By Allen White
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.
As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.
So, what if Robin Williams was in your group?
1. We would have a lot of fun.
If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.
The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.
If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time.
2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.
Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself.
3. We would learn to be more generous.
Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.
I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further.
4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.
The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.
But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.
If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.
Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.
If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability.
5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.
Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.
There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.
If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.
We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.
By Allen White
For people who know me and know what I do for a living, the title of this post probably seems pretty ridiculous. After all, I am Mr. Small-Groups-On-the Brain. In this last season, I have help a couple of dozen churches recruit leaders and launch thousands of groups across the country. Did something go wrong?
No, but let’s think about the purpose of groups for a minute. Why are we so obsessed about group life? I am a big fan of groups because it creates a place for people to care for each other, apply God’s Word, serve together, and reach others. The emphasis is on the “small” part. A group fulfills the second part of the early church’s paradigm: they met in temple courts and house to house (Acts 5:42). There was a large public space and a smaller personal space. Groups work. But, maybe not for everyone.
Most churches already have something in place for these functions of care, application, service and outreach. Not all of these functions are in the same place, however. Adult Sunday School might focus on teaching and then care, but maybe not on service and outreach. A task group might focus heavily on serving, but not incorporate the other three functions. A softball team might have a care and outreach function, but not a Bible application or serving component. The question is do we swing the wrecking ball at the ministries that partially fulfill the list, or do we challenge them to become more well rounded? Before you give an answer, answer this question: If It Ain’t Broke, Break It?
This is really a question of form and function. Churches who embrace the form of small groups will sometimes go overboard and call everything a small group. If your church has 200 adult members with 30 in Sunday school, 40 on service teams, and zero groups, suddenly you can have 70 out of your 200 in groups. That’s 35 percent, which is much higher than the national average. But, just because Sunday school classes are now “small groups,” and service teams are now “task groups” doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything “groupish” happening at all.
Of course, you can also go the other way. You can throw a bunch of ill prepared people into a living room in a sink or swim fashion and suddenly have a high percentage of the much coveted “off-campus small groups,” yet what are they doing? Is care happening? Are they applying God’s Word and serving?
I’m not saying avoid small groups. I’m definitely not. But, what will small groups accomplish in your context? Why do you want small groups? And, “just because growing and effective churches have them” should not be your answer.
What is your answer? I’d love to hear it!
By Allen White
Over the years, I’ve faced many ups and downs with small group coaching. The first time we launched groups, we had no coaches at all. Soon the groups burned out. When we debriefed with them, the response was “we feel like lone rangers out there.” We definitely needed coaches.
The next time we launched groups, our leaders had a coach. His name was Allen. Allen recruited all of the leaders, trained all of the leaders, and coached all of the leaders. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” The ministry grew to 30 groups, and then it got stuck. In light of our stuckness and Exodus 18, new coaches were needed immediately.
Searching the congregation, we looked for the cream of the crop. Who had led groups? Who was wise? Who was good with people? We found them. These were experienced, mature folks who were willing to help other leaders. I put them to work: disseminate information, collect reports, visit the groups, and report back. I still held on to all of the training, but the coaches did all of the hand to hand combat.
A dear coach named Carol came to me one day. She said, “I’m not too sure that I want to continue coaching. I’m bored, and I kind of feel like I’m your spy.” She was right to feel that way. That’s exactly what she was. But, why was she bored? First of all, Carol was a wise, mature believer with much to offer. I had turned her into a paper-pusher and a spy. While the coaches participated in the group huddles, the pastor of small groups still ran the meetings and did all of the training. He was still in recovery….
Finally, I turned all of the training and meaningful interaction over to the coaches. Suddenly, I had fewer people to communicate with. The coaches were doing their job. Then, the complaints started rolling in. Not from the leaders, but from the coaches: “I can’t get the leaders to show up for any meetings.” “I call them, but they won’t call me back.” So, I fired all of the coaches. Actually, I didn’t. It was time to regroup.
