You Can Practice Skills In A Small Group
If you have been asked to be a group leader, congratulations. It means that the district leaders have observed that you are moving in the direction of being a leader. Small groups are a marvelous place to practice the skills needed for leadership. Remember no one is experienced when they take on the responsibility, but through doing the work and staying close to experienced leaders you will have a marvelous opportunity to grow. As with anything else in the SGI, when you commit to doing the work, you will find that you gain more from the experience than anyone else. So let’s examine how a small group develops.
Laying the Foundation
Chanting, as always, is the basis for everything, both the development of the group and for your development as a leader. If you can find a member to chant with on a regular basis, who has been practicing for a long time, or one who has leadership experience, they will be supportive in many ways. Not only can you chant together but that person will be great resource to discuss questions that come up.
It is important to remember that a small group doesn’t develop overnight. It takes chanting, commitment, patience and consistency.
Get To Know the Members Well
The first step is getting to know the members, building friendships and developing trust. You could invite them to coffee, or visit them in their homes. Get to know them well. Before long you will know whether they are practicing and what they might need to help them develop in their practice. Chant with them from time to time, particularly if they are going through a rough patch.
Call to remind them of meetings and offer to drive if they don’t have a car.
One district had a group where members in wheelchairs who were finding it difficult to attend meetings. Members of the district had the skills to build a ramp for the group meeting house and also for one of the group members who had trouble getting down the stair from her front door. The needs of the members should always be top priority.
Set Up A Consistent Meeting Time
A group should always have a consistent meeting day, whether weekly or monthly, for example the second Saturday of the month. Ask the members what would be a convenient meeting time for them, day or evening and make sure your meeting is included on the district calendar. It will be your responsibility to make sure the calendar is sent to your group members. Even the calendar can be useful for developing relationships. For example, one leader wrote a personal note to send with each calendar.
If you have some sleepy members, you will need to lay a foundation before they will want to come to a meeting. Develop perseverance. Remind them of every meeting and don’t be discouraged if they don’t show up. This is a process and can go on for weeks, months, sometimes several years. You may find, since you know them well, that they may be struggling with a difficult habit, like lack of consistency or maybe they don’t have the gas money.
You can chant with them for a resolution to any of these problems. In the process they will have the experience of using the practice to challenge the pattern.
Leaders who have persisted have found that at some point the member makes the decision to embrace the practice and has thanked them for not giving up on them.
Developing the kind of perseverance ,where you keep on, keeping on, never giving up or getting discouraged, is one of the characteristics which will become invaluable to you both in your own life as well as in your position as group leader.
Preparing For The Meeting
A group leader of course is responsible for planning the meetings. It is important that the members are spiritually fed at every meeting. If you haven’t had much experience with this kind of planning, experienced leaders will be glad to help you pick a topic and be there to support you.
If leading gongyo in front of a group is new to you, you could practice with your chanting partner or with your district leader. That will help you develop confidence.
If you haven’t had much experience with giving presentations, just paraphrasing an article or presenting a topic from the basics in your own words would be enough. Sometimes the guidance for the day or something from Buddhism Day by Day provide good material for a discussion. In one meeting a leader took an experience from World Tribune, and analyzed the experience step by step to illustrate how to use the practice in times of adversity. Group members loved it and said they had read the experience but had never gotten so much from it.
You can always ask a more experienced leader to go over your topic with them. They can tell you whether it is clear, and you will have had the experience of practicing in front of someone else.
Discussions Increase Understanding of the Practice
Discussions are important part of the meeting. During these, each member has the opportunity to share an experience with the practice or hear how someone else has grown in the practice. Experiences of longer term practitioners are teaching examples in how to use the practice to handle issues. These discussions give everyone encouragement.
Discussions are also the place where members can share what has been going on in their lives.It will be important to make sure that everyone has air-time. If you have a group of newer people, there will be a tendency to get deep into the details of an experience. Then it is up to the group leader to redirect the discussion and relate what is happening back to the practice. Your goal is to have everyone feel that they learned something about Buddhism from the presentation and discussion.
Members Can Learn Skills
Before long when you have regular meetings, members of the group will be ready to lead gongyo and help with presentations. Maybe you can ask a group member to explain something in their own words in the group discussion before being asked to actually do a presentation. A small group is a good place to practice skills in a supportive environment.
The member, who is making the presentation, may need support. Offer to help with topic ideas and resources or copying an article for the meeting. Make yourself available to listen to a run-through if needed. This is the beginning of raising the members who will follow you.
Have A Warm Atmosphere
The atmosphere of a group meeting should always be warm and friendly. When a group is coming along well, the members look forward to it and enjoy seeing the other members.
Small Groups Are Good For New People
A small group meeting is a good place to bring a new person and when a new person comes everyone can have practice in explaining the basics. You could have a brief orientation to the practice available to read as well. It’s useful if the group leader has some introductory materials available, cards, a couple of Winning Life’s and gongyo books. One leader carries a briefcase with these things to meetings to always be prepared.
Congratulations for taking on this responsibility. As time passes you will find that taking responsibility for a group will become one of the more rewarding and growth producing experiences of your life.
Develop Leadership Skills Through Growing A Small Group, (c) Margaret Blaine, The Practical Buddhist