How to run Sycamore 4: The structure of each session

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You might be meeting at breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, supper or later in the pub. But if we take an example of an evening session, where the main group meets from say 7.00pm to 8.45pm, this could be a typical timetable. You don’t need to follow this obsessively: it’s just an example of the kind of timetabling that typically evolves.

A SAMPLE SESSION (where guests arrive at 19.00):

16.00 Food team meets to go shopping

17.00 Food team starts preparations and cooking

17.40           Core team meets for prayer and for last minute planning. Even if you have a dedicated prayer team, it is still important that the whole team is praying together for Sycamore and especially for the guests.

18.00 Core team sets up main room. To make the room as warm and friendly as possible: like a home rather than a meeting hall. If you are eating together then to set up the tables beautifully, without being ostentatious; so people feel welcomed, and are surprised at how much effort you have put in for them. Small tables of 6 to 9 people seem to work best; but anything from 4 to 12 can work. Round tables are great!

IT team sets up the IT. Background music as people arrive and as people eat can help people relax and cover the nervous silences.

18.30 Welcomers to be at the door to welcome those who are early. This is not about having artificial smiles but being genuinely open, kind, welcoming, interested in people… Guests are probably nervous and just want to see an ordinary, friendly person invite them in. Name badges for everyone are a real help, not just on the first night.

18.50 Food needs to be ready to serve well before time. The food team will be around to serve, and to clear away as people have finished.

19.00 Most guests are arriving by now. Don’t wait for everyone to arrive before you start serving food. Get people eating straight away, and settle them down at a table. The eating and meeting at table acts as an icebreaker, and it also keeps things moving.

You probably want two discussion group leaders on each table with say 4 to 7 guests. If not many people come, and you only have one group instead of the 20 you have hoped for, then you have to decide whether to keep the ‘surplus’ discussion group leaders on a table by themselves, or to mix everyone into one or two groups.

[THE PRAYER TEAM: If they are praying at the same time as the session, then they will be meeting to pray around this time.]

19.20 Serve pudding to those who are finished. Again, don’t wait for everyone to finish – it will push the timing back too far.

19.30 Try to start the session after half an hour of eating, in this case at 19.30. In our experience it’s better to start the session even if people are still eating pudding – just tell them to relax and not to rush. Otherwise you can spend a whole hour eating if you are not careful and lose the discussion time.

WELCOME: A brief introduction from one of the core team. Welcome people. Explain to them the heart of Sycamore, that this is an opportunity to discuss ideas and share questions, so no-one needs to feel they have to give the ‘right’ answer; there are no stupid questions or ideas that are off limit. Encourage people to share and be themselves; but also to respect the ideas and questions that others have. To speak freely and to listen attentively and respectfully. To be relaxed, and to give each other space. The group leaders are not there as experts to give answers, but to help people to have a good discussion.

Tell people what time the session will finish by the latest: e.g. 20.30 or 20.45 or whatever you have all decided is best.

[MEANWHILE – the food team are tidying up last plates etc, and washing up somewhere else…]

19.35 VIDEO STARTS: Each video has the same rough structure:

1m     Opening music + Sycamore intro

2m     Brief introduction to the film by Fr Stephen = Input Part 1

2m     Question 1 on screen + interviews (‘vox pops’) with people + same question 1 repeated on screen with PAUSE sign.

4-8m? PAUSE video for group discussion about this question

5m     Restart video for Input Part 2

2m     Question 2 on screen + interviews (‘vox pops’) with people + same question 2 repeated on screen with PAUSE sign.

5-10m?         PAUSE video for group discussion about this question

5m     Restart video for Input Part 3

2m     Question 3 on screen + interviews (‘vox pops’) with people + same question 3 repeated on screen with PAUSE sign.

5-10m?         PAUSE video for group discussion about this question

5m     Restart video for Input Part 4

5-10m?         Final Question 4 on screen: PAUSE straight away [no vox pops] for discussion about this question, and to ask general questions about the whole session

2m     CREDITS (you can play these as background music when people are leaving)

One of the core group needs to control the video and stop for the pauses; and be sensitive about how long to let the discussion run for each pause before re-starting. You can do this by listening, by keeping an eye on the clock, and also by keeping an eye on the discussion group leaders for each table. Don’t be shy about just asking people if they need more time or if they have had enough.

20.40 TIMING: If you said the session would finish by 20.45 then it is essential that you finish the discussion by 20.40 – even if you have to break off an amazing discussion, or even if you haven’t finished the session because you overrun the first pause. It’s far better to keep your promise of finishing on time, because then people will trust you, and be glad to come back, and not feel trapped by an ever-extending evening.

WINDING UP: at 20.40 have a brief word from one of the leaders. Thank people for coming and sharing. Encourage people to come to the next session. Have handouts/publicity for which sessions are coming up. Encourage people to bring friends to the next session. Etc. The less pressure you put on people in terms of signing up etc the better, because people need to feel very free. But you may wish to have a voluntary sign-up sheet with emails etc if people want to be informed/reminded about the coming meetings.

Do you pray with the whole group at the end of each session? You need to decide this yourselves. Probably not in the first sessions; but maybe in the later sessions – as the trust has grown, and as people are more open to the work of God in their lives. Especially after the sessions on Faith and Prayer. You can say something like: ‘I am going to pray a short prayer now for the group. No pressure on you to pray, but just to listen to the words, and if you wish then to take them into your own heart and make them into a personal prayer for yourself…’

You may wish, especially in later weeks when people have relaxed and shown some commitment, to have some handouts or extra information about the particular topic that has come up. But only if this is done in a low key, unpressured way. E.g. to give out copies of one of the Gospels after the session on the Bible; to give out some simple leaflets about prayer after the prayer session.

20.45 OFFICIAL FINISH. Let people know they are free to go straight away. But you might want to have informal tea/coffee or something stronger available for those who wish to hang around and chat. Or to invite people to have a drink at the local pub with members of the team after the session. Again, this should be very unpressured and low key – not to make people feel guilty if they don’t come.

But the informal conversations after the session, whether hanging around as people leave, or more planned (over tea/coffee or in the pub), are often very important moments of friendship and faith sharing. So whatever happens, the team (especially welcomers and group discussion leaders) should be available and not rushing off.

20.50 If you have having tea and coffee for those who have extra time, then this takes place now.

21.15 Good to have a definite finish time, when you are happy to clear people out.

21.20 Clearing up

21.30 Brief meeting for core team. It’s good to have some brief feedback, from each member of the group, to hear how it has gone, to collect ideas and suggestions for the coming session. You probably know and trust each other a lot by this stage, so it’s good to have some honest sharing about how people are feeling, what went well and what was difficult. It’s good to share the highs and lows, so that people do not go away burdened by any difficulties – to share the load, and to encourage each other.

Then to finish with a prayer and hand everything over to the Lord. Above all to pray in thanksgiving for whatever the Lord has wished to do through the session, and to pray for the team and for the participants.

For more information about how to run Sycamore, see the links below:

How to run Sycamore 1: Background

How to run Sycamore 2: Overview

How to run Sycamore 3: Preparation and planning

How to run Sycamore 4: The structure of each session

How to run Sycamore 5: Group discussions

How to run Sycamore 6: Optional Retreat Day

How to run Sycamore 7: Follow up

How to run Sycamore 8: The prayer team

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