Participating in an ongoing Faithfulness Group helps me sense more clearly God’s call on my life. We offer each other a form of prayerful attention and companionship that helps us remember, again and again, that God is always present, ready to guide each and all of us. It’s a crucial spiritual practice.
My group currently includes six members and meets once a month. This month we met at my house. After a simple potluck supper together, we settled into my living room. Then we devoted one hour each to two people in the group. During that hour, a person talks for fifteen minutes about some area of life in which he or she is seeking to sense divine guidance more clearly and respond faithfully. After the presentation, the group asks questions to help the presenter look more closely at how the Spirit has been at work internally and in the events of their lives. Over time, our group has learned not to hurry with our questions and not to engage in mental analysis of the situation, but to prayerfully wait for the questions that rise from the Spirit among us. After each question, we hold the person in prayer as they look within for the deep knowing that resides in the heart.
Usually when my group settles to engage in the Faithfulness Group process, I find myself moved to a deeper place of inward calm, a place of reverence. My busy mind slows down. Then I’m better able to attend to a subtle awareness of the divine Presence among us. When I hear stories of the particular ways that others have experienced the Spirit at work, my faith is strengthened. When friends share their longing to be of true service and their deep desire to know how God is guiding them, I find that same longing and desire strengthened in me.
It is a blessing both to witness the faithfulness of others and to share my own journey honestly. Something in my heart relaxes and opens wider when people listen lovingly as I speak about the simple and glorious ways I sense God teaching and leading me. Trust has grown over time, and gradually my ability to be deeply honest has increased. It is freeing to be able to speak the truth I know in my heart that contradicts the norms of society. And revealing my secret fears, hurts, and places of resistance has helped me to allow God to heal those things. When I speak to others about my intimate walk with the Spirit, the truth of it becomes revealed to me in new ways. Sometimes during a Faithfulness Group meeting, I can feel the light within me shine more brightly. I see it happen in my companions, too. Gathering with our Faithfulness Group each month is a practice that helps all of us remember our faith and find the firm ground of God’s steadfast love.We meet about once a month, with two people having the focus of the group, one at a time. Each person has the group’s attention about four times a year. It’s like having an ongoing spiritual support group and clearness committee at the same time. But a Faithfulness Group adds another dimension. Because we accompany each other over a long period of time, we get to know each other’s inner, spiritual lives in an intimate way. We can help each other notice the ways that we resist God’s leadings and call. Through prayer, deep listening, questions, and loving support, we help each other overcome the hidden internal barriers to a life of faithfulness. A clearness committee helps a person discern a leading; a faithfulness group helps discern each small step along the path, and find the way back after a misstep or distraction.
Each month, our group rotates the role of convenor, whose primary task is to keep time so that everyone has a fair share of attention, and so that we finish punctually. Sometimes, when we veer into problem-solving, advice-giving, or telling our own stories, the convenor also needs to gently remind us of the guidelines for our group. Our intention is to provide “holy accompaniment” to each other and to let the Spirit guide our sessions.
I first encountered the format of these groups while enrolled in the Shalem Institute program on Spiritual Guidance, a program designed for people who spend time listening to others explore their spiritual lives. My teachers in the Shalem program—Gerald May, Tilden Edwards, and Rosemary Dougherty–emphasized the importance of having peer support while engaging in spiritual guidance of others. To be faithful to the call to that particular form of ministry, they said, it was very useful to meet with other spiritual guides and spiritual directors with whom one could share the workings of the Spirit and reveal the inward challenges, resistances, and blocks that were coming up. For nine years, I was part of a group of Quaker spiritual nurturers meeting monthly to provide this wonderful kind of peer support to each other.
At some point during those years, another Friend and I realized that this format could be opened up so that people could provide companionship to each other for many forms of faithfulness—following a leading, living out a call, engaging in service or some sort of ministry, or being faithful in one’s job or family commitments. When we seek to hear God’s guidance and respond faithfully in any of these areas of our lives, participation in an ongoing faithfulness group can be a great blessing.
In 2005, with permission from Shalem Institute, we revised the peer group guidelines for wider use; then we called together a group of friends who were seeking to be faithful to calls to various forms of ministry, including the ministry of eldering. The first group we formed continues to meet, though some of the original members have moved away and other Friends have joined us. Initially the group was called a peer group. As other groups formed, some took different names, including “mutual spiritual accountability groups.” Recently we’ve adopted the name “Faithfulness Groups,” to describe our intention and practice. I have participated in several Faithfulness Groups. One, which lasted for five years, was of vital importance in my ability to grow into my call as a speaker, teacher, and writer about the spiritual life. In the groups I’ve been involved in, we’ve supported each other in faithfully participating in meeting committees, engaging in environmental and political activism, serving as a chaplain, working against racism, doing prison ministry, discerning a call to marriage, being a parent, creating theater performances, facilitating workshops, leading groups, and much more.
The ideal number for Faithfulness Groups is 4-6 members, although 3 participants is sometimes sufficient. Members can be drawn from your faith community. It’s also possible for people of different faiths to join together in this way, if there’s a common desire to respond to God’s leadings and to support each other’s discernment in respectful ways. It is not necessary to share a meal together; in fact the two-hour format is intended to make it easy for busy people to fit a monthly Faithfulness Group session into their schedules. The current guidelines for Faithfulness Groups are available HERE.
Many Friends feel that their faith communities do not provide all the spiritual intimacy and support that they need to live faithful lives. I’ve been blessed to have received a great deal of holy accompaniment in my life. Participation in Faithfulness Groups has been key.
© 2018 Marcelle Martin photo of two women @ Leigh Ruddick Tolton
Marcelle’s book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. It describes ten elements of the spiritual journey of faithfulness, as experienced by the first Quakers and by Friends in our time. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of the spiritual journey. A Guide to Faithfulness Groups is forthcoming in summer 2019.
For information about upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.