Group dynamics

When my writing group started nearly seven years ago, it was an open group. Everyone who knew of it through word of mouth was welcome to meet at Shari’s diner on Monday nights for timed writes and sharing aloud. Each week it was a slightly different group as one person decided it wasn’t a good fit for them or a new person joined in.

Over time, though, the group solidified, and the same handful of writers showed up each week. That meant that we got to know each other well, not just as fellow writers, but also as friends and confidantes. We went on trips together, celebrated each other’s birthdays, got our kids together for play dates, shared laughter and tears, and commiserated over family drama. We let each other into our lives.

We were more than just a writing group, even though that’s what brought us together. There was a lot at stake. Eventually, then, we didn’t just invite people to join, we asked each other’s permission, but more and more often the asking was met with a negative response or simply silence. Then we stopped asking altogether. Our group had become closed.

There’s much to be said for a small, safe group of trusted friends. You can be goofy and vulnerable in ways that aren’t always possible when new people filter in and out. As an introvert and someone who moved away from childhood friends and went to college out of state, I place a high value on the friendships I’ve made as an adult. I’m fiercely loyal and protective of these relationships and wary of disrupting a group dynamic that is working well. It’s as if we were individuals wandering in the wilderness, and when we found each other we banded together and immediately forgot what it was like to be alone. But what if we’re missing out?

In a seminary class I’m taking we’ve been talking about bounded versus centered sets and institutions versus organisms. In a bounded set there’s a line drawn around the people on the inside to keep the people on the outside out until they are acculturated, indoctrinated, and assimilated into the group. In a centered set, there is no boundary. Instead, everyone involved is moving toward the center in their own unique way. Similarly, an institution exists to preserve itself and is resistant to outside influence while an organism welcomes, benefits from, and grows from new ideas and different perspectives.

I find much tension between safety and inclusion, and I wonder if the former is based on fear. I know that’s true, in part, for me. The pain of broken relationships, loneliness, and ostracism I’ve experienced in the past makes me less willing to invite others into something that’s already seemingly perfect. And yet if the people who extended invitations to me had felt the same way, I wouldn’t have the relationships I so rely on now.

There is power in invitation, and I’m trying to remember this in new group endeavors. I started a book club in my neighborhood two years ago with women who I had met in person. We had a good thing going and could have kept it as is. But a year ago we made the decision to post it on the online neighborhood bulletin board and open it up to everyone, and I’m so glad we did. New people have joined, and they’ve become regulars and dear friends, friends I may not have met otherwise.

I think there’s a place for closed groups of trusted friends, but I want to be sensitive to people who need an invitation into relationship. I know I’ve been saved by invitations. There’s too much loneliness in the world. I want to invite and help others connect, belong, be loved.

Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She is a Master of Divinity student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and she can’t live without books, coffee, and mountains.

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