For many leaders, the most daunting part of Wesley @ Home groups may be leading your group spiritually. You’ve likely heard us say before that, while Wesley has credentialed pastors, you are the preacher, and that is especially true with Wesley @ Home groups. Don’t be intimidated by this! The truth is that, as a student yourself, you are often in a much better position to be in ministry to and with other students. This section includes some guidance for how to effectively lead and care for your group spiritually. Before we go any further, know this: we do not expect you to have the skills, experience, and education of a professional minister. While you are on the “front lines” for spiritual leadership and pastoral care for your group, you always will have Wesley’s pastors and staff as resources whenever needed.
Managing Group Dynamics
As the leader, one of the most important parts of your job is to set and maintain the tone of your group. You’ve likely been in groups with both healthy and unhealthy dynamics, and as much as possible we want you to have the tools to encourage healthy dynamics in your group. To some degree these will develop naturally, especially as the group has opportunities to engage in worship, fellowship, and service together (which, in turn, will strengthen the relationships between group members). However, there are a few specific things you can do that may be helpful.
The 70/30 Rule
As a general rule, as the leader you should aim to talk for no more than 30% of the time. Don’t be afraid of awkward silences – while there are times where it is necessary to move the group along, don’t feel like you need to fill brief moments of silence while waiting for members to respond.
Encourage, But Don’t Force, Participation
Some people are naturally more comfortable in group settings than others. While in some cases a few members may dominate the conversation if left unchecked (more on that in a moment), others may need some encouragement to speak up. If you notice that a particular member hasn’t contributed to the conversation, gently find opportunities to ask if they’d like to share their thoughts. And, if they don’t want to, don’t put them on the spot and force the issue.
Manage Outsized Personalities
On the other side of the spectrum, some people will run the conversation if left unchecked. If you notice that one or two members are carrying the discussion, encourage them to let others offer their thoughts.
Keep the Discussion On Track
In some cases, there are specific pastoral care needs that the group will need to address (more on this in the next session). Be careful, however, to keep the group from turning into a “group therapy” session. Situations requiring pastoral care will likely be few and far between, and in most cases your role as the group leader will be to guide the conversation back on track.
Respect the Clock
Part of having a good group dynamic is beginning and ending on time. If you’d like, you can invite members who want to continue to hang out to do so after the meeting has officially ended. However, make sure that the formal part of the group concludes on schedule, or that the group has agreed to go longer if it is necessary to do so.
As a Wesley @ Home group leader, you will be on the “front lines” in providing pastoral care for your group. This may sound intimidating, but it is an incredibly cool opportunity to help your fellow students grow in their faith and recognize how God is at work in their lives.
We’ll go ahead and get what is likely the scariest part of this out of the way. Though it is rare, there may be occasions where a member of your group discloses that they intend to harm themself or someone else. We’ll discuss how to handle these situations later in this section, but as an initial matter know that as a Wesley @ Home group leader, you are considered to be a mandatory reporter. This means that you have a legal and ethical duty to take steps to address these situations through appropriate channels. If you find yourself in such a situation, immediately contact a pastor for further guidance on an appropriate response.
As a Wesley @ Home group leader, we do not expect you to be a professional counselor. Even Wesley’s appointed pastors do not have training as counselors, and we are fortunate to have resources on campus and in the community such as the Counseling Center and Women and Gender Resource Center with whom we partner to help students who need it access professional care. With that said, however, the line between pastoral care and counseling can be blurry, and the following guidelines will help you to navigate sensitive subjects that may come up as part of your group. As much as possible we’ll try and give you a heads up when a particular message or series may lead to an increased chance for pastoral care to be needed, but you are encouraged to be familiar with these guidelines in advance since it is often difficult to predict when such moments will occur.
You’re not expected to be an expert.
First, you are not expected to be an expert in either counseling or theology. If a situation comes up that you’re not comfortable addressing, you always have the option to punt: either encourage the student to talk to a pastor, or offer to do some research and get back to them at a later time. This is true both for theological issues and “life issues”.
