By Allen White
While some folks seem to prefer a Shallow Small Group, many small group members joined a group for relationships that lead to spiritual growth. If the conversation continually just skims the surface, some members will go looking for a scuba diving group or at least one that requires hip waders. But, what are these members looking for and how can your group get there?
1. How Deep is Deep?
If your group is looking for depth spiritual growth, I’m not sure that parsing Greek verbs will get you there. I don’t know if a cathartic experience of reciting the details of painful pasts will accomplish that either. The problem with most people seeking a deeper experience is that they don’t actually know what they want.
I recently recommended a curriculum named “Deeper” to a small group leader. She told me that it seemed kind of shallow. Every group is at a different place of maturity. What’s challenging to one group might be child’s play to another. The key is to ask your group to describe as best they can what they expect of the group. When someone throws out “deep,” ask them what they mean by deep. There are many varieties of deep.
2. Speed of the Leader = Speed of the Team
The leader sets the pace for the group. If you want your group to become more transparent, then the leader must become more transparent. If you want the group to personally apply God’s Word, then the leader needs to talk about his or her struggles with making that application.
Sometimes leaders resist opening up, because they’re the leader. They feel the need to come across as more together than the rest of the group. They might even aim for perfect. After all, if the group members knew their flaws, they might leave the group. Actually the reverse is true.
Your group members will identify with your weaknesses and failures more than they will connect with your strengths and successes. Why? Because every one of us has failed. Every person has weaknesses. When my wife and I brought our baby home after months in intensive care, people called me for counseling. I told them, “I’m really not a counselor.” They told me that they wanted to talk to me because I knew what it was like to hurt. That pain transformed my ministry.
As the leader, you set the tone for the openness of the group. If you’re group isn’t getting “deep,” check your own depth meter. It might be time to offer a little more transparency.
3. Confidentiality is Key.
In order for group members to share their thoughts and feelings about life, God’s Word, or anything else, they need to feel safe in the group. What happens in your group must stay in your group if you want your group members to share openly. Gossip is a group killer.
Make confidentiality a key point in your group agreement. When new members join your group, you don’t need to share the entire group agreement, but at least make it a point to talk about the importance of confidentiality. There will be awkwardness anyway, but getting the new folks’ agreement to confidentiality is the first step to everyone feeling safe in the group.
4. Fixing is Forbidden.
When someone shares in the group, the response can’t go to advice giving. They don’t want to be fixed. They want to be heard. When others in the group chime in with advice, the person sharing quickly shuts down. Remember what your mom said about why you have two ears and one mouth?
Probably one of the worst examples of fixing happened in a group I lead in the early 90’s. We were a group of six: one older couple, one younger couple, a middle-aged single guy, and me. During our prayer time at the end of the meeting, the younger couple asked for prayer because they were having trouble getting their one-year-old to go to sleep. She was often staying up until midnight.
The middle-aged single guy began to give them parenting advice. He had never been married. He didn’t have any children. Yet, he was carrying on about how they should put their child to bed. We all sat there frozen. We didn’t know what to say. Finally, after a few minutes he ran out of advice or at least words. It was the dictionary definition of awkward.
In a group meeting a few weeks later, I simply asked everyone to listen to each other’s prayer requests without making comments. Our offender wasn’t offended, and he obliged during prayer time. Fortunately for the group, that never happened again.
5. Acceptance is Oxygen.
Openness requires acceptance. Your group members are asking themselves, “If I share something hard, will the group accept me or will I feel embarrassed?” They aren’t looking for helpful hits or advice. They want understanding. They want acceptance. They want the group to not act weird after they share.
Appropriate responses sound like “Boy, that must have been hard” or “I can’t imagine how painful that would have been.” What they don’t want to hear is “My cousin had the exact same problem…” or “I know exactly how you feel.” Is that even possible?
The group should respond with enough so that the person sharing knows that he’s being heard. But, not so much that he feels interrupted or brushed aside.
If the sharer has a bad experience, he might leave the group. If he is a no show for the next meeting, it’s important to follow up with him. You don’t necessarily have to bring up the topic. Just let him know that he was missed, and you’re looking forward to seeing him next week. If he admits feeling awkward in the group now, diffuse his concern: “Everybody in the group has gone through tough things. No one is judging here. We accept each other just the way we are.”
Whether your group is looking for deeper Bible study, deeper sharing, or deeper dish pizza, it’s important to start with expectations of what the group should be. If your group is the place for your members to decompress from the worries of life, then make it a value to let it all hang out. If your group is longing for deeper spiritual things, then find an appropriate study, set the right tone, and remind the group of James 1:26-27. (If it’s pizza, I recommend Lou Malnati’s).
But, remember, the pace of the group starts with you. Group members typically won’t go any deeper than their leader. Take the plunge yourself, and your group will also go deep.
By Allen White
A couple of guys in our small group in California would wonder out to the sidewalk after the meeting each week to smoke. They would just hang around in front of our house and talk. The other guys in the group were a little jealous of their fellowship and considered taking up the habit themselves.
Someone from another group heard about our smoking members. Then, that person passed the news to a friend of theirs. The third person in the chain approached me at church one day, “I heard that you’ve got group members who smoke in front of your house every week. That must be embarrassing for a pastor.”
