One of the most surprising places I learned about deeply spiritual community was my Grandma Bette’s bridge club. This small group of women met consistently every week to play the card game bridge, sure, but mostly to talk about how their kids were doing in school and then to gush over their first grandbabies and then mourn their husbands getting sick and dying. Between bridge games, which I heard were often very treasonous, they’d take casseroles to whomever didn’t show up that week, drive each other’s kids to school, attend the funerals of each other’s husbands. Eventually the cards became less important as their eyesight worsened and arthritis increased and slowly the group got smaller and smaller as their final offering of care was to attend group members’ funerals. Sometimes they hated each other. They definitely disagreed politically. But they never missed out on caring for each other when times were bad. And when times were good, they used their strength to help their community - often volunteering together at church or raising funds for the girl scout troop. It’s a legacy that my parents have inherited and I have too (not bridge playing, but you know - the idea of caregroups).
No matter your age or current life stage, everyone needs a caregroup. Just like religious professionals need a group with whom they can take off their stole and put down their clipboard, teenagers and emerging adults need a group with whom they can be their full and complicated selves and parents need a group on which they can rely when their kids have to face really adult stuff.
Everyone needs to know they matter, that they’re important, that their absence is noticed. Everyone deserves the confidence and security that when bad stuff happens, they’re not alone. Whether it’s your anime club, trans youth support group, bird watchers society or your marching band buds, you gotta have a caregroup.
A caregroup is a small group of people who may only have one thing in common who will show up for each other. Maybe it’s a UU youth group or a new dads group or a game night crew or an intersectional feminist book club. The topic doesn’t really matter, the content honestly doesn’t even matter. Really, you don’t even have to live in the same city. What matters is that members meet regularly and know that if someone ends up in the hospital, or is really struggling, or they’re receiving an achievement award or are making a big transition - the rest of the group will organize to care for them or celebrate with them. Mostly the group shows up for one another because they really do care about each other, but also - each member knows they may be the ones who need to be cared for next.
You can’t force a caregroup but let’s be honest, life is hard and despite the rugged individualism that often silences our vulnerabilities and makes us want to puff up our chests to do it all ourselves, most of us crave care and connection with other people. Most of us also want to be needed and feel good when we can care for each other. So, given the space and opportunity, it’s pretty easy to help a basic group become a caregroup.
Meet regularly - this can be once a day, week, month, quarter - doesn’t matter. Keep the meeting reliable and dependable though. Even if only one person commits to attending, don’t cancel.
Be accountable to each other - if someone doesn’t show up, hound them with love.
Have fun! Singing, laughing, playing games, do whatever you have to do...fun is mandatory for bonding.
Do a formal or informal round of check ins - create the space for people to share about their real lives when things are great and when they’re hard.
What have been the highs and lows since last we met?
What’s bringing you strength, what’s zapping your energy?
What have you felt connected to lately? What’s missing?
Keep it smallish to no more than 10 members. But that’s exclusive, you say. Well if you get a 11th member, split the group in two so you can keep growing. There are a few reasons to keep it small:
Every member must be vitally important to the group - they have to know they matter and that their absence is noticed
Care has to be manageable, if the group has multiple members in need of care at once, it’s going to get overwhelming
Make gratitude a regular practice
Make it explicit that you intentionally care about each other. Celebrate and be in awe when the group does show up for each other.
Do little nice things for each other - Write each other love notes, make food for each other, weed each other’s gardens...
Do little nice things together - Volunteer, fundraise/donate, pull a “reverse prank” on another group (where you do something really nice for them)
Compete together - hello team spirit
Compete against each other - games with a little friendly competition really infuse the group with that (mildly dysfunctional?) family vibe
Allow the care to be imperfect. Figuring out what to say when someone is hurting is hard, figuring out if someone wants company or to be left alone is awkward. Oh well. Do it anyway.
The latest caregroup I participated in was at the UUA’s immersion program for high schoolers exploring the possibility of becoming religious professionals,Summer Seminary. Similar to many cons, rallies, camps and congregations, we have a small group ministry model (sometimes called touch groups, gaggle groups, check in groups) where groups of 5 or 6 students gather with one advisor to process the day.
I changed the name from Reflection Groups to Caregroups last year and shifted the way we did things a bit, and the transformation was incredible. Rather than emphasizing the hour long meeting as the important part of the experience, I told the groups before their first meeting that their caregroup was not just the group that checked in at the end of each day, that they were charged with checking in with each other throughout the day - making sure everyone in the group was staying hydrated and getting enough sleep, that no one was feeling left out, that everyone made it to meals in the cafeteria and and made it onto the train when we took field trips. I told them that if they learned someone in their caregroup was really sad or sick or was injured to go to their advisor for help. I told them that we were working to build a particular kind of community while at Summer Seminary, a community of care - which is a great term I learned from Nancy Combs-Morgan, Faith Formation Lead for the MidAmerica Region.
Not only did that instruction lighten the adult staff team’s load of emotional triage and nursing those with exhaustion and overload, it created this incredible sweetness amongst students. They felt responsible for each other’s well being, they looked out for each other, and protected each other to the best of their ability. In addition to the prompt that they were charged with caring for one another throughout the week, the staff crafted these really lovely themes and theological prompts for each evening’s meetings. Even if they were just used as jumping off points, the attention to fortifying spiritual sustenance with questions like “what practices do you use to stay grounded?” “What stories do you want to tell about your faith?” “How do your relationships give you strength?” guided the conversations deeper. Some of the groups still check in with each other weekly and have a group chat where they share their joys and sorrows with one another, a whole year after their program.
What caregroups are you part of? What are the things that help you know you’re part of a caregroup?