While you’re not expected to be an expert, in many cases some of the tougher questions that come up can be a great opportunity to engage the group in discussion. For instance, groups will often ask questions about topics such as evolution, or why evil exists in the world. A helpful strategy may often be to open these questions up to the group for discussion. Even if you ultimately discuss these questions in more detail with a pastor and report back to the group, the process of discussing them with a group can be a great opportunity for growth. Some key questions to guide the discussion may include:
- What do you believe about this question?
- How did you arrive at that belief?
- What other perspectives are you aware of about this question?
- What are the implications of that belief for how you understand who God is and how God works in the world?
- What tension do you feel between that belief and other parts of your faith?
As Methodists, we are often described as having a “big tent” faith. This means that, in most cases, there are a range of perspectives that are considered “in bounds”. Using the example of evolution and creation, there are faithful Christians and Methodists who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, as well as those that believe it is millions of years old. You may well have your own perspectives on a given question and are welcome to share those, but we expect you to show respect for others’ perspectives and encourage you to not let your own beliefs get in the way of helping the group explore a range of ideas.
Your main job is to listen and support.
You may have a grandparent that used the expression “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Often when a group member shares something sensitive, the main thing they are looking for is someone to listen to and support them. Notice that what they are not necessarily looking for is someone to solve their problem. In some cases, you may have a life experience that gives you unique insight into what a group member is going through. In most situations, though, that won’t be the case, and the best thing you can do is give the group member space to process what they’re dealing with in a safe, supportive environment.
First and foremost, thank the group member for being open and vulnerable with the group. If you believe that further discussion would be helpful, some key questions to guide that discussion may include:
- What’s going on? Tell us about what you’re going through.
- How does this issue impact your faith?
- What resources can I/the group help connect you to?
- How can I/the group pray for you?
- What are some next steps you can take?
In many cases, it may be helpful to encourage the student to discuss the issue further with a pastor. If appropriate and possible, you may even want to offer to help them connect with a pastor and go with them to the meeting.
If you’ve ever dealt with a crisis in your own life, you know how unhelpful it can be to hear things like “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan”. In her book Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), Kate Bowler offers a list of things that you should not say to someone who is going through a terrible time:
- “Well at least…”
- “In my life I’ve learned that…”
- “It’s going to get better, I promise”
- “God needed an angel”
- “Everything happens for a reason”
- “I’ve done some research and…”
- “When my aunt had cancer…”
- “So how are treatments going? How are you really?”
Obviously there is some nuance here – if the group member has asked for more information, it is certainly appropriate to do some research and have a followup discussion. Likewise, if you have life experience that relates to what the group member is going through, it may be appropriate to use that as a way to connect with the group member by saying something like “my aunt had cancer too, and I know it really sucks.” A good rule of thumb is to ask whether what you’re saying is intended to make you feel better and in control of the situation, or if it genuinely helps the person who is struggling. If the former, the best thing you can do is be quiet and simply offer a listening ear.
Manage the group.
When a group member is vulnerable, how the group (and, specifically, you as the leader) responds is critical for the group dynamic in both the short- and long-term. A group that responds well can experience an incredibly powerful moment both immediately and the future, whereas a poor response by the group can irreparably damage the dynamic of the group going forward.
Consider the following for how to lead the group in a healthy response to moments of vulnerability:
Create space to regroup. Sometimes, the best thing you can do as a leader is divert the group to give the vulnerable member time to regroup. If you don’t feel the group can offer anything meaningful, don’t be afraid to redirect the rest of the group to give the vulnerable member a moment to themselves (though, you will want to follow up with the member privately afterward).
Ask if the member wants the group’s input. In some cases, the member may have just wanted to get an issue off their chest. In others, they may want the group’s input. Don’t hesitate to ask directly which would be most helpful for them and respect their wishes. And, refer to the above guidelines for the group as well as yourself: discourage other group members from trying to fix things or offer platitudes, and use the opportunity to help guide the group in what it means to helpfully offer support.
Lead the group in prayer for the member. When a group member has been vulnerable, always ask if the group can pray for them and, if they are willing, lead the group in prayer for the situation they have brought to the group.