In April, I was invited to co-lead sophomore girls. The first time my co-leader Maria and I met for coffee, she told me the week before, one of the girls had shared she is attracted to girls. The student, Katie (whose name isn’t actually Katie), is a Christian and was concerned about what this might mean.

Maria told me the year prior, Katie’s heart had been broken by a boy at school. When she shared how she was feeling, she told the group there wasn’t a specific girl she liked, but she didn’t find guys appealing anymore. Katie also said she had no interest in beginning a relationship with anyone in the near future.

In May, Katie regularly asked us to pray that God would give her clarity. Her questions about sexuality created strain between her and her parents. Maria and I leaned on Katie to make her identity in Christ and as an individual—not her sexuality—the focus. The conversations were challenging and tough, but kept moving forward.

Then one week, Katie arrived to group elated. There was a girl who had asked her out. Over the following weeks, her emotions wavered drastically as she simultaneously experienced a new relationship and went to war with her parents. Three weeks ago, Katie’s girlfriend came to church. On the one hand, this was a win. We had successfully loved Katie in a way that she knew it would be safe to invite her girlfriend. On the other hand… what a mess! Her parents had forbidden them to see each other, and there they were holding hands in small group.

We’re still in the thick of this situation, but over the past four months, here are a few things I’ve learned and been reminded of about creating safe places for students:

Don’t freak out. You have to establish your “screaming on the inside, but nodding my head and listening on the outside” face. If you begin to feel your eyes slipping from their sockets because your eyebrows are arched dangerously high, tuck your orbs back inside your skull and relax.

Recognize that “the issue” might not be the biggest issue. When talking about sensitive topics like homosexuality, it’s easy to let the conversation circle around that one key thing. But for Katie, the issue actually has little to do with if she is gay. There are so many other questions to address like “Who does Christ say you are?” and, “Where do you find fulfillment?” and, “What does it look like to honor your parents?”

Speak the truth. It’s tricky to create a safe place and speak the truth. I think the best way to do this is to be consistent in your message and to make the most important thing the most important thing. Over and over, Maria and I keep reminding Katie that we love her, we’re rooting for her, and that, even when it’s difficult to do what is right, we want her to make choices that lead to healing and peace.

Provide perspective. I think part of the role of a small group leader is to provide reminders of the past, perspective on the present, and vision for the future. Maria is so good at this. She’s known Katie for years, and she constantly nudges her back to times when her main priority was seeking God’s direction.

In an hour, it’ll be time for me to head to small group. To be honest, part of me would love a night of easy conversation. But that isn’t what happens when you create a safe place for students. They come with all their stuff and dump it in the middle of the circle, and it’s our role as leaders to lean in, ask the right questions, and offer to walk through the messes together. If we do it right, they’ll keep coming back . . . and maybe even bring their girlfriends.

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