By Allen White Most leaders realize group life extends beyond well prepared and executed group meetings. While Bible