Reflection gatherings are one of the most useful tools I know of on this path of service I’m on, but I didn’t always realize it. Even now, I’m pretty sure that I only have a tenuous grasp on what they are and have the potential to be. Since this isn’t something that everyone has a lot of experience with, I thought I would share what I know about organizing reflection gatherings that are meaningful and successful.


What is the purpose of a reflection gatherings?

Reflection gatherings are intended to elevate, clarify, and unify a group’s vision of their service. They provide a space to think about the progress and challenges that they have experienced in the recent past, understand what has been learned, see next steps, and plan ahead for the future. They also provide context for what individuals have been experiencing and learning, both through study and through consultation with others.

First thing to consider: who should attend a reflection gathering?

There are many different types of reflection gatherings, all of which draw on a different subset of people. Perhaps the best known example is the cluster reflection, where all those participating in the community-building process from a particular geographic area (in the US, this is usually either several neighboring counties or a metropolitan area) gather along with those who are new to the process but would like to learn more about how to become engaged. This could include: tutors, animators, children’s class teachers, hosts of devotional gatherings, study circle participants and junior youth, local institutions such as assemblies, committees, and those serving in appointed roles … and more. Some participants might even live outside of the cluster, but travel to serve within it, especially in early stages of development. The main factor is their geographic focus.

But this isn’t the only kind of reflection gathering. Next week I’ll be hosting a children’s class teacher reflection for my state. Participants include anyone teaching, assisting with, or learning to teach Grade 1, 2, or 3 of the children’s class program of the training institute anywhere in the state of Indiana. Sometimes folks from neighboring states also join, and that’s not a problem, as we’ve never run out of room. This is a short gathering, only three hours or so.

Last week was a gathering for people all over our three-state region who are focused on learning about engaging youth and young adults in the main sequence of courses. While all of the participants were tutors, they had different roles in this particular learning process. Some mainly tutor those study circles, some primarily focus on visiting the families of youth, especially those who are younger and are still under the care of their parents. Some are animators who are working on helping to accompany other youth on this particular path of service. But all are committed to continuing the conversation in their own communities and widening the circle of people who are engaged in this area of learning. This gathering was just over two days long.

So you can really have a reflection gathering at any level. People who serve one particular neighborhood can benefit from a reflection gathering. People who are currently tutoring Book 10 of the sequence of courses. People who have started a new junior youth group within the last three months.

Second thing to consider: what questions are being asked?

Sometimes this is actually the first thing. In that case, the people coming are whoever is thinking about these questions. Having particular questions at the center of the gathering gives it purpose aside from just a recitation of recent events.

In the case of our group focused on youth in study circles, we have several questions that we started with at our gathering in August:

  • What is the nature of a conversation that attracts young people to join a Book 1 study circle?
  • What are ways and spaces in which study circles can be formed?
  • How can we accompany participants in Book 1 immediately into the field of action?
  • How can a cadre of tutors support one another in action and learning?

In November, we saw that we needed to focus more tightly (for now) on the first two questions, with an added question of how animators can also serve a role in inspiring youth to become engaged.

The point here is to show that the questions a gathering is focused on should be:

  • Few in number
  • Specific
  • Focused on immediate needs and steps
  • Answerable through action and reflection on action

A question like “How can we have lots of new study circles?” would be too broad. A question like “How can every cluster in our region have 50-100 new participants in study circles in the next three months?” while somewhat more specific, doesn’t make sense where most clusters in the region have yet to learn how to engage 10 new participants in study circles in a three month cycle. “How many study circles have taken place in our region over the last year?” is specific and easily answerable, but is rooted in study rather than action and reflection.

You can see how choosing the right questions can easily make a gathering fruitful and productive, or create confusion, boredom, or despair.

Third thing to consider: do you have something on which to reflect?

There is nothing sadder than a reflection gathering where, asked about their experiences, there is nothing to share, because nobody has been engaged in the process in question. More commonly is the situation where everyone has something to reflect on as an individual, but the experiences are so scattershot and unrelated to each other that there is not enough experience with any one particular thing to answer any questions about it.

In this case, it can sometimes help to include an experiential portion of the gathering, just so that everyone has something pertinent to talk about. For example, if a children’s class teacher gathering is focused on learning about how to effectively describe the nature of the program to parents in order to elicit their support for and reinforcement of the qualities being taught, part of the gathering could involve all the participants going out to visit with the parents of children in a local class and speak with them about the program.

Yes, this takes a fair bit of organizing. The organizer needs to consult with the teachers of the class, reach out to the families, organize times for them to be visited, assemble information and addresses for each family, put together pairs or teams, arrange transportation for those who need it, and then also help to coordinate the collection of information and the organizing of follow-up.

But it’s so much more effective than having a theoretical chat with a group of teachers about how they might go about talking with parents, should the opportunity arise.

Fourth thing to consider: where are you strong?

If you have a lot of things you could reflect on and are not sure where to focus, focus on your strengths. Where was there the most growth? It might feel a little backwards (I know my first instinct is always to shore up my weaknesses before anything else), but strength builds on strength. If your group is fantastic at starting new junior youth groups, it’s natural to build on that strength and focus on how to expand groups so that they have a sustainable number of participants over time. Those new and strengthening groups might very well inspire more adults to become engaged in study circles.

On the other hand, to ignore those small new groups in favor of throwing all your effort behind bringing new adults into the process means that the groups continue to form, meet for a while, and die out within a few months. The animators, without support, eventually become disheartened. The adults, seeing no long-term value to the community, fail to become engaged. Parents, having noticed that activities don’t last over the long term, don’t trust the teachers of children’s classes to stick around.

Yes, I’m making all this up. But there’s a real inertia involved in both growth and stagnation. Focus on what’s already moving and then move on from there.

Fifth thing to consider: stop considering, and start doing.

If you’re not having reflection gatherings because you’re not sure you could do them perfectly, just try something. Truly, some of the one’s I’ve put together over the years have been a mess, but they’ve always been a net positive experience. I’ll almost certainly look back over all this advice in a year and be so embarrassed by my lack of understanding.

That’s one of the side effects of blogging, I suppose. We put things out there whether we’re feeling totally prepared or not. Coordinating is a lot like that too, whether you’re serving in a formal role or just as one tutor in a group of friends who wants to help make things a little more organized. Maybe your first gathering is just about learning what you want to learn about, and that’s totally legitimate. As long as you’re focused on learning through service and moving forward, you’re doing it right.