings and deeds of Jesus, the man, the pre-Easter Jesus. I hope
this book will be a valuable asset in assisting Lenten book study
leaders to have a broad view of Jesus. This study will run for the
two months preceding Lent, and will provide both experience in how
a group can work and useful content. Give it a thought. Details on
the church web site.
2) I have been choosing books for our group for two years, so I have
some experience in deciding what works and what doesn't. Sometimes
I'm right. It depends on the group what kind of book will work best
with that particular group. And the leader must also fit the group,
or perhaps the constitution of the group will change over time to
fit the leader. I tend to choose books that are fairly academic, as
that is my approach to religion. Another leader may choose books
that are more spiritually oriented, but that would not fit my style.
Whatever works for you. Since I realize I am a radical liberal in
the Methodist Church, I sometimes choose books that are more
conservative than my own views. (Perhaps always?) For our Lenten
study, the book has already been chosen, of course. This means we
will all be reading the same book, at about the same rate, and will
have some of the same questions raised in the group meetings. As
usual, this book is more conservative than I would really like, but
it's great for our church community.
3) I have always read the book before choosing it for the study
group. I'm sure it is possible to do a book study 'cold', without
having read the book first, but that would surely lead to some
surprises. This allows me to decide on a length for the study.
We have done 6, 7, and 8 weeks groups, and we are now pretty much
into the 8 week mode if the time is available. Our winter book,
"Profiles of Jesus" will be a 7 week book to get it in before Lent.
There are two opposing factors to be considered when choosing the
duration for a book study. If the study is too short, a couple of
things happen. Someone who misses a meeting will feel like they
have missed too much and will tend not to come back. Even those
who make all the meetings will feel as if they are not as much a
part of the community as possible. One of the good things about
Disciple Bible Study is that the text is long enough for a 34 week
group. Talk about plenty of time for community formation!
4) Community: My favorite word now! Part of the reason for the book
study is learning the information in the book and stretching your
thinking a bit. But another, probably more important part, is to
build community through sharing our thoughts and struggles with the
material in the book. I have found through experience of leading
EPC and Power and Light that 12 weeks is enough time to build a
great, caring, involved community. 5 weeks is not enough time for
community development, and 6 to 8 weeks is marginal. One reason
we have been successful with our past book studies is that the same
people keep coming back, so we don't have to restart the community
building process with each book. We all know enough about each other
to get more seriously into the discussion of the text, and we know
pretty well where each person stands on many of the related issues.
This is a big help in developing ideas and relationships.
5) There are different types of content to include in a book study.
The study guide I have for RBAFT* was written by Greg Jenks, an
Anglican Priest in Australia and a member of the Jesus Seminar.
Greg includes time for some ritual in his study guide, as he feels
it is am important part of the community building process. During
our first book, two years ago we did have a closing circle, but that
ritual has gone away, and I don't think anyone misses it. Well, we
still have cookies at the end, while we talk about other things in
our lives besides the book content. I guess that counts for ritual.
What we don't have are opening and closing prayers, Bible verses that
go with the subject matter, or any of the other types of church
ritual that we might have as part of a community meeting. I'm not
suggesting that you either do or do not include this kind of thing
in your group meetings. That is a decision for the leaders to make
based on who is participating and how they will feel about such
ritual. If it helps community building, then go for it.
* RBAFT = Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg.
6) So, you've read the book, advertised, and know that some people
will show up at the appropriate place for your first meeting. My
system is to go through the assigned reading for the evening (or
whenever the group meets) and select some discussion questions. The
way my mind works, I can generate questions from just about any
paragraph or sentence. My problem is usually having too many
questions to get through in a meeting. You may have the opposite
problem of not being able to generate enough questions. I would
rather spend time talking about questions that other members of the
group have, than my own questions. But it is difficult to get others
to contribute as many questions as I would like to have. Notice the
emphasis on questions rather than answers. The purpose of a book
study is questions, not answers. Do you enjoy talking with people
who have all the answers, or people who have interesting questions?
It's that simple. So what am I doing here: providing answers to
possible questions. I'm sure that anyone reading this will have
his/her own questions about how a book study should work, and I would
be glad to trade questions with you. For the Lenten study, I have
a set of questions already developed by a Navy Chaplain in Vancouver,
BC. The set is small, but the subjects are broad. Additional, more
specific questions may be helpful if you would like to add your own.
7) OK, so some people showed up and we are ready to start. I use
some time at the beginning of the first session to present a few
expectations and ask for a few from my new (or old) friends. One
item that is very important is confidentiality. It is not appropriate
to share some of the information outside the group. Judgment on
what to share and what not to share mostly comes from experience.
I pass out a sheet with about half information about what I will do,
and about half space for folks to write down names, phone numbers,
e-mail addresses, and answer a couple of questions about what they
expect to have happen in the following weeks. One thing I stress is
that you won't get out any more than you put into the group, so
please participate fully. Silence is Golden. It's OK to have
significant pauses between speakers while everyone considers the
last comments and thinks about an appropriate response. This was
something that I had to work hard at learning. I most often want
to jump in with my response, but Evelyn sometimes holds me down.
8) So now all the cookies are gone, the last group members are out
the door and you have a minute to relax. Did it go well? Do they
all like me? Did I talk too much (I usually do.) I am extremely
fortunate to have Evelyn with whom to do a post mortem of each
meeting. When we first started, I was very concerned about the
mechanics of each meeting. Now I have learned to relax and realize
that sometimes the discussion goes as I thought it would, and
sometimes it goes some other place entirely. Both are OK. One
question I ask myself after each meeting is "Did everyone get a
chance to contribute?" The ongoing group we have is made up of
people who will definitely jump in and say what is on their mind,
so there is now seldom a time when someone doesn't contribute. That
will be different in new groups, and the leaders should probably
make a concerted effort to involve everyone. That may be harder
than I think, because I don't have much experience with group members
like that. Work it out as best you can.
9) Now it's time to read the next chapter(s), decide on a few more
good questions and e-mail them to all the group members....
10) Problems. This is what the Sunday night meeting at the Lutz
home is all about. I'm not a psychologist, so I can't answer
questions about really serious group problems, but all the leaders
are more than welcome to gather at our house for support, more
community building, and just to see how everyone else is doing. I
don't expect to see all the leaders every week, and in fact if we
have as many groups as possible, we wouldn't have room. But please
feel free to come and share, enjoy a cookie, and perhaps blow off
a little steam about those things that obviously went wrong. Our
combined experience can be really helpful, however. As you know,
our group contains mostly people who work with other people and we
really do have a lot of combined experience. Make the most of it.