Monday, April 25, 2016

Sustained by a Small Group - Lunch Ladies

"If your tummy's talking . . . you better start walking.  To Stomping Grounds, that is.  It's Wednesday, after all." 
                            ~ D.K.

The quote above is the kind of email invitation a group of women in Ames, Iowa have come to expect each Wednesday morning.  For the past several years - 5?  7?  10? - Deb Kline has kept her commitment to be at Stomping Grounds cafe at 11:30 AM on Wednesdays.  She has eaten by herself and with as many as twelve other women and any number of people in between in living out this commitment.

It's easy to see why this group of diverse women - diverse in age, economics, education, interests - keeps coming back together each week.  When we arrive, we are greeted with the embracing gazes and sincere smiles from the group that has already assembled.  Along with these non-verbal greetings, the day's soup selection is transmitted amidst the stacatto "you're here!" or "you made it!" or a resounding cheer if you've been away for a really long time.

This group is not like the intentional small groups we think of around learning, or service, or exercise, or therapy, or religion.  It is impossible for you to come into the Lunch Lady group as a consumer expecting a provider or broker to guide your experience in the group.  Those looking for something concrete - like a solution to global warming or income inequality, terrorism, or the true author of the complete Shakespearean works - only attend a time or two.

Some people show up to the Lunch Lady group every year or so to see if we've changed.  Sometimes they are mistaken and think we have changed and become relevant to what they seek. But truly, it is they who have changed .  We do not hold their earlier confusion against them.

We have nothing to offer anyone other than an opportunity to reveal a part of themselves to the rest of the group; people who have no more authority or expertise than their own mirror.

Our conversations may seem cliche` or superficial - our parents, our children, our partners, politics, self-deprecating stories about run-ins with authority or incredulity.  If you listen closely you will hear the codes and innuendos in the stories we share.  You will learn that these stories are invitations and affirmations.  We invite each other to deeper conversastions outside the group where we can meet one on one to mentor and guide others if we choose.

Though a certain bawdiness is present most weeks, we know when to be quiet and listen to someone who needs to talk.  We know how to hold a heaviness. What is shared in our group does not leave our group, unless we specifically ask that our stories go out.

This group has lasted so long because it's easy to belong to. There is no preparation, no homework, no follow-up with other groups. No annual reports, no budgets, and no critique from the parent organization. In my time, no one has made a grand exit from the group, cascading complaints or criticisms of the leaders, the mission or the vision. To do so, would be to complain of and criticize oneself.

There are other small groups that are more formally structured.  They are usually extensions of churches, institutions, organiztions, or causes.  Those groups require much time, structure, support and resources from their parent organizations to be successful.  They have to have clearly communicated guidelines to make them open, welcoming, and purpose driven.  These groups have little in common with the Lunch Ladies, save a regular time and day for meeting. Do not confuse one group with the other - you will end up hating them both if you are not clear about what they are and are not.  

If you are comfortable with entropy, anarchy, and fits of laughter - I would encourage you to start a group that will foster authentic and diverse connections like those of the Lunch Ladies.  We are not a franchise, and only some of us call our group the Lunch Ladies, so, copy our model and name at will. Just follow these ten easy steps:

  1. Announce a time and place where you will always be present and invite others to join you if and when they can.  Do not apologize that you have chosen a time when "everyone" can not meet, as no such time exists.
  2. Show up.
  3. When someone suggests a theme, or lesson, or mission for your group - take a deep breath, look them in the eye and say, "that sounds like a great idea . . . . for your new group."  Then look around the table and ask, "am I right?"  Distract the the person who brought up the topic by telling them about a dream you had recently . . . or what outrageous demand your mother made on your time last week . . . or about your run in with the parking enforcement officer. . .
  4. When someone suggests a change in time or place for the group - see #3.
  5. Listen more than you talk.
  6. Always assume best intentions, don't take the conversation personally.
  7. Don't judge.
  8. Be kind whenever possible (it is always possible).
  9. Expect people to want to spend time with you outside the group to get to know you better.  It is okay to decline any requests from any group member.  It is also okay to accept requests for further connections.
  10. Repeat #2 as often as possible.

Deb - Founder of the Lunch Ladies