Should God Come to the Book Group?

A friend’s book group has been recruiting new members, and one such member arrived at a recent meeting. For most of the meeting her behavior was exemplary: she was polite, attentive to what others said, and had interesting things to say about the book. The situation turned awkward, however, as the meeting neared its finish.

The first difficulty came when discussion turned to future group selections. The new member began to push for books with religious subject matter, and not just works of general spirituality, but works aligned closely with a particular religious orientation. The group in question is a public book group, so there’s no question of church/state separation involved, but spiritual matters have not previously been part of the group’s agenda. With a membership of mixed beliefs, the suggestion for books aimed at one faith made some uncomfortable.

The second awkward moment came at the meeting’s conclusion, when the new member asked the group to pray. The request caught the group off guard, and the new attendee had begun a prayer before anyone had a chance to respond. 

The group enjoyed the company of their new participant and until the awkward moments, were excited about her future participation.  They don’t want her to go away, but some are uncomfortable with the book suggestions and prayer. My friend and I discussed how we might respond to such a situation. In a group that may have other religious members, in particular, it’s a sensitive situation that could lead to real trouble.

Of course, book groups may choose a religious agenda, even if it supports a particular faith. Most book groups maintain energy and are more likely to flourish over the long run if they allow for some diversity and don’t limit to a single subject, but if your religious group or friends of like mind choose this subject matter, no problems. The problem in this situation comes from assuming too quickly that others in the group share your beliefs or the desire to explore them in the book group. That assumption puts members with different beliefs in a difficult position.

My suggestion would be to let the new member know firmly but politely that the group in question has a literary, not religious, mission and is committed to making people of all beliefs (including her) comfortable in attending. I would let the new member know that her beliefs are respected, but that prayer is not part of the group’s shared activities. If the group is open to considering matters of spirituality or belief on a broader spectrum, an alternative might be a thematic meeting in which members choose such works of their own preference and introduce them briefly to the group. It takes sensitive facilitation, but addressing religious or spirituality as a theme instead of through a single required work can be a rewarding discussion.

Do any of you have experience with this kind of situation? Would you have handled the situation differently?

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

4 Comments on "Should God Come to the Book Group?"

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  1. kaitestover@kclibrary.org' Kaite Stover says:

    Perfect response for an uncomfortable situation. We never think our challenging book group members will take this form. We know how to deal with boorish behavior, but not exceptionally civilized behavior. Yet the behavior of any individual that threatens the majority of the group, needs to be addressed. I do wonder though if this new member was given all the information she might need about this group to decide if it’s a good fit for her.

  2. Monica.garza@sanantonio.gov' M Bustillo says:

    We have a similar issue at our group where one lady is Jewish and often brings up her religion traditions. Our members often ask her questions when they are interested in learning more or will redirect the conversation if they are tired of hearing about it. I have not had to tell her anything about this since the group has done well with her as an addition. I do remember to purchase kosher snacks now.

  3. vipalwayz@gmail.com' Tiffany says:

    I have experienced a some-what similar issue as well. I think you handled it well. I wish I had the opportunity to address my former member. She missed 3 meetings in a row. I asked her what was her reason for not attending the meetings, she said she decided to leave the club because she preferred to read more religious books.

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