It’s the beginning of Fall, which means the start of my church’s small group is right around the corner. Thinking about my small group brings a variety of wonderful emotions up to the surface: laughter, support, challenge, and most of all, safety. Why do I emphasize safety? Because my small group’s safety stands in stark contrast to the worst small group experience of my life, circa 2013. So what happened?
Let me set the table. I was doing my Marriage and Family Therapy internship up in the Bay Area, and looking for a church. I enjoyed worshipping on Sundays with this one church in San Francisco enough to take a risk and attend one of their small groups. I found the home where the small group met, and shared a nice simple meal with the 6 other men there. We then made ourselves comfortable in the family room and the facilitator asked if we could give an update on our week.
Prepare to wince.
After 2 guys shared about some stressful work projects coming up, one guy says that a very close friend of his died 5 days ago, and he was still shaken up about it. The other guys suddenly found the carpet very interesting, and quiet coughs filled the dead air. When I realized no one was going to say anything, I (the new guy who didn’t even know this guy’s name), said to him, “That’s so horrible, I’m so sorry for your loss.” He looked at me, with eyes glistening, and thanked me. He said a few more sentences and fell quiet again. The facilitator then said, “We’ll definitely be praying for you. Who wants to go next?”
I felt so bad for the guy who shared. I then became petrified about sharing what I was going through. Should I, Should I not, kept seesawing in my head, and when it was my turn, I decided I would share, but in limited detail. I told them briefly about the up and down healing journey I was going through after some traumatic life events. The facilitator replied, “We don’t cover that kind of stuff in our small groups. But our church has a counseling center you might want to check out.”
He then invited the group to discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon, how we understood it, how it impacted us. I tuned out. All I wanted to do was to go back to my apartment.
I felt unsafe there. And I never wanted to go back.
It took a while for me to be motivated enough to try a small group again. My current small group helped me believe in community again. In safety again.
What makes a small group safe? Here are a few traits:
- They create an environment where you are encouraged to share your authentic needs.
- They demonstrate wisdom in knowing when to linger longer in an important conversation, or when to complete an agenda.
- They cry with you. Laugh with you. Say amen to your imprecatory prayers.
- They embrace the different paces of people’s faith journeys.
- They shower you with gospel grace, especially when speaking the gospel truth.
When I experienced these traits (and more) in my current small group, it felt like my soul’s nasal passages could breathe again. Thank you God for my safe small group, and for safe small groups around the world. Would you bring awakening and illumination to unsafe small groups out there in this next season, amen!