Preparing to Process

Each year there is an enormous amount of planning involved in taking a group to Appalachia to serve with Appalachia Service Project.  We plan the vehicles, food, places to stay along the way, background checks and the list goes on. We also get our groups together to talk about the why, where, when and whats of the trip.

I have been making this trek for half of my life now. The mountains and its people are in my bones. I began in high school in 1986. This brought on an itch for service that I continue to scratch to this day.  One of favorite memories is of a man who had worked his whole life in the coal mines. His yard had a little bit of everything in it, though it was neatly organized. He always called us Buddy. I was reminded recently that I had asked someone in town if that was a common nickname in the mountains, the person said we had broken through to this man and that “buddy” was him calling us “family.”  We worked extra hard after that; we weren’t just serving a stranger — we were serving family.

Thom (right) and a fellow volunteer pose on a worksite while Thom volunteered during college.

Room to Talk

Processing the trip is more than any one event that happens during your service week. It’s devotions with your team each day, stopping along a road on your way to the family’s house to see a gorgeous view, or processing it with the group and the family you’re with at lunch.  Each Friday evening of ASP is a time for all the teams from around the country to share some of their thoughts about the week. My youth ministers growing up made sure that Friday evening at ASP was not the last “processing” we did as ASP teams, and I continue this tradition with the group I’ve been leading for the last 13 years.

We make an intentional overnight along our route home. While it is a long drive from Appalachia back to Wisconsin, in reality we could make it home in one drive and be in our beds by a reasonable hour.  Instead of making the long haul, we take time for each team to process their time together: 

  1. What did they struggled with?
  2. What brought them joy?
  3. Where did they see God? 
  4. Finally one by one we ask each person to speak to each individual in their team and answer “Where I saw God in you this week”.  

The experience is still fresh, they are still trying to figure out what this experience meant to them, and it is powerful.

Take the Time

I find a lot of groups that don’t make this intentional time happen and I think they are missing out on an epic moment of affirmation, bonding, and crystallization of what ASP has meant to them this year.  For my groups, this experience can last 90 minutes or more. For many, this is the capstone of their week and provides a window into things they would not have been able to quantify had we not taken the time to do it.   

So, consider adding stopping along the road on your way to your projects.  Make an extra stop on your way home from Appalachia. Or maybe just add an intentional hour or so onto your Friday evening to provide room for deep diving conversations with your groups. You won’t regret it. Below, I’m providing an outline for what our group talks through both in a large group setting and in a work crew setting. I hope that these can prove helpful for you and your group! 

Here are the questions we share in our teams: 

Large Group:

  1. What was your funniest ASP Experience?
  2. What did you miss the most this week?
  3. What did you learn about yourself?
  4. What did you learn from the people in the community?

We’ll break off now – please take a jar with the light of Christ with you – please take this time seriously, we’re tired and ready to move on, but this process is incredibly important.

Work Crews:

  1. What was the best part of being in this work crew?
  2. What did you do well this week?
  3. What questions/thoughts have you had because of this experience?

(Go around the circle) Talk about each individual in your team and answer the question:   Where did you see God in each person this week?

Large Group again:

  1. What is your most significant ASP Memory this year?
  2. What did this week teach you about your life or faith?
  3. How are you a different person now compared with when you signed up for ASP?
  4. What challenges does ASP bring to you for when you get home? 
  5. Do you feel God calling you to something?

Veteran Reflections to wrap up.

In Christ,

Thom Nicla

Youth Minister

First United Lutheran Church

Sheboygan, WI

Thom Nicla grew up in the United Methodist Church in Sheboygan, WI where in high school he had his first ASP experience in 1986. Thom has been working professionally in Youth Ministry since 2002 and has been a Youth Minister at First United Lutheran Church ELCA since 2006.