ISSUE: My Small Group frequently chases rabbit trails. How can I keep them on topic?
ANSWER: It’s certainly easy for discussions to get off course and maybe never come back. This is partly the challenge of leading adult learners. Adults already have a lot of information and a lot of experience. Think of the brain as a filing cabinet or a hard drive. When we receive any new information, we open a file with that label only to discover that there are other things in the file.
Let’s say your small group is discussing Daniel and his vegetarian diet from Daniel 1. The group members’ brains automatically open the folders for “Diet.” While they’re in there, they remember several diets that they’ve tried and failed at in the past. “Does anyone remember the grapefruit diet?” “How about South Beach?” “How about the tomato and cabbage stew diet?” And, off they go. Now some have cross referenced from “diet” to “hunger.” They’re thinking “I wonder who brought the snack tonight. I hope it’s not one of those Atkins dieters who bring the pork rinds…” Suddenly your group has traveled a long way from Babylon.
You really can’t stop adults from being distracted by their thoughts and experiences. It’s just how they’re wired. But, you can prevent this from becoming an epidemic in your group.
If your group is fairly new or if this is a relatively new problem, then the facilitator simply needs to redirect the conversation every time it begins to stray. Going back to the failed diet rabbit trail, the facilitator could simply say, “Boy, we’ve certainly opened a whole can of worms haven’t we. Let’s look at the next question.” Or, you could go with a little humor, “Wow, that’s a topic for another show.”
If your group has been around for a while and this has become a bad habit, it might be time to check in with the group and make sure everyone is okay. You might even be losing group members if this is going unchecked. Simply ask the group if everyone is going okay. You might even add: “Permission to speak freely.” Get the group to come to an agreement about staying on topic and socializing at the end of the meeting.
Sometimes we have to walk a fine line. When someone begins to go off topic, be careful not to cut them off immediately. In fact, you might want to whisper a quick prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern what’s happening. Sometimes people need to share a painful experience or a pressing problem, and they just can’t wait until the right point in the agenda. If as the facilitator you feel that they should continue, then let them continue. If the person wants to talk about himself every week, well, that’s another problem.
Lastly, if you find that your group likes to spend the first part of the meeting catching up with each other. Don’t fight it. In fact, you might change your prayer time to the start of the meeting and pray right after everyone has caught up. Then, you can start your study. Remember you are leading a group, not just leading a meeting.