Wide open spaces that isolate. Tight finances and long travel time. That makes it hard for pastors to leave their congregations for one retreat, much less a seasonal Courage to Lead series. But the value of connecting rural clergy with each other was too great to ignore. We wondered if there was another way to build on an introductory retreat experience…by phone.
Can the sense of community and transformational learning generated in a Circle of Trust retreat be deepened through a series of participant/facilitator conference calls without additional face-to-face contact?
The answer I found was a resounding “Yes!”, according to a group of 43 western pastors who participated in an experimental project beginning in 2008. Each pastor attended an introductory Courage to Lead in-person retreat in Montana followed by a series of five “virtual book groups” based on Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness.
Their “up until now” conference call experience had left most pastors skeptical that the group follow-up calls would be worth participating in at all. I promised the calls would emulate the retreat format they had learned in a Circle of Trust, including large group discussions, journaling and small group discussions. To encourage deeper connection, I created multiple call groups from each introductory retreat that limited participants in each group to six. (A complete description of call mechanics can be found in the link that follows this post.)
Throughout the call series, I gathered participants’ qualitative assessments of the experience and later clustered those comments into themes. To avoid creating what I feared might be a dry write-up of results, I decided to communicate findings through “found poetry,” a new research reporting method I had discovered in which words and phrases from participant responses are crafted into verse in keeping with the themes they expressed.
Although there were some glitches to the groups, participants said that the practices and trust developed in the in-person retreat and the call format made deep communication possible – despite their original skepticism. “Irony,” a poem that includes multiple folks’ comments, communicates this evolution of feeling about the value of the calls:
I miss eye contact—
that I do miss.
are so important
that I was kind of
I was surprised
were as effective
as they were.
I was surprised
could be used to get away.
that this little
bane of our existence
a way in(to) retreat.
The series also deepened participants’ practice with what we call “honest, open questions.” A consistent theme in their responses was the power of this practice to move their counseling relationships with parishioners in a positive new direction. Many said the innovative way of questioning shifted their own role from unrealistic and unsuccessful “fixer” to rewarding and empowering “witness” in support of parishioners uncovering their own spiritual resources.
A number of poems are devoted to this theme, but the most dramatic testament to the value of honest, open questions came from a pastor who used these questions to help a suicidal parishioner. She related that one day a member of her congregation had called in desperation, telling her, “I don’t want to live. I can’t fight the system. Everybody hates me.” The poem tells the story of what happened before she remembered to stop “fixing” and ask honest, open questions:
I had a parishioner
I was asking
and when I got
I reflect on
my past ministry:
I was naturally
curious and aggressive,
and it makes me
Later, the pastor reflected on how using honest, open questions transformed a future call and may have helped saved her parishioner’s life:
As I sat with _____ in silence over the phone, my training in spiritual direction and honest open questions came back. I realized my spirit was already trying to have a conversation. I needed to get out of my judgmental head. I began to slowly ask _______ honest open questions that invited him to explore what_____ really needed. As I did, the situation on the phone deescalated.
Today _______ is still here. When _____ calls, I just listen … listen for feelings. Using the new skill caused me to look back on my old way of working with parishioners in crisis.
To learn more about creating virtual retreats, you can purchase a copy of the journal, Teaching and Learning from the Inside Out, edited by Margaret Golden, in which a longer version of this article first appeared. Individual articles are also available for purchase.
Chris Love is a Courage & Renewal facilitator from Corvallis, MT. She brings a background in education, marketing and organization development to the work and has facilitated Circle of Trust retreats for clergy, educators and health care professionals.