Did we need coaches to disseminate information? No, we had email. Did we need coaches to collect reports? No, we used churchteams.com. Did we need coaches to be spies? Yes, we actually did, but not like that.
What can a coach do that a small group pastor or director cannot? A coach can develop a close personal relationship with each of the group leaders. One pastor or director with even five groups cannot keep up with every group leader and what’s going on with their groups. Coaches serve a vital role in the relational makeup of a small group ministry.
Coaching relationships still have an intentional aspect. The role of a coach is to refocus the player. When they look at their group leaders, they see busy, sometimes frazzled people, who desire for God to use them, but often don’t have much time to think about their group. This is where the coach comes in.
If the coach will meet with each group leader, even just once every three months, God will use that coach to encourage the group leader and to energize that group. The meeting simply goes like this:
1. Ask the group leader who is currently in their group. Not to take a roster, but to start a conversation.
The leader will list out the names:
2. Ask the group leader what is going on with each of the members. As the group leader begins to think about each member, God will bring to the leader’s mind a next step the leader needs to take in the relationship. “Well, I haven’t seen Bob in a while. I need to give him a call.” “Paul is struggling to find work. I need to pray for Paul and see what help he needs.” And, so on.
The coach doesn’t need to tell the leaders what to do. The coach simply needs to offer the space for a leader to reflect on his/her group. After they write down the next steps for each group member, the coach and group leader should set up an appointment in three months. This gives the leader time to take action and gives a deadline for accountability.
Those of us who serve as professional small group folks, especially the recovering control freaks among us, crave more complexity in these relationships. Here’s what I know – complicated coaching in my experience has led to no coaching. By being available to leaders when they need their coach, scheduling quarterly meetings, and participating in a couple of training events per year, leaders will have more than enough resources to motivate them in ministry.
For those of us who would like to tinker will all of this more than we ought to, why not start a blog or something?
by Allen White
Maybe those aren’t the specific numbers that you experienced in your group, but the reality is that it happens to every group at some point. Here are a couple of keys to riding the attendance roller coaster.
1. It’s not about you. Somebody famous said that. In the church, community is what we want, yet it’s what we resist the most. People got excited. They signed up for your group at church on Sunday. Then, life just got in the way. After all, the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.
2. Keep them on your list. Keep the communication flowing. Email them along with the rest of your group. Give them a call. The call should go something like this: “Hey, I was just wondering about you guys (Southern: y’all). Is everything okay? I’m not calling as the truant officer. I’m just calling because I care.” Chances are that they won’t slam down the phone after saying, “I don’t want you to care about me.” Who doesn’t want that?
3. Focus on who showed up rather than who didn’t. My small group has four people regularly with another five or six on the list. Last week, there were only two of us. By the numbers, my group is a complete failure. Yet, there are things you can talk about with two that you can’t discuss with eight. Maybe you do the lesson. Maybe you set the lesson aside. Before you start beating yourself or your group members up over low attendance, you need to do a quick check-in with God: “What do You intend for this group meeting? It doesn’t look like what I planned. What have You planned?” His plans are better anyway.
4. Remember your small group and the ministry of your group are not the same. Some people may never show up for your group. Or, they’ll come once or twice, then you won’t hear from them for a while. Here’s the deal: whether they attend every week or once in a blue moon, they are yours. The group members who meet three out of four times a month are essentially your small group. Everyone else is the “ministry” of your small group. There is a reason that God has placed these folks in your life. Keep up with them. Help them when they need help. Pray for them. This is not some clandestine plot to convince them back to the group with your kindness, but it might work. This is your opportunity to serve, even if you never get anything in return.
In a perfect world, everyone would honor their commitment to that two-part form and show up for every group meeting. But, this is not a perfect world. Here’s the deal: that flakey person on your list, you just might be their only connection to the body of Christ. Their well-being, of course, is not up to you. But, there is a reason that in all of the small groups in all of the county, they signed up for yours. God will show you why.