Facilitating the Experience of Faith Part 2

Since my wife, Mary, has had extensive experience in group facilitation I have invited her to be a writer in Part Two of Facilitating the Experience of Faith.


In Part One of “Facilitating the Experience of Faith,” I (Craig) shared some theological implications of attaching any kind of experience to faith formation. The critical part of the essay is that we have historical precedence to accept experience as the proper way to facilitate groups in the formation of faith.

This essay looks closer at the art of facilitation. WARNING: there are books upon books written on this topic. What is written here is meant to only wet your appetite. Let’s begin with SAFETY.

Safety First…Second…and Third

We both want to believe that every youth worker in the world understands the importance of safety for parents, other leaders, and…of course….the lawyers. Most of us can share horror stories of when the worst could have happened due to inexperience. (Some of our experiences include: raccoons and skunks in camp; getting lost with a group of youth and then having the car break down in the middle of “nowhere”; sliding on ice in a chartered bus with Texas youth on Colorado Mountain roads; and we’ll spare you details of any more.)

When we began directing Lutheran Valley Retreat (LVR) in the wilderness setting of the Colorado Rockies, there was a huge reason to be concerned about safety. The closest medical facility was 45-60 minutes away by car and the Flight for Life helicopter was 20 minutes away. Add the time it would take to get the information to initiate action and it was obvious that we could not make any major mistakes. The lives of other people’s children were in our hands!

Every summer we trained 30-40 college-aged staff at LVR. At first major incidents were avoided by having staff schedule activities and check in if their group’s schedule needed to change. To do this, staff would bring their camper group in to base camp from a quarter mile or more away. The older the group the further they would often have to come. As the number of campers increased, we immediately saw the need to equip staff with decision making tools for use in the woods. They just didn’t have time to come and ask what the safest thing was for them to do.

We began to experiment with a series of questions that staff needed to ask themselves before deciding if an experience would be appropriate. We’ve shared these with other camps associated with the NLOMA (National Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Association) and found that staff who adhered to the questions were actually successful in maintaining an appropriate level of safety. We have affectionately labeled them the Oldenburg Questions.

The Oldenburg Questions (© Craig & Mary Oldenburg)

We offer these questions to you as a gift to support your work in youth ministry. These questions will allow you to take an in-depth look at some of the mechanics of facilitation.

  1. Have I set it up safely?
  2. Does it have a purpose?
  3. If all else fails, can I keep them safe?

You ought to be asking, “Aren’t those rather simplistic?” Yes, they are. And there is an entire theory that supports these three simple questions. We will give you some of the theory to support your use of the questions.

1. Have I set it up safely?

Think of the entire person within each group of people. Holistic is often used to describe the way to view the whole person. Think of this in terms of Mark 12 (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself). Mary has broken the verse down to look like this:

Heart = Spiritual

Soul = Emotional

Mind = Intellectual

Strength = Physical

Neighbor = Social

When thinking of safety you need to think of all five of these areas at the same time. Many times in setting up risk management procedures youth workers think primarily of physical safety. But Christ calls us to be more fully engaged in our care and love. Do embarrassing surprises take into account the emotional safety of the community? Do certain R-rated movies take into account the spiritual safety of the community? Does encouraging gossip take into account the social, emotional and/or spiritual safety of the community?

In any group of people, churched or non-churched, one-third has been either physically or sexually abused in some way. Should this increase your commitment to safety? Yes. Does it have to limit your fun? No. (See Philosophy of Fun below) Does knowledge of this statistic cause you to consider emotional safety along with physical safety?

If you are going to facilitate student groups you need a dual approach to your behavior. One is internal and one is external.


1. Internal Pessimist

2. External Optimist

In facilitating a group you need to be a pessimist on the inside; looking for anything and everything that could go wrong. You are not looking for things that would go wrong so that you can stop the activity; but rather you are looking for things that go wrong so that you can change the nature of the experience and continue in it safely. This means changing the story of the experience so that safety parameters change. You also need to be an optimist on the outside; giving the group a chance to explore their options without having to worry that they are causing you great concern. The external optimist can show true pleasure while the internal pessimist is considering the safety of the environment.

If you can answer YES to this first question, then you can continue on to the next question. If you answer NO to this question then begin to look at how you can adapt and change the experience before going on.

2. Does it have a purpose?

We can hear the groans as we have heard them each time we have trained facilitators. The professional church workers in particular all have their mouths open with their index finger pointing in (international YM sign for puking).

