“How goes it with your soul?” It’s a fair question, a good question, and a question that was once commonplace in Free Methodist churches and colleges.
But these days it’s a question almost no one asks — except at Seattle Pacific University. For the past two years, SPU has required freshmen to participate in small groups modeled after 18th-century Wesleyan class meetings, in which participants would meet once a week to ask one another about the state of their souls. The goal of these class meetings was “to be transformed by the grace of God,” explains Kevin Watson, former SPU assistant professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies and author of “The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.”
SPU’s small groups are the essence of a program called SoulCare, now in its third year.
“These Wesleyan small groups are a significant part of our Wesleyan heritage here at Seattle Pacific,” says SoulCare Director Celeste Cranston, a Free Methodist elder. “As followers of Jesus, we are intentionally cultivating safe space — sacred space — on our campus for our students to grow in their Christian walk.”
In its first two years, SoulCare saw more than 1,200 freshmen participate in 210 Wesleyan small groups, and those groups have borne much fruit.
“The stimulating, Christ-centered discussions we had with my small group leader brought me closer to God and inspired me to reach out to the incoming students for next year,” says Krista Love Matro, a participant in spring 2018. Wesleyan small groups focus on Christian formation and discipleship, exposing students to Christian community and facilitating growth in awareness and love of self, neighbor and God. Participants gather once a week under the leadership of a trained facilitator to ask and answer the question, “How goes it with your soul?”
“It’s about what’s going on deep inside of me, how God is shaping my life,” says SPU Professor of New Testament Studies David Nienhuis, the director of the University Foundations program in the School of Theology, which houses SoulCare. “When we think of the soul we’re not just thinking about the day-to-day self; we’re thinking about the deep self, the real self, the self who is before God somehow.”
SoulCare has proved to be as enriching for the group leaders as for the participants. Facilitators are trained by a team of Seattle Pacific Seminary mentors and by Cranston and Associate Professor of Physics Kara Gray in everything from small group dynamics to faith development and cultural competency.
“Part of our goal is to be a non-anxious presence for students, to provide a space where they can talk about their faith in a practical way, and relate it to their everyday lives,” says seminary small group leader Miguel Escobar.
“Being a Wesleyan small group leader moved me in my relationship with God,” says Melissa Wood, “because I found I really had to rely on Him as I led and shared. SoulCare leadership is less about being a ‘leader’ in the traditional sense, and more about the opportunity to be part of something authentic. The vulnerability that happens in these groups creates a place where everyone is allowed to be their truest self in the context of Christian community.”
Because SPU welcomes students from diverse cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, these small groups reflect that diversity.
“Belonging often precedes believing,” says Cranston, “so it is essential that every group be a place of warm Christian hospitality. This provides a rich context for the truly good news of God’s love to be shared.”
Kathy Henning is Seattle Pacific University’s communications manager for fundraising and academics.0