Soul Groups: Loosely Connected But United in Purpose
In 2001, I met with a small group of women in Newberg, Oregon for the single purpose of connection. Most of us had recently moved from across the country; one woman relocated from Russia. Another had been living in Newberg for more than a decade. Each week, huddled in a circle sipping coffee, one person shared her story for the entire two hour evening meeting. Along with sharing our stories about our growing up years, our parents and where we attended college, we talked long and in-depth about our faith journeys. After each narrative, we’d ask the storyteller more questions for clarity, understanding and reflection. Our times consistently ended with prayer, thanking God for bringing us together, and naming our needs. We prayed He’d give us direction on how to spend time together once our stories come to an end. Little did we know what God had in store for us and our community from those genuinely gritty transformative days. It reminds me of the Scripture from the Old Testament, “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice. . . “
Greg Satell, the author of our very last book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change says successful movements combine two aspects. The first is network cascades. This involves a simple formula: “Small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose.” Satell says that anytime an idea goes viral and becomes a cascade we will see these three components.
Three months after we first started meeting, we had a dilemma: several other women asked if they could join our small group as they, too, needed deeper connection. Wanting to keep our group at six women, we simply introduced the women to one another and encouraged them to follow our model. And that’s what the six women decided to do. Within three more months, seven more groups were born. By the Fall of 2002, the women in my small group decided to call our fledgling start up, Soul Groups. Ironically, many of the women were committed to organized Bible study groups like Bible Study Fellowship and Community Bible Study. Professors, nurses, cashiers, homeschool moms, engineers, executive leaders all signed up. What Soul Groups offered was more intimate, personal, loosely spiritually directed, with a hint of accountability (although we never used that word). One of our values was what Julian Treasure called, “Rigorous Honesty,” at the end of his chapter on the Seven Deadly Sins.
By the Spring of 2003, women students on campus asked if they could have a Soul Group led by one of the women already in groups. Like Satell writes, “Cascading movements don’t follow the “Great Man” script. Today’s reality is that hierarchies have lost their power.” Not one of us was in charge, which was attractive, but it also created our second dilemma.
Suddenly, our Soul Group was faced with dividing tasks and discovering who was skilled in logistics, spreadsheets, building websites and keeping Soul Groups connected to one another. Greg Satell writes that the second aspect of any successful movement is seemingly antithetical to the first. Movements take planning, organization and discipline without which a cascading movement will spin out of control. When the students asked to join they also requested for a large group teaching. Thus, it was our initial Soul Group’s job to teach while the second group took charge of the planning and organization. It wasn’t our “passion and fervor that created the momentum” for Soul Groups, it was when more than 200 women joined within a year that gave our ministry power.
What were the natural forces at work that made our tiny cascade not only possible but inevitable?
According to a new study published last fall in Cell Reports, “The fluctuations of our heart rates are not random”, says Lucas Perra, a professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York. “It’s the story that drives the heart. There’s an explicit link between people’s heart rates and a narrative.” This finding aligns with a mountain of research showing that our brains sync up when we interact in the same location, participate in the same activity, or simply agree with each other. The new study goes one step further; it tests whether our heart rates become synchronized while taking in the same narrative–even though we are not in the same room nor even listening at the same time as other listeners.
How faithfully do our hearts clock our mental lives–while we are reading a book, or listening to our weekly chats, reading one another’s posts, or watching video content on our phones that someone shared? Marcel Proust wrote at the turn of the 20th century, “The heart does not lie.” The research tells us the same thing. The heart’s connection to the brain is so tight that when we hear the same story, our heart rates sync up. The study found that “story drives one’s attention . . . it’s not the interaction between people but the story itself that does the trick.”
Friends, I believe our hearts beat in unison, showing that we are not alone in our cohort as we pursue our doctorates together. I want to ask you two questions before we stop posting for the summer:
1). If you could dream a little dream about one movement you could help start up, what would it be?
2) What books are you planning to read this summer? I’d like our heart rates to stay synced up!
 Zechariah 4:10. ESV.
 Satell, Greg. Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change. 1st edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2019.
 Bible Study Fellowship. “Home,” January 14, 2021. https://www.bsfinternational.org/.
 Community Bible Study. “Home.” Accessed April 25, 2023. https://www.communitybiblestudy.org/.
 Treasure, Julian. How to Be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening. Mango Media, 2017.
 “Storytelling Makes Hearts Beat As One – WSJ.” Accessed April 25, 2023.
 Proust, Marcel, and C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume One. Independently published, 2020.
 “Storytelling Makes Hearts Beat As One – WSJ.” Accessed April 25, 2023.
