It’s the first time your group is meeting, and sixteen eyes vacantly stare at you. Jeopardy music plays in your head (or is it the theme from Jaws?) as you think, “Maybe my question was unclear. Maybe I should ask it differently. What if it’s me? Oh no, it is me. The church bulletin was wrong. ‘guide the next generation’? More like bewilder it. Am I really supposed to withstand an entire school year of silence? I’m a volunteer, not a monk.” Then one brave, adolescent soul gets up the nerve to ask, “Um, are we done?”

The beginning of new groups can be awkward. Students and leaders alike feel a myriad of insecurities about what others will think of them and if they will be accepted. Opening your heart and brain involves risk. Here are some ideas to break the ice without breaking the trust of those in your group:

Go on an adventure. Bonds are formed around the phrase, “Remember when…” Remember when we served at the soup kitchen? Remember when we went rock climbing? The best “remember whens” are rarely planned. One of my group’s “remember whens” is Remember when we went to McDonald’s after the play and Sophie laughed so hard she threw up? Gross but true: the group that pukes together, shares together.

Ask open, universal questions. Open questions shut down yes or no answers. For instance, instead of asking, “Do you live with your parents?” try, “Tell me about who you live with.”

Universal questions tie us together. A quiet van ride with freshmen girls became a gab-fest when asked, “Who is the cutest in One Direction?” (Consensus: Harry, then Niall.) Universals include anything from music to food to school; they are part of every student’s world. Universals can be talked about at length, involve low emotional risk, and are beneficial in establishing connection among students. Never underestimate the power of talking about what seems insignificant. The Hunger Games and Madden are valuable to group dynamics.

Don’t break your neck. If ideal small group sharing were a swimming pool, it would be one of those walk-in types that allows swimmers to wade into deep water gradually. It can be tempting to desire Olympian level diving on the first week, but doing so might discourage students who are content to stay in the shallow end a little longer. In other words, “What’s your deepest, darkest secret?” may be a question best saved for at least the second semester.

Beware the talkers. In the face of silence, we are vulnerable to verbal diarrhea. Leaders exist to lead, not monopolize, the conversation. Likewise, other students can become intimidated by or annoyed with a student who always has something to say and leaves no time for the opinions and needs of others. Affirmatively encourage this student to use their gift of chatter to ask others in the group what they think.

While the amount of time it takes to establish connection varies, each group has one thing in common: students with ideas and dreams just waiting to be shared. The church bulletin didn’t make a mistake. You’ve got this!

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