Leading Small Groups and Crowd Control

Leading Small Groups and Crowd Control

Thank you in advance for your commitment to be on the upcoming retreat which will be presented by the REAP Team of St. Louis. We really appreciate the time and energy you will be sacrificing, not only to be there, but also to help us out! So that you can understand how you can be most helpful to the REAP Team – and help to ensure the best possible retreat for all students in attendance – please read this document carefully and prayerfully.

Who We Are

If this is your first REAP retreat, we want to introduce ourselves by letting you know that our motto is “seriously fun Catholic retreats” and therefore we try to mix things up, all day long, between fun and serious sessions. We find that young people are much more easily engaged in serious content if they are also able to have fun. We believe that retreats should mirror life, and the fun/serious vibe is like an EKG: all serious is boring and would be a flat line, and all fun would be a waste of everyone’s time and a flat line; both are deadly and would be ineffective in reaching God’s people. But a balanced combination reflects the seriously joyful reality of being alive in Christ! We have also seen, over the years, how beneficial humor is at helping people to relax, and therefore be more open to the Gospel message. Warming up a crowd with fun and humor before getting to serious content is incredibly effective at lowering walls between presenters and participants. Contrary to what some may believe, humor and seriousness are complementary companions for effective ministry. We hope you enjoy our style and our content, and are super excited that you will be joining us for the upcoming retreat!

How You Can Help

Please pray in advance of this retreat, and throughout the retreat for the students and the retreat staff. Chances are that you have attended a retreat at some point in your life that has made a difference, and that is what we all hope for all of the students who will be there! Praying throughout the whole retreat is one of the most important things we all can do. And if you know any good people who are good at praying, please ask them to pray for us, too!

Please participate in the event as the Lord leads you and as you feel comfortable. You are a role model for the attendees: if the students see you listening and involved, they’ll be more open to entering into the day. We also believe that this retreat has the potential to be a retreat for you as well. On many occasions, we have heard folks who’ve helped us out tell us, “I think I got more out of this retreat than the participants did.” We give the Holy Spirit credit for that! Finally, when you participate, we guarantee that it will improve your relationship with the students – they’ll see you in a different light if you laugh at our jokes, play our games, and mingle with them during breaks.

Please don’t be a distraction to us and to the students. This statement may seem obvious, but we can’t even count how many times adult and student leaders have been a bigger distraction than the retreatants. Please avoid things like grading papers, being on your phone, and talking among yourselves when we are presenting serious content. If you need to do such things to take care of any urgent business, please step out of the room – and out of earshot – before doing so.

Please sit among the crowd at all times, rather than awkwardly hovering over some of the students or standing in the back of the room. We on the REAP Team will do this, too, but it really helps if you also can “infiltrate” the audience. Our preferred image for this is that we who are leaders should be like “sprinkles on a donut” and so if the crowd is a donut, all of us should be sprinkled throughout. It will help if after each break you are quick to take a seat; otherwise, only the front row will be available for you (much like what we experience in many Catholic churches).

Crowd Control

Please help us with crowd control. On occasions, there are students in the crowd who enjoy talking while someone else is talking – distracting themselves, their neighbors, and the speaker from what’s happening up front. Here’s how we navigate that:

  • Keep in mind that students aren’t (usually) trying to be disruptive; often they’re just sitting next to their best friends and can’t help themselves. Perhaps you have a best friend like that, and understand the temptation…we do, and therefore you will notice that we on the team don’t sit next to one another during our retreats.
  • As mentioned previously, please be scattered throughout the crowd, and while doing so please be attentive to disruptions. We suggest paying 50% attention to what is being shared with the crowd, and 50% attention to what is going on around you. Correction should, ideally, come from the within the crowd and not from the person who is speaking. Please help us by protecting whoever is sharing up front by doing the least disruptive thing: first, make eye contact and give the disrupters the look; second, employ gentle physical touch and a shush; third, switch chairs with them to separate them from their distractions; finally, ask them to step outside with a teacher/another team member and talk to them about the importance of respectful behavior.
  • Be aware that the person speaking might try to make eye contact with you to draw your attention to a disruption; please help out if this happens.
  • Finally, be on the lookout for other distractions, i.e. noisy doors, staff members who are unintentionally talking too loudly, snacks being set up, etc. and try and eliminate these distractions as soon as possible so that no one loses their focus on what the Lord is trying to say to them.

