Guidebook IV: Creating A saFE pLACE
How to facilitate meaningful and honest community.
Neil was failing his Law degree. He did not need to wait until the results came out: he just knew. First year had been manageable, but the steep second year learning curve was beyond him. It did not seem to matter how hard he worked; Neil could not keep pace with his peers.
To his parents he was ‘the lawyer of the family,’ his mates called him a ‘genius,’ and this was adding to the pressure he was feeling. The only time he felt he could be honest was Tuesday night at Joe’s house. His small group knew the whole story. They didn’t care if he did poorly on his exams. In fact, they knew he hadn’t wanted to study Law in the first place.
“When will you tell your parents?” Sophie asked him that evening.
“This weekend, if I can summon the courage,” he said.
Joe offered to do a role play so Neil could practice. “If you can find the right words here, it might be easier when the audience is less gracious.”
Neil stuttered through his explanation of why this was not the right path for him, and by the end of it, most of the room was in tears.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Sophie said. “Can we pray with you?”
Your small group has the potential to provide meaningful and honest community that your members may not experience anywhere else. What this looks like will depend on the people involved and the culture you commit to creating. It may be helpful to collaborate on the vision for your group when you start meeting together. Ask members to vocalize ideas of community and identify their expectations of your group. Here are some ideas to get the conversation started:
In this group:
We are free to be our true selves.
We support one another to achieve our potential.
We listen to one another’s hopes and dreams.
There is grace for when we make mistakes.
We can ask for help if we are struggling.
There is no condemnation or judgment if we make poor choices.
Prayer is our way of supporting one another throughout the week.
Creating a Safe Place
For the material you are studying to have the greatest impact, and for members to engage meaningfully with the content, people need to feel loved and accepted for who they are. As Group Guide, you can facilitate an environment where your members feel safe to be raw and honest. Here are some practical ways you can guide your group towards intentional community.
Take the lead
There is nothing more inspiring than being around someone who is free to be themselves. As you prayerfully consider the topics your group is exploring, think of ways you can share honestly from your own experience. Use examples that highlight your acceptance of imperfection on a journey towards wholeness.
Share the vision
Make a poster or individual print outs of the community vision that you talked about at the beginning of your time together. This will serve as a visual reminder to Group Members of the goal towards which you are working.
When you are planning time together as a small group, create unscheduled space. How this looks will depend on your group. You could allow ten minutes at the beginning of your session to connect in smaller groups - or it might work better for you to leave this time until the end. Another idea is to tailor the content to facilitate conversations throughout the study. Prepare some leading questions and allow space for discussion and/or prayer.
Don't force it
Some members will embrace honest vulnerability more readily than others. It can also take time to develop trust. Do not push people to share beyond what they are comfortable with. Members need to feel safe not to share too.
Advice for You
It is essential that as Group Guide, you also feel safe. Taking on the responsibility of a group full of people with different expectations is challenging. You need to put measures in place to protect yourself, such as:
Have a plan
Preparing well for your group will ensure that there is a flow to your time together upon which members can rely. A clear structure will give you something to stick to and will afford your members a sense of security.
If your members have ideas for the group that go beyond your capacity, involve them in the preparations. For example, if they want to eat together as an expression of community, ensure that the tasks are shared out fairly. Stretching yourself beyond your means may lead to reduced capacity to lead well and even resentment.
Just because you are the Group Guide does not mean you cannot benefit from the prayerful support of your members.
Is there anything threatening the safe space you are trying to create in your group? Are there ways in which you are stretched beyond your means? Do you feel free to be yourself in the group? Is there anything you can change in order to facilitate the kind of space you envision?
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