One of the most difficult parts of being a small group leader is knowing what to say in critical moments.

I have friends who always know the right thing to say. They sit down to counsel students in crisis, listen intently and respond calmly with things like, “You know, that reminds me of this life-changing verse I memorized in the book of Habakkuk…” Really!? They’re making that up. I bet Habakkuk isn’t even in the Bible. (Please don’t email me about this. I went to Bible college—twice. I know what I’m talking about.)

Meanwhile, when I sit down with students, I spend 75% of my energy listening kinda intently, and the other 25% thinking panicked thoughts like, “Oh shoot, oh shoot, oh shoot… they’re going to expect me to have an answer. Oh shoot, this is above my pay grade… Shoot, shoot, shoot…” Under the pressure, I begin spitting out Habakkuk as a curse word.

Helping a student figure out life’s biggest problems in their current phase of development is a big responsibility, and I feel the weight of getting it right.

One day, when my small group girls were in 8th grade, I got a phone call from a mom. She explained that, after a heated argument, Mary Anne’s dad had moved out. She wasn’t sure how long the separation would last, but she knew Mary Anne was hurt and reluctant to share her thoughts with anyone. She asked if I would see what I could do.

My mouth said, “Of course.” My brain said, “Oh Habakkuk.”

I picked Mary Anne and her best friend Dawn up after school. We went to the park and sat on the swings for an hour and a half. We talked about school, boys, hobbies, childhood memories, pets, the weather, favorite foods, and the color of the grass—we covered practically every topic that has nothing to do with dads. I would occasionally try to steer the conversation in a way that would trick Mary Anne into pouring out her feelings, but to no avail. Finally, my persistence dwindling, I suggested we go get ice cream.

As we sat on the curb in front of Manning’s (which is truly the best ice cream in all 50 states), the conversation became more serious. Sensing her friend’s shift in mood, Dawn suddenly found the need to “go use the bathroom” and left Mary Anne and I sitting side-by-side, making futile attempts to catch drippy ice cream with our tongues before it melted down the backs of our hands.

I glanced over at Mary Anne, took a deep breath, and said, “Ya know, your mom called me… I wouldn’t be a responsible adult if I didn’t ask how you are doing. Do you want to talk about your dad?”

There was a pause, and then she mumbled, “There really isn’t much to say. He’s gonna come back.”

Shut down. Habakkuk.

My brain scrambled to formulate my response. Most of the statements began with, “But if he doesn’t…” and, “God has a plan…”

Instead I heard myself say one word, “Okay.” Yup. She predicted the unforeseeable future, and I said… “Okay”.

When Dawn’s mom came to pick the girls up, Mary Anne hugged me and thanked me for talking. I was a little dumbfounded by her gratitude, being as our exchange on the matter consisted of 3-4 sentences.

I guess when it comes to leading students, the words you don’t say are sometimes as important as the ones you do.

Mary Anne’s dad did come home a couple weeks later. In the following years, his leaving and coming home have been cyclical. Looking back on that day in front of Manning’s, I don’t think she needed me to dispense wisdom or talk her through the reality that her home life might be changed forever. She already knew that. I think she just needed me to sit next to her on the curb, sticky with rocky road ice cream, and console her with one word: Okay.

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Steph is the Lead Writer for the XP3 Middle School curriculum at Orange. She has a decade of experience leading students and volunteers, including the privilege of leading a group of girls from 5th grade to HS graduation. She recently moved to Atlanta, and is embarking on another 4 years of Leading Small in a high school setting. Steph is married to Tim, and spends her days writing, planning adventures, and drinking coffee. She is the author of the book The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting. Start Retaining. You can read more of her thoughts at stephwhitacre.com.

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