Small Group Discussions

One of the major goals of every REAP retreat is to make sure we don’t just talk at people all day, but that we give them a chance to talk, too. People just want to be heard – and in our world, there are fewer and fewer places where that happens. Small groups are a way for participants to process our retreat content, out loud, at least once during any given event.

If You Are Not a Small Group Leader:

If you will not be leading a small group, that’s okay. Perhaps you think your presence would be prohibitive to students sharing. Or maybe you don’t feel called to lead, or we have enough leaders, or you have some business to take care of, like setting up lunch/snacks. If you will not be a small group leader, please pray for the success of our small groups!

Also, if you are not comfortable being a leader, please know that you are always welcome to join a small group being led by a member of our team or another leader – but please do so as an active participant and please stay with your group from beginning to end.

Finally, please not hover around/over small groups and listen to what is being shared. It’s not that anything super-secret is being discussed, but small groups are designed to be confidential and for there to be a gradual sense of shared vulnerability. Nothing shuts down the progress of a small group like someone who is not participating in the group who appears to be eavesdropping on the conversation…it’s so awkward!

Tips for Leading a Small Group Discussion:

  • When you receive your agenda and see a time for small groups, start praying for the kids who will end up in your group. Consider yourself the personal prayer warrior for each kid in your group. Invite Jesus to be your co-leader.
  • Look over the content/small group questions ahead of time and begin preparing your own answers to each discussion question.
  • Once you have your group, get in your own space, where you won’t be distracted by/able to eavesdrop on other groups. Have everyone sit at the same level (all on chairs or all on the floor), in a circle. No bleachers, or stairs, or some kids in chairs and others on the floor. It’s a psychological reality that conversations flow better when everyone is on the same level.
  • Lay a foundation: start with prayer. Talk about small group confidentiality and have everyone agree. Tell them that you’re going to answer every question first, then you’re going to go around the circle every time. It can be good to choose to alternate directions, so the student to your left doesn’t have to go second every time, or not – your call as the leader. Also let them know that if their turn comes and they’re not ready to answer, they can skip or pass. Promise to come back to them at the end (and don’t forget to!), but if they still don’t want to answer, there’s no pressure; don’t force anyone to talk.
  • Start with introductions (name, who’s in your family, what do you like to do for fun, etc.) and one silly/weird question to break the ice. Use questions that might get them to laugh or smile (your toothbrush color, if you had to be a Disney princess for the rest of your life, which one would you be and why, etc.).
  • Remember their names. Write them down on your agenda, if needed; just make sure to repeat their names and use them. Knowing names communicates love/concern and will be important if any red flags arise during discussion.
  • Answer every question first, yourself. This role models how they should respond and gives them some time to think about their own answers.
  • Continue to go around the circle, for every question, every time. If you fail to go around the circle, the shy kids will shut down; this method ensures every student has chances to talk.
  • Use the questions on the agenda that correspond with the topic. They have been carefully curated to open up discussion on the topic. Trust that and do not wander from the questions. Go in the order listed – the flow has been set intentionally.
  • Be an active listener. Repeat back to them anything significant that they’ve said, especially if they’re struggling to answer completely. Keep good eye contact with whoever is talking. When they’re done, say “thanks” or give some indication that you understood what they said.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes people need a little time to think, and the Holy Spirit needs a little room to move. Avoid the temptation to fill that silence. This time is for them to share, not you to elaborate on the topic being discussed.
  • Keep an eye on the clock and do not go over on time. This might mean skipping a few questions on the agenda – that’s okay with us. Try to hit the most important questions listed. We would rather you be back on time than delay the retreat flow by getting through every question and being late.
  • End with a prayer (either pray yourself, or invite one of the students to lead it). Try not to disturb other groups who are still meeting if you finish earlier – often it’s safe to head back to the main meeting space to hang out, but be aware of any groups that may be discussing there.

