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Socially (Less) Awkward

Socially (Less) Awkward

What’s the most influential thing you’ve ever read (whether that be a book, an article, or some other kind of essay)? Some sort of document that majorly changed the course of your life?

Come up with anything? Maybe you did. How about this: who was the most influential teacher you had in school? I’m sure a face and a name immediately flashed across your mind. That’s because it’s people and relationships that make the biggest impact in our lives.

What is Mingling?

There are so many important aspects of a retreat – from the room setup, to the food, to the content that’s been prepared – but one of the most important parts of a successful retreat may be something you don’t even realize you’re doing: mingling with the attendees.

What do we mean by mingling? It’s simple, really: just talk to people. Sounds easy enough, but for some of us, it can be quite the challenge. If you’re shy, if you’re an introvert, if you’re busy checking on logistics, if you’re tired, if you’re having one of those days… mingling with strangers may be the last thing on earth that you want to do.

But I promise you that mingling is worth the effort that it takes. Consider some of the feedback we’ve gotten from students on our retreats:

  • “I liked how the members of the team would come over and talk to me about normal things.”
  • “Lunch was the best part of the retreat – because the girl REAP member sat and talked with us. We made a connection and I enjoyed discussing movies.”
  • “They always came and talked to us during our breaks and I thought that was especially neat.”
  • “Probably talking one-on-one with some of the speakers and getting to know them was the best part…”
  • “The most memorable part was the team members themselves. They were funny and very easy to talk to.”

These retreats were surely full of well-prepared talks, funny jokes, engaging games and dramas and small group discussions – but these teens walked away remembering the team members who served on the retreat, more than anything else. And not because of their deep theological truths or stellar acting abilities… they remembered them because they took the time to talk to them, personally, on breaks and during lunch.

Need more reasons to mingle? If you insist…

Why Mingle?

  • It’s a great skill for life! Trust me, you’ll thank us the next time you’re at a party.
  • It’s a Biblical command – Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
  • It makes you a real person to the retreatants. You’re not just some talking head, or Jesus freak, or profound public speaker. You’re just a guy (or just a girl) who is normal and interested in the same things they are.
  • It makes you worth listening to. Teens will pay more attention to what you say from a microphone if they’ve already gotten to know you a little during the mid-morning snack break. On a recent overnight retreat, there was a team member who gave his first talk at 9:30pm and the students cheered as he walked up to the mic, before he even spoke a word – because he had been mingling well with them all day long.
  • It makes them feel valued. The best way you can increase someone’s self-esteem is by taking an interest in their lives, and the easiest way to do that is by talking to them.
  • It’s happened to you. I’m sure you’ve been rescued from some awkward social situation, or welcomed in a new place, or had others ask you about your life and interests before, right? So pay it forward, and do the same for someone else.
  • It’s your job. Part of why you’re doing ministry is to love people, right? To hang out with them, and get on their level? Bam! Mingle with them.
  • It’s how you treat Jesus – that little verse in Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, right? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do unto Me” (Matthew 25:40). When you spend time talking to the retreatants, you’re encountering Christ in them.
  • It’s what Jesus would do. He was an incredible mingler – He would talk to anyone and everyone He came across. And part of your call as a Christian is to imitate Christ, right? So do as He would do and mingle with some teens!

How to Mingle:

I hope you’d agree that mingling is an important thing – but how on earth does one go about doing it? Never fear, I’ve got you covered with some practical how-tos:

  • Focus on the same sex. This isn’t to say that girls and guys can’t ever talk to one another (if that were true, there would be a lot of awkward marriages in this world…) but when ministering to teens, especially younger teens, people are generally a lot more comfortable talking to members of the same sex, who have common daily experiences and feelings.
  • Start. Right away. The best time to begin mingling is as soon as you see a retreatant. Sit among the crowd and just start chatting with those around you. The sooner the students get to know you, the more comfortable they will be mingling with you throughout the day. And sitting among the crowd can also help with any crowd control/discipline issues that might arise during the retreat. Make sure you spread out from other team members in order to cover the crowd as a team. Look for kids who are seated alone.
  • Don’t judge by appearances – students who look tough might be the nicest kids you encounter, and teens who act like they have it all together may be struggling, a lot. So just talk to everyone you come across.
  • You do you. You bring a unique set of insights to the retreat that other team members can’t – and your personality is probably a perfect fit for many of the students on the retreat. Jesus has prepared YOU to encounter these kids, so don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Plus, kids can tell when you’re being fake.
  • Probably don’t start with asking a kid if they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior… keep things general, light, fun. You’re looking for common ground, here, not the biggest sin they’ve ever committed and why. You can save that question for small group (kidding!).
  • Be persistent, but not a pest. I’m not saying run and hide if the first question you ask doesn’t lead to them giving you their entire life story, but if after a couple of minutes of chatting, they don’t seem to be connecting with you, that’s okay. Let another team member take a shot. That’s why there are so many personalities on the team – chances are good someone else will be able to connect with them if you can’t.
  • Practice your best active listening skills – good eye contact, nodding, affirming, asking follow-up questions…. And for the love of all things good and holy, don’t story-match them. If a kid starts telling you about their family vacation to Branson, ask for more details about that and maybe skip your epic stories from the six weeks you spent backpacking across Western Europe.
  • Stay positive and honoring in the conversation, especially when it comes to parents, teachers, and the Church. Sometimes kids need to blow off a little steam, and that’s cool, but do your best to redirect if things are getting negative and gossipy. Maybe they don’t like their science teacher… that’s cool, so ask who their favorite teacher is and why to shift the tone and help keep things respectful.
  • Focus on the other person. People love to talk about themselves; did you know that? Give the students the freedom to talk about themselves, and not only will they feel valued, but you might not get another word in until it’s time for you to give your talk. Easiest mingling trick, ever.
  • Pray about it. Ask God to give you the eyes to see who needs some attention, and do your best to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit as you mingle. And pray for energy to keep mingling for the entire retreat. The Lord wants to work through you all day, and will happily direct your mingling paths during breaks, games, and mealtimes.

Mingling Matters

Mingling might be out of your comfort zone, may not come naturally to you, and might require a lot of practice. That’s fine – the Lord will put a lot of people in your path you can practice with! At the end of the day, the details of the conversation aren’t as important as the fact that you spend time with students and made them feel important, valuable, and loved.

Work hard on your talk, please, and practice your parts for the dramas, yes – but above all, remember that people make the biggest impact. Try to trust that God has called you to be His hands and feet by loving His people throughout the entire retreat. He will give you everything you need to make His kids feel at home – there just aren’t many better ways to build the Kingdom than that.

Rachel Leininger is the full-time chastity educator for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis' REAP Team retreat ministry. She's married to the excessively creative and unfairly gorgeous David. Her favorite things include decorating their home, everything Cardinals baseball, and coffee.

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