There are two sometimes-conflicting principles that drive Grow Groups, the weekly gatherings organized by student chaplains in each of the residence halls of Eastern University. They are meant to “create an atmosphere or sense of Christian community” on each floor, as University chaplain Joe Modica said, but they are also to be reflections of what the students want.
“The Grow Group belongs to the floor,” Modica said. If the students on a hall don’t want to have one, and they have other ways to be spiritually developed, he doesn’t mind.
Human nature being what it is, this freedom means that many Grow Groups are poorly attended or simply don’t happen at all.
“Sometimes it’s a chemistry issue,” said Sara Dugan, a junior and NCH RA in her third year living on campus. As a result, a hall with good community will have a good Grow Group, and a hall with a good Grow Group will have good community.
“It’s very interdependent,” she said.
Community-building, in this sense, is not simply about having friends but about having the people you live close to – on your hall, in your building – as friends. But many older students already have friends, so even when they live on campus they often contribute little to their floor communities.
That’s why those who attend Grow Groups are mostly first-years, with some sophomores and what Modica called a “smattering” of juniors and seniors.
Chaplains may only be “facilitators” of their Grow Groups, as Modica calls them, but it falls to them to navigate the inevitable challenges. The positions are not paid, which means that they have less at stake if they do badly or quit – but conversely, it means that they care enough about the job to take it on voluntarily.
To respond to those challenges, chaplains try everything from South Park-watching Grow Groups to dorm-wide worship nights, to varying success.
“When it is just about fellowship, I’ve found that it’s really weak,” Dugan said. “If Grow Group is simply a social group, people aren’t going to join. They can hang out in their own rooms with their own friends.”
And when that happens, the Grow Group loses life even faster.
“People who only have five or six people coming get discouraged,” Dugan said. “They have a rough job.”
Dugan’s student chaplain, Brittani McKenna, shepherds a successful Grow Group.
“The group is not my group,” McKenna said. “The girls can tell me whatever they want to do, and we’ll do it.”
But what they want is spiritual things.
“We made our entire hall a prayer area,” McKenna said.
Student chaplain Matt Wilcox’s Grow Group, in Doane A First, draws about half the floor’s 25 or so members every week. The meetings are more than social gatherings, ranging from prayer vigils to discussions about whatever interests the men (cults and the occult were recent topics), but still with the occasional “chilling out.”
Wilcox, a former Catholic and a sophomore, attributes part of his success with his diverse hall to his own religiously in-between state.
“Right now, I don’t really know what I am, so it works out really well,” he said.
Both Wilcox and McKenna are trying to make their meetings more student-led, and both have hall members who say they’re willing to help out sometimes.
“I can do an effective job,” Wilcox said. “But I think getting another perspective can be good.”
Katie Cosky, a sophomore, is McKenna’s roommate. She attends their Grow Group “every week I can” this year, she said. That makes it very different from the past.
“Last year, our Grow Group was basically nonexistent,” she said. “We called ourselves the Heathen Hall.”
Now, on a floor where the students care, things are different.
“A lot of us are just feeling like something big is about to happen at Eastern,” McKenna said.
“I’ve met so many more people who are on fire for God.”