17 responses to “Soul Groups: Loosely Connected But United in Purpose”
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Wow, your Soul Groups sound amazing. I’m genuinely inspired! In terms of the reading, they also seem like a great example of combining the seemingly-spontaneous side of cascading movements with the organization and planning that is also necessary.
What am I reading this summer? The list is already long but on the top of it are The Wisdom of your Heart by Marc Alan Schelske and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. Both were recommended to me in the past few months so I’m excited to finally have time to read them! Your turn…What are you reading this summer?
Would you believe we came up with the model ourselves because it evolved as we were meeting? Over the summer, I will look through my materials to see if I still have the documents we compiled for the groups. The teaching was in a larger group with all the women who were assigned to a Soul Group. Once we entered that phase, we were writing questions for the groups to talk through (This was after the initial weeks of sharing stories). I was writing my first book at the time called, Soul Strength, on the books of Joshua and Ephesians 6. So we used practical exercises from the book. The teaching was centered on community, building relationships, Scripture and honesty. We only did the larger teaching once a month. The women thrived in the groups.
I would love to discuss this further!
I am intrigued by your Soul Group movement and would love to hear more about it. Loneliness has become a part of the American culture and is rising to epic proportions. In fact, our D.C. area is termed the loneliest place to live in America with almost half of the population living alone. We have lived many places, and I can truly agree with this finding. There is a loneliness in my own soul that I grapple with. As leaders, we are always looking for new ways to offer our congregants options to connect in and feel known. The challenge is how to bring it to an organic level so that not everything has to be micro-mangaged. I believe that is why so many church life group systems lack. The key component of the sharing of stories, what God is doing, and simply life in real time need to be central. My little dream would be just that…to have no one walk alone, especially ministers in the mid to later season of life as they process deep shifts in who they are and what thy have to offer.
As far as my reading for the summer, “You Are What You Love” by James K. A. Smith is on the top of the list (recommended by someone in our small cohort) and then a second gleaning of some of the books we read this summer. (Actually “Smart Notes” is at the top of that list just to ready myself for year 2.
Pam – you have been such an inspiration. Thank you for all you bring to our cohort.
By the way, I’m visiting Portland for Mother’s Day weekend for a wedding planning weekend with three of my four daughters plus their men in the mix :). I may be able to stop by to see George Fox on the Friday before…depending on the schedule.
As I read your comments, I recalled the book by Robert Putnam from 2000, Bowling Alone, which follows how America became so lonely over the past 125 years. In fact, I have the same longing you hold in your heart for no one to walk alone and yet I have more single people in my life than I do married people. You are right, the life of a small group thrives when it’s organic, not orchestrated. One question that kept me working in the Soul Group movement with such commitment as I did in those years was, “Where else do we share our personal faith stories anymore? Where else do we speak openly about how God answered our prayers? Or Where else does someone ask another an honest question?” Certainly, we have special friends who do this with and for us. However, that kind of interaction can burden the gift of friendship. What we discovered in Soul Groups was that the material we created/offered opened the space up for simple, direct conversations where not one person could hijack the stage. On another note, I hope to see you in Portland, Oregon!
Pam, You are speaking my language! What a precious gift and a beautiful cascade. You have described the hoped for outcome of my NPO. May I ask if you used a specific model and what was your large group teaching like? How was the organizational side of groups managed as you continued to expand?
The books I am reading this summer are all on this topic. I have some favorites that I will be reviewing again, but here are the new ones that I finally have space to get to over the summer:
Be Still, Jane Vennard
Conversation: The Sacred Art, Diane Millis
Listening for the Soul, Jean Stairs
Sacred Time, Christine Valters Painter
Seeking in the Company of Others, Roslyn Weiner
The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction, Rose Mary Dougherty
Any book recommendations? Have a wonderful summer!
I am just this week compiling my reading list for the summer (which is why I asked the question of my brilliant cohort members). But I will share it as it comes together.
You, Kim and Esther each asked the same questions (which makes me think I need to find our original files). I will take some time this weekend to see what I still have and post it here. Might this be something leaders need now that we’ve been through COVID? (I am wanting Scott to weigh in!)
Also, John Wesley’s questions for Self-Examination prayer was something on which we based our Soul Group material. Here’s the list I found online; however, I have one from his original material in my files:
Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
Can I be trusted?
Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
Did the Bible live in me today?
Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
Am I enjoying prayer?
When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
Do I pray about the money I spend?
Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
Do I disobey God in anything?
Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
Am I defeated in any part of my life?
Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
How do I spend my spare time?