I replied, “Yes, it’s terrible. I wish they wouldn’t smoke. But, I’ve heard that some groups are full of gossips.” Okay, I actually didn’t say that, but I wish I had.
Gossip is a small group killer. There is nothing more fatal to a small group than gossip. It is the deadliest sin in group life.
The Bible teaches that “a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28) and “a gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). The Apostle Paul includes gossip on the sin lists in Romans 1 and 2 Corinthians 12 along with murder, envy, strife, jealousy, rage and deceit. Gossip is serious business. So, what do you do when it shows up in your group?
1. Be Proactive.
Even though your group is filled with wonderful people, the first place to deal with gossip is on the first day of the group. As your group talks about their group values, you should formulate a group agreement. These are simply the things the entire group agrees to. This can include when and where the group meets, the frequency of meetings, childcare, etc.
A key value for your group is confidentiality. What is said in the group needs to stay in the group. Period. Your group should be declared “Las Vegas.” Nothing in the group – comment, prayer request, joke or off-the-cuff remark – should be repeated outside of the group.
Sometimes the rules get blurry. Let’s say a group member requests prayer for a mutual friend, let’s call her Jane, who is not in the group. Jane is having some tests for a serious health problem. One day you bump into Jane’s husband and tell him that you are praying for Jane and her health issues. The problem is that Jane hasn’t said anything to her husband. She was afraid that the news would affect his heart condition, so she didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily. (This is a fictitious story. I am not telling tales out of school here). Now, you get the picture.
Gossip, as benign as it might seem, is a missile that will sink the whole ship. Who would ever share another prayer request or personal issue in front of someone they feel that they can’t trust? If the group lacks trust, relationships are broken down. There is no more group.
Confidentiality is the foundation of group life. Creating a small group agreement and reviewing it periodically will help to insure trust in the group.
2. Even Gossip in the Group About Others is Dangerous.
Gossip shuts down trust. Even if the gossip is about someone outside of the group, it certainly makes the group wonder what this person says about them behind their backs. Gossip of any kind will diminish trust in the group. If the group lacks trust, then the members will not open up. The leader should redirect the gossiping member with “Let’s keep our discussion to those present in the group.” Then, take the member aside and personally talk to them about gossiping and the harm it can bring to a group.
What is gossip? Well, the rule of thumb is that if the person you are talking to is not part of the problem or part of the solution, then it’s gossip.
3. Act Quickly.
If something about your group is told outside of the group, deal with it as soon as you are aware of an incident of gossip. Don’t interview every member of the group. The offended person should go directly to the offender. As Ross Perot once said, “If you see a snake, kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” As Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). If the offended person isn’t willing, then you as the group leader must step in.
The first step is to pray and ask God for wisdom. Ask Him to prepare the way and to work on the offender in advance. If you’re eager to confront the offender, then you should probably pray some more. If you’re reluctant to confront, then you’re probably in the right place.
Unless you heard the offender tell the gossip yourself, you must give them the benefit of the doubt. Tell them what was said outside of the group, and let them know the harm that it caused. Hopefully, they will admit their fault before you have to ask them directly. If they don’t own it, then you have to ask: “Do you know who told this outside of the group?”
If they admit to the gossip, then they should be given an opportunity to confess to the group. If they don’t admit it, then you must take the next step and bring a person with you who either heard the gossip or is somehow involved in the incident (Matthew 18:16).
If the person did gossip, but won’t admit to it, more than likely, he will stop coming to the group on his own. Most people are not so callus as to offend the group, lie about it, and then continue participating in the group. But, don’t be surprised.
4. Bring the Issue Before the Group.
If the person is repentant, then give him an opportunity to confess to the group and seek their forgiveness. The best scenario is that the group will forgive and everyone will be reconciled. This is ideal. But, it may take time for the group to trust the person again. Reconciliation isn’t necessarily automatic with forgiveness. Over time, as the group bears with one another, they will be able to trust each other again.
If the person won’t admit their fault, then the gossip must be addressed in the group in the person’s presence. This shouldn’t be presented in an accusatory way, but simply stated: “Someone in the group broke the group’s confidentiality by saying _______ outside of the group. What do you know about this? How did this affect the group?” The offender might come to repentance in the meeting.
5. As a Last Resort…
If the group is certain about who committed the offense, then the last resort is to ask the offender to leave the group. Jesus taught us, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). In this case the “church” is the group.
The question is how should believers treat “pagans and tax collectors”? As with anyone who is not in relationship with God, believers should love them, even if they’re an enemy (Matthew 5:44) and challenge them with the need for repentance. When the person repents, then the process of reconciliation should begin.
Few other issues are as harmful as gossip in a small group. But, if the leader deals with the issue quickly, chances are the group will remain strong. If the issue is not dealt with, it won’t go away. In fact, it will become a greater problem.
Gossip is not just a bad habit, it is a prideful sin. The gossip is pleased to divulge information that other people don’t have. It makes them feel powerful. As a group leader, the issue becomes how to serve a person who needs gossip to make them feel significant. What are they lacking? What are they misunderstanding about their relationship with Christ?