Accepting Opacity

by think on June 29, 2009

OpacityIf you create small group environments to support spiritual formation, one of your top values is transparency. This is the degree to which members allow each other to see who they really are. It’s related to social intimacy (“Into Me See”), but since those x-ray glasses hawked in comic books don’t work as advertised, a little cooperation is required.

Assuming a healthy group where trust, safety, and confidentiality are valued, members will usually be as transparent as they decide to be. You can classify them as:

Unaware. Group newbies may have never revealed anything about themselves that was not “public knowledge.” This is true of most people joining a group for the first time. Modeling by the leader and others can expose what they’ve been missing.

Aware, but hesitant. A common response to the transparency of others is fear. Folded arms scream “I’m not there yet.” Trust is built over time. Some may have been burned in a prior group by revealing something that came back to bite them. Group covenants requiring confidentiality (“… what’s said in the group stays in the group… ”) can help.

Willing, but helpless. Those who are open to participation and the prompting of the Holy Spirit may be as transparent as they know how to be. Provide simple tools and opportunities like icebreakers that help people share snapshots of themselves. Self-description leads to self-disclosure as comfort and skill levels increase.

Deliberately opaque. The greatest danger is in those who are outwardly compliant yet hiding or misleading. Opacity or obfuscation (“blowing sunshine”) will arrest spiritual growth in the practitioner and discourage transparency in the rest of the group.

Sometimes opacity is obvious. You know you could grow mushrooms in what some people are spewing. It’s not always a bold-faced lie. It can be what one political journalist called “strategic vagueness” … the verbal equivalent of nailing Jello to the wall. If your entire group goes “Huh?” when someone speaks, gentle questions may be necessary to loosen the façade. The group may be totally aware that a person is being opaque and decide to love them through it. When they understand that they are loved, they may begin to change.

It’s non-obvious opacity that hurts the most. Someone is leading a double life and your small group finds out when it hits the Associated Press. If a person wants to hide behind a mask badly enough, they can usually do it. A ministry leader whose immoral lifestyle unexpectedly becomes public. A small group leader who gets a divorce before anyone even knows his marriage is in trouble. An apprentice who stops showing up because he is in jail for raping his two young daughters. These are not the public failures you’ve read about. They were all members of groups I’ve been in.

Opacity happens. It’s not a reason to bail on groups or to become discouraged. If we want to see people grow spiritually, we need to continue to offer the alternative.

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