Am I proud?
Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
Do I grumble or complain constantly?
Is Christ real to me?
I really appreciate hearing your experiences. What an exciting movement have witnessed!
I agree with your assertion: “our hearts beat in unison.” I wonder if part of the synchronization comes from the guidance of the Holy Spirit? He brings us together for a season and for a purpose, and that sets the rhythm? I love the idea of the grander plan that goes along with that…
To answer your questions:
1). “If you could dream a little dream about one movement you could help start up, what would it be?” As everyone probably knows by now, I am passionate about civil discourse, and surfacing the unheard voices in a crowd. How could that become a movement? (Note how I am answering your question with another question?)
2) “What books are you planning to read this summer? I’d like our heart rates to stay synced up!”
That is easy. I will be reading as much of our class reading as possible AND as many CS Lewis books as I can in prep for Oxford. I just started ‘Till We Have Faces’ last night.
Jen, I love how you are preparing for our time in Oxford already! Is there a place where we all can list our reading for the summer?
Yes! When the Soul Group movement was cascading, our initial group of 6 women experienced the surge of the Holy Spirit in a powerful, unified way. The best way to explain it was the energy was multiplying, we felt deep joy outside of ourselves and the way it all came together felt effortless even though we were all working round the clock as new members joined us. Would love to be part of a movement like that again one day! Have you read Red Moon Rising? It’s about the 24/7 prayer movement.
That is so cool about the groups and how they revolved around “Rigorous honesty”. Your “soul groups” also show how hierarchies are dissolving into networks and it works.
Did your groups have any set values or processes? If that is to big of a questions we can talk about it in Oxford! I am very curious to hear about the dynamic of it. Thanks for the posts!
I will be reading several books from Dr. George Marsden! I came across one of his journal articles during my NPO research and need to get a better hold on his theories for my NPO.
Adam, Is George Marsden the man you interviewed in Florida for your Discovery Workshop? Also, can you remind me what you are researching around your NPO?
In relation to your question about values and processes with our Soul Groups. We did have values in that every person committed to a group wanted a relationship with God. It was not a requirement that everyone be in the same place spiritually. If members hadn’t journeyed with Christ yet we typically talked with them about that “step” or process first. The majority of people considered themselves followers of Jesus. For some, this was the only space where they talked about it. Yes. Let’s talk more about this in Oxford! Although I bet by then, our minds will be on new thoughts and adventures!
Pam, great questions.
1. I dream of a Global movement of Gen Z ministry leaders who are reaching and discipling their generation and the one following them (I know that’s huge…I’m a swing for the fences kind of guy)
2. I’d like to go back over some of the books we read this semester to catch some things I missed in my inspectional reading…also some deeper dives into my NPO that I couldn’t get to in my topic expertise paper.
I’d love to catch up in Oxford about the Soul Groups. I was a pastor in Newberg from 2000-2005, I’ll bet we crossed paths.
So grateful to be in the cohort with you. You help me think better!
Thank you for answering the question about your Dream. Have you spent any time listening to Curtis Chang? I mention his name because of his work and writing around anxiety–he has done so much more than that but he seems to open the door for the next generation to knowing their best selves. In another post, I referenced Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, which I highly recommend.
Let’s connect in Oxford about our Newberg years (even reflecting back to those days makes me have so many questions for you). We are a better cohort because you are a part, Tim! Your joy is palpable.
One last comment-I am also planning to reread the books from this past semester! Particularly the first three! My hope is to listen to them read on long walks.
Thanks Pam. I’ll throw both of those authors into my file to look at later. I’m excited to see what they have to offer.
Great example of a cascade movement Pam….both decentralized and loosely organized (but not over-controlled). I am increasingly convinced that the North American church is going to need to shift to this kind of model…not as a ministry, but as an entity…in order to impact the current and future generations. As it relates to your questions: I am dreaming about getting emotionally and physically re-charged over the summer months….and I am waiting to see our upcoming reading list from Jason before I choose my summer reading. While I need to rest this summer, I also know that will have to get some pre-reading done if I am to make it through next semester in a healthy way. Still trying to sort out that balance! Have a great summer!
Scott, Please answer this question for me: What do you mean by the American Church needing to shift not as a ministry but as an entity?
I am praying for you as you recover, recreate and recharge. We are so thankful to have you in our co-hort and our smaller group! You bring an awareness we each need to consider.
Dr. Lau, your posts are so inspiring and thought provoking. For some reason I could not get pass Zechariah 4:10. I love that verse now and will meditate on it this week. Thank you because it definitely applies to our counseling center. Have a wonderful summer.