A Word About Red Flags:

If there is a student who shares deep wounds, or their safety is in question in any way (at home, school, etc.), find a REAP Team staff member, or parish/school staff member, and share the concerns. Remember names; it makes follow up much easier. Bring a pencil or pen with you to small group, and discreetly write down important details that will help a staff member with identifying the student.

Potential Pitfalls

When They Don’t Talk:

If students continue to pass, you might say to the group as a whole, “I know you guys have opinions and stuff to say; this is your opportunity to do so and I’d really encourage you not to miss it.” Avoid singling out a shy kid, though. Continue to be first in answering each question, give them a moment if they seem to be thinking, and always make sure to come back to anyone who passed to see if they’ve thought of anything.

When Emotions Arise:

Give them a minute and let them cry. Don’t overreact. Get them a tissue and make sure they’re done speaking before moving on. Thank them for sharing, show compassion, and consider pulling them aside after small group to make sure they’re all right. Note who they are, in case their emotion is a red flag that the school or parish staff needs to follow up on. Don’t, however, let the situation dominate or change the direction of the small group – your role is to facilitate group discussion, not individual counseling.

When a Teen is Negative or Antagonistic:

If they don’t want to answer, have a negative attitude, or brush off the questions because they ‘don’t believe in that God stuff,’ don’t give it a second thought. Simply say “Okay,” or “Thanks for being honest,” and move on to the next person. This disarms it almost immediately. Always give them a chance to answer when it’s their turn in the circle, but don’t push if they don’t want to share. Often, when they see that you aren’t rattled by their attitude and they witness their peers opening up, they will decide to open up, too. The only times in which commenting back would be appropriate is if they are being openly negative about someone, or saying something irrelevant to the discussion. Redirect them and move on.

Discipline in Small Groups:

If someone can’t stop talking when it isn’t their turn, or is disrupting the group with some other kind of distracting behavior –

  • Give a look of acknowledgment and shake your head ‘no’ to indicate they should stop.
  • Call them out by name and politely ask them to listen to whoever is speaking.
  • If they’re next to a friend they can’t stop talking to, switch spots in small group to separate the two offenders.
  • If they continue to disrupt the group, ask if they’d rather sit out the discussion and hang with their teacher instead.
  • If all this fails, send them to the school staff and continue with your small group. Follow up after and let them know you weren’t trying to single them out, you just wanted to make sure their classmates didn’t miss out on the chance to discuss.

Final Thoughts on Leading Small Groups:

  • Be present to the Holy Spirit in every moment (for example, when you are walking your small group to the appointed spot; the breath before you ask a question; etc.). Make prayer the bedrock of your discussion time – always begin and end with prayer.
  • The disposition of the leader powerfully drives the disposition of the whole group. Smile, be upbeat, and be genuinely excited about the time you have with these retreatants – it will infect the group, and will significantly improve the experience for everyone involved.
  • Be prepared. Be attentive to the retreat: know what was said in the talks, be familiar with the dramas, etc. Read the reflection questions prior to the small group. If we are to listen well during our discussion time, we shouldn’t be browsing our questions to see what comes next.
  • While good preparation can assist the Holy Spirit, over-preparation can be a roadblock. For instance, if you are anxious to stick to the reflection questions, but one of the students in your small group asks a related question or expresses something important and relevant to the topic, formality could block the Spirit from reaching the heart or clearing confusion.
  • If it didn’t go very well, do not assume either of the following: you did a poor job leading or they were a quiet group. Sometime we fail at setting it up well; sometimes they are just a quiet group.

Thanks again for helping us out. Know that we are praying for you; please pray for us!


REAP Team Staff Members

P.S. As an added bonus, you can watch videos of two veteran REAP Team members leading small groups, so you can see how it’s done:

Paul Masek is Lisa's husband and is honored to be the father of four practically perfect kids ~ Jacob, Audrey, Kyle, & Dominic. For fun, Paul loves hunting, fishing, eating, and hanging out with the fam. He claims to be the funniest person he has ever met - and his wife says he hasn't met enough people - because she is funnier. He also loves stirring it up and is the director of the REAP Team for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. You can find out more about Paul by following him on Twitter & Insta - @clasekmasek

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