Most common answer: “The purpose is to have fun.” Let’s look at a Philosophy of Fun. Remember the abuse statistic above? John, a summer staff (name has been changed), decided that fun would be bouldering (climbing up large boulders at the base of mountains) but he did not set up spotters. One boy, who had not bouldered before, ended up with a significant gash in his skull. Fun for some…not fun for all. Jerome, a new youth leader in Florida, thought it would be fun to allow the veteran retreat males to hold down the rookie retreat males so they could use a broom stick to poke it into the younger boy’s anal canal. Fun for some…not fun for all. You might think stuffing your face with food is a fun race to have and that everyone has to join in while one young lady is struggling with an eating disorder. Fun for some…not fun for all. The gruesome point of this is that the outcome of fun is interpretive and we need to have a better purpose.

Fun is always a means to a larger goal. When I (Craig) would ask staff why they would want to have fun as the purpose they would often say something like, “Then the group would feel more comfortable with each other.” I would answer, “Then that is the purpose.” You need to think through experiences fully to their conclusion to see if they match what the end purpose really is. This will free you for creativity. One of the reasons that youth workers are not creative and cannot think of new ways to speak the message is that they have not fully thought through purpose.

Think about your purpose before activities. We know you. You sit down and look at an activity book prior to the youth group meeting each night. Pick out a few games and go have fun. There is a time for looking at and trying out brilliant new experiences, but you will be more creative if you first begin with a purpose. The purpose allows you to adapt and recreate the experience to meet a larger purpose. This is when you truly begin to facilitate.

If you can answer YES to this second question, then you can continue on to the next question. If you answer NO to this question then begin to look at how you can adapt and change the activity before going on.

3. If all else fails, can I keep them safe?

This may sound like the first question, but there is a major difference. This question forces you to finally determine if you will go through with an experience. Everyone else may have facilitated this experience but you may choose not to and you have a reason. This time the reasons are very personal. The reasons will be attached to your own abilities and life experiences.

A simple example is when Nicole, an 80 pound female, was in charge of belaying (holding the other end of a safety rope in climbing) a 200+ pound male rock climber. Until Nicole could answer yes to this question, she could not let him climb. The answer was to adapt the situation by having another person attach themself to Nicole’s safety harness so that she would not lift off the ground if the climber fell.

A more complex example was while Craig was facilitating an all female therapy group in a challenge course experience. During an event that included gently tossing and catching each participant, Sarah bolted away and ran into the forest. Her counselor went and consulted with her. When they returned Sarah shared that her father had once thrown her out a second story window. (Remember the abuse statistic? Fun for some…not fun for all.) Craig could not answer this third question and the group could not continue until Sarah verbalized what she needed from the group. Sarah’s experience was adapted so she could be safe emotionally. She asked to be lifted instead of tossed. When Craig was in a position where he could take care of Sarah if the rest of the girls failed to, he could answer yes to the third question. The critical issue here was that Craig could not guarantee her complete safety (emotionally and possibly spiritually) until she said he could.

This third question is not a control issue and should not keep you from sending out a group of students to discuss something for fear that they might damage each other emotionally. But if you have an inkling that emotional and spiritual damage could take place due to past behavior of specific individuals, you should place significant adults who have been trained within the groups to guide and nurture those individuals.

If you can answer YES to this third question, then you can continue on. If you answer NO to this question then begin to look at how you can adapt and change the activity before going on.

What are you going on with? The experience. What kind of experience? It depends on your purpose, your setting, and your resources. The bigger question is what I do after the experience.

Processing the Experience

David Kolb wrote an entire book on why experience can bring about learning. Within that book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, is a processing style that supports learning and forming through experience. Marri Rudy, a speaker for the 2003 Association for Experiential Learning international conference, has refined this simple process. She simply found various ways to ask the following questions after an experience:

1. What happened? (Specifically)

2. Why did that happen?

3. What else is that like in life?

4. How can you apply this to life?

We dare you to begin to practice these questions. It will take more than this article or any article to become proficient at asking them. Most group facilitators train at intensive multi-day training workshops so this can be practiced and reviewed. At least begin to practice versions of these questions and observe where the discussion goes. Don’t give up on the process.

Favorite Facilitations

We have been blessed to facilitate many and varied groups using these and other principles that could not possibly fit into this article. A few of our favorite times of facilitating include: 600+ educators for the Rocky Mountain District of the LCMS; 200+ Sunday School teachers for the Southern District; a youth group that chose to continue for 2 hours on an experience called the Mohawk Traverse; dozens of campfire discussions after a wilderness climbing and rappelling experience; re-enacting outdoor education experiences with hundreds of 6th graders over the years in order to more fully appreciate the messages in Gods Word; watching large football player size youth weep while processing their servant event experiences with homeless children.

Published June 1, 2006

About the author

Craig has served in elementary education, youth ministry, outdoor ministry, and challenge course facilitation and development. He is the former DCE program director at Concordia University, Portland. He currently serves as the director of Camp Concordia, located on the Woodbeck chain of lakes north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Craig and his wife Mary have one daughter, Whitney.
View more from Craig

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