This is my third post on Dr. Curt Thompson’s book, The Soul of Desire. Today I want to introduce his practice of confessional communities. It is a form of group therapy. In reading about this method of interpersonal neurobiological psychotherapy that Dr. Thompson practices, I thought about how our friendships need to be more like this and our discipleship in church. As Dr. Thompson says, “It is in communities like these that we encounter the possibility of being deeply known and where we ‘practice for heaven.’” These small group meetings of between 6-8 people create a space where people are seen, soothed, safe, and secure while they express their grief, trauma, and desires. It’s facilitated and led by the therapists, but the patients play a collaborative part in creating beauty together out of pain and unrequited desires. Both the being seen in a secure setting and the creative collaboration is healing, as this is what we all long for. In this way, the patients get to tell their story and be a part of one another’s’ healing. Dr. Thompson notes,
We need others to bear witness to our deepest longings, our greatest joys, our most painful shame, and all the rest in order to have any sense at all of ourselves.
When one truly feels known, and secure in that knowing, then they are able to take the risk of imagining and creating beauty again. And that’s what happens in these sessions. Because it isn’t just the being heard that heals, but the ability to help others. We aren’t mere projects to be fixed. Hurting people are still people. In his book, we get to read about what this looks like with examples Dr. Thompson gives from his own practice. This is something one-on-one therapy cannot do. While reading, I was thinking about how inline this is with the key principles of trauma-informed care. They have to be practiced in a group setting, so that not only is there peer support, but a format to equip one another to care for each other—giving back what was taken, which is often voice and agency, and combatting the harmful dynamic of merely forming another hierarchal structure over them. Dr. Thompson discusses the value of the other people in the room helping one another, over the individual psychotherapy:
Many of our relationships—not just psychotherapeutic ones—have common blind spots, power gradients, and limit to how helpful one voice (as compared to many) can be in helping us overcome shame. The confessional community gives us a place to engage in real time and space those phenomena in order to achieve greater states of integration, and therefore be more perfect, more whole, even as our Father in heaven is perfectly whole.
And this is also why Dr. Thompson makes these groups coed:
If we are going to create in vulnerable, differentiated community as reflected in the biblical narrative, men and women must be in the room together.
I know the backlash, boy do I ever! Men and women should not be in such an intimate setting because the sex part always gets in the way! But Dr. Thompson insists on the advantage of a secure well-boundaried format to do the hard work of understanding our sexual difference as a “place of dignity, not one of exploitation.” Here were some parts I underlined:
Our sexuality is the physical representation of our most vulnerable and most powerfully creative selves, and we take it with us wherever we go.
Sex is everywhere.
Our problem is that far too often we assume that the arousal that sex generates is mostly or only about sex, when in fact it is most often about our deep desire to be seen, soothed, safe, and secure. The boundaries we often set between sexes—as necessary as they are—can also be easy ways for us to avoid naming our more vulnerable desires as well as the shame that is often associated with them.
There’s so much more to this than I can record in a short blogpost. He recognizes there are necessary and helpful circumstances for us to separate by sex. Don’t miss the point though. More perspectives are learned this way. People can work through how their trauma and shame may have been attached to relational struggles with both sexes. And this creating and integrating helps rewire the neuropathways in our brains. We can in a sense take our group with us wherever we go, imagining how we want to create beauty in different relationships and situations.
Being joyfully known enables our imagination to expand because it has for so long been truncated by the interpersonal and neurobiological features of shame, fear, and disintegrating behavior—our sin.
And we need our imaginations to enter into beauty. We imagine together to be partakers in it. I think this is what is so powerful about the best small groups in church. I’ve experienced a lot of growth in the smaller, intimate groups where you know you can be real, pray together, be cared for, and stay in the room with each other when someone shares deep pain, disappointment, or failure, pointing one another to Christ, sensing his presence with us. How God must delight in that! And it’s why I love getting together with small groups of friends as well. Practicing for heaven. Curt Thompson’s book would be a great book for a small group to study and discuss together.
*I am quoting from an advanced reader copy in which changes may still be made before the final version. Taken from The Soul of Desire , Copyright (c) 2021 by Curt Thompson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
10 thoughts on “Confessional Communities”
Love this. I just discovered you from the steve brown podcast, via YouTube. You sound like a voice that I’d like to follow.
I too have just discovered you and find your thinking fascinating. When I pulled up your blog and found your comments on Curt Thompson’s book, I got fairly excited. Followed him since 2017 and have been waiting for this book. Looking forward to reading your books
Encouraged by the new readers, thanks for sharing!
I wonder if anyone has any experience of what the author describes.
yes. Such community is possible. I’ve experienced it. But it takes effort to both create it and to sustain. I’ve seen it slowly ‘fall away’; I’ve seen it disrupted by severe trauma of several kinds, too. I could classify some of the things to watch out for.
Rich community I’ve experienced developed when people had a common ‘vision and focus’ that they had a heart comittment to, and a kindred spirit for. I still think about friends we made in the first church we became part of, when we were fairly young in our marriage relationship. We joined a small church of mostly young couples who wanted to grow and become mature bellievers and discipes/disciplers of Jesus, and have an impact on each other’s lives and our community. That lasted for several years; but ended because of the transient nature of life for those who formed the core group; things changed only because a few of us had to relocate when job changes came with transitions from graduate school to new jobs.
We found another small church to join, and developed rich community in a church that was eager to learn God’s Word; everyone wanted to grow deeper in our knowledge of God and His Word, but we also h ad a strong emphasis on community, shepherding, discipleship and outreach. That group lasted for a long time, almost 20 years; though more effort was required to sustain deep commuity; it wasn’t that difficult to keep depth in our small group; but it did take effort to continue with deeper community in the chruch as it grew in size from less than 100 to more than 400 people. So we developed a small group strategy that allowed us to multiply; while still continuing in deeper intimacy within our small gorups. . Sadly, one of the pastors who came, turned out to be a narcissist who actually bullied people who disagreed with him; he had strong leanings toward theonomy . I don’t know which did more damage, the bad theology or the narcissism… we were on the early waves of people who became marginalized.
We found community again, in another church that had structured their shepherding in small groups; it’s one of the best experiences we’ve had of seeing an elder and a deacon help people ‘care for and pray for one another’. I think we experienced the deepest community we’ve had in life, during those years, particularly since we arrived wounded.. . but sadly, the senior pastor who had struggled with depressoin for a long time, gave in to suicide-and things were never the same after that…
Since then, we’ve built community in small groups we are part of; but haven’t been able to extend that to the larger faith community we’ve been part of (yet). this IS God’s desire for us, that we live in a community in which love is tangible enough that it draws people from the world around us to Jesus! Several of the issues raised on this blog and in Aimee’s writings, seem to be the issues that make ‘community’ difficult. The subtlety of our enemy is insidious…and has caused many un-necessary divisions. One core element in our experience when community became deeper, was a committment by the elders to ‘do shepherding well’-at least a critical mass of them were committed to shepherding-and we wre in small groups where we had shepherds who truly engaged in washing feet… for which I’m very grateful. Shepherding seems to be talked about a lot today, but lived out much weaker today than it was; the rise of ‘authoritarianism’ in our culture has spread into the church as well; and there seems to be a lot more ‘trauma’ in life, in general. Trauma can impact individuals in ways that cause is to ‘self isolate’ to some degree, unless we are aware of this impact and guard against it. Trauma also disrupts our ability to relate well to others, by its very nature.
When we are dealig with trauma, we are forced to spend time and effort dealing with struggles that take time, leaving less time for the more important things in life… ALL of us have experienced this pandemic-which isn’t over yet! So we all can see the impact of trauma on day to day life. This only underscores the importance of ‘community’ because healthy community enables individuals to deal with trauma far more effectively.
Paul is given to us as a very good example of how to thrive under trauma. A study by AW Pink titled ‘Gleaings from Paul’ is a book I read many years ago, Pink goes systematically through each book Paul wrote, looking at his prayers for people, and Pink exegetes Paul’s example, showing us Paul’s ATTITUDE and practice. paul held a HIGH VIEW of ALL those made in God’s image who became Jesus followers! We would do well to learn form Paul’s example, about how to simply think about each other and cultivate the love of God in our hearts. that itself willl help us on our journey to deeper commujity with one another!
it’s worth the effort to pursue loving relationships with other couples. I’ve been in men’s fellowships; met in groups with men and developed small groups with men and couples; discipled men one on one and in small groups; but as close as I’ve come to men, I have experienced a greater richness and depth of community with couples. . Men tend to be quite unidimensional when we interact; C.S. Lewis stated it simply when he said that men build friendships when they have a common mission to focus on. That’s true in my experience. I have a number of friendships built around the same core focus. Small groups of couples build relationship on a broader basis, so it can become much richer! in our culture, when men get together we are often engaged with a ‘probelm solving’ focus as well, women engage in many different topics when they are in a group!
Yes, real depth in community is possible.
Thank you! That was extremely informative and encouraging!
Dear Aimee, I thought you might enjoy this interview with a nun who is a survivor of sexual assault, and who has a remarkable, inspiring story of healing and working through the trauma of abuse. There’s some Roman Catholic stuff in here since she’s a nun and the host runs a show targeted at a Roman Catholic audience, but I think there’s a lot of “mere Christianity” elements as well that are valuable.
https://youtu.be/MHdKh2I8eUw (the first few minutes is intro banter that could prob be skipped w/o missing much)
Reblogged this on Pinwheel in a Hurricane and commented:
I’m fascintated with this idea of confessional communities and the transformative effect they can have. I have access to this book, and will be reading it soon. Meanwhile, here’s a great post about it from fellow blogger, Aimee Byrd.
Thanks for posting this. I just re-blogged it to my little site. I’m frustrated that the church, in large doesn’t know how to do these confessional communities. We do our same-old tired ways of congregating, and then try to recreate that again in small group dynamics, throwing in curriculum – as if the real issue with creating community is that we just don’t know enough (purity culture messaging). When I googled confessional communities, I saw your blog, and now I’ll be following and reading more!
Also, that T-shirt… “I Came, I Saw, I Made It Awkward”… yeah. That’s where I live. Made me laugh! Thanks!
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