Small Group Communion: Why Would a Pastor Crush a Beautiful Thing?

by Ginny Barker

For a while we had something beautiful. 

Every single week a small group of us from church met together. We alternated weeks being out somewhere, such as trivia night at a brewery, with meeting for dinner in someone’s home. Yes, we might have spiritual discussions and yes, we did frequently share concerns and needs for prayer and, yes, we did often pray together, but the focus was on our relationships. Intentional community, it was called. 

This group of people became my lifeline, my family of sorts, my refuge during some terribly hard years. I lived for Tuesday evenings when I knew I could show up and be me in whatever mess I was in. And they knew I was there for them. Always. And outside of Tuesdays we still got together for hiking and game nights and such. Life together. It was the closest thing I had ever experienced up to that point to what I think true fellowship looks like. 

A new pastor came along and changed things up. He brought an agenda. Each week became a specific Bible study with questions and answers and asking one another spiritual questions about sin and repentance. The tone changed. The atmosphere changed. The streams of living water dried up and I was faced with a desert of spiritual expectations and forced piety. When we questioned the changes the leader of the group asked, “But don’t you love the Word?” The pastor blasted us in a sermon, proclaiming we were to “say no to casualness of faith…just hanging out and doing things together because it makes us feel good.” He told my husband that the change was not up for discussion. Drop it.

And like that, just like that, what had been so very beautfiful to me was gone. This all happened amid a growing concern over other serious issues and I quit attending church. And then we left the church altogether. Another story for another time.

I was left to grieve and grieve deeply what I had lost. And yet there was a hefty heap of shame on top of it all. Why was the transition from hanging out and loving one another to a structured spiritual time together so hard for me? Did I “love the Word?” Or didn’t I? 

I had always longed for a sense of community and felt oh, so bad for wanting it. In church cultures where deep dives into theology or telling “the lost” about Jesus were the true marks of a heart after God, my hunger for connection was seen as avoiding the hard truth that Jesus should be all I need. 

Why was the loss of this little community so devastating to me? When reading Krispin Mayfield’s book, Attached to God, I found my answer. 

And rather than try to cut and paste bits and pieces, I’m going to share most of the entire section:

Therapist Francis Broucek worked with many clients in families where the mode of relationship was to meet a parent’s strict standard. This created a sense of self that put value in the person’s performance. He found that in the most important relationships, where “a connection should be, there is only the experience of being evaluated or evaluating oneself.” It doesn’t always have to be negative judgment, but that every interaction was based on how the child was peforming, how they were doing, rather than the parent coming close for closeness’ sake. For these clients, the relationship was all assessment, absent of true connection. 

For many of us, this mirrors the spiritual tradition we’ve been given. Most facets of religious life have been about determining whether you are following God in the right ways. How close are you? What are you supposed to be doing next? Are you growing–or backsliding? What is God trying to teach you right now?

,,,Broucek found that this same prompting between parents and children created shame. It’s not surprising since in the absense of connection. we begin to conclude that the disconnect is because there is something repulsive about us. The more we continue to focus on our performance and progress, the more we feel shame. When we believe that shame is due to sin, then we try to get it right–or confess our way out of shame. But if we’re going to heal from shame, we need relationships that go beyond evaluation. 

As Broucek reflected on our need for a connection that creates sanctuary in a world of evaluation, he thought about the importance of interactions that aren’t rooted in evaluation, assessment, standards, or measuring up. Searching for a word to describe a relationship that is nonevaluative, he decided simply to call this kind of connection “communion.” 

Krispin Mayfield, “Attached to God”

Communion. That is what I had. That is what I lost when the template of spiritual performance and evaluation was slammed down on a precious group of people. 

Mayfield had started this section of the book by saying that in order to understand our belovedness, we need to experience it. We need to be able to connect with God and with people minus the constant state of evaluation and performance. 

Some of my friends and I have a regular conversation that goes something like this: “Why are friendships with church people so much harder and more awkward?” I think this explains so much. We have been somehow convinced that our own connection to God is dependent on our performance and part of our performance is policing the performance of those around us. Thus we admonish and exhort and chide, we goad and sharpen, we lob scripture bombs, and often suffocate with the silence of disapproval. But we don’t listen. We don’t treat one another with respect. We don’t necessarily treat one another as beloved. We don’t believe that connecting for the sake of connecting is beautiful in and of itself.  

(True admonishment and exhortation, when necessary, should only come in the context of strong connection and community. Otherwise it does way more damage that good.)

Why was I so grief-stricken? I had lost communion. I had lost communion in the name of God. 

I know my processing of this has been long and rambling but it now makes so much sense to me. Reading this short passage in a very excellent book (I highly recommend reading it) proved to be lightbulb moment in my understanding of my hunger for connection, community, communion. It helped me understand my grief and why that loss was so very profound. And it helps me know what I, what we all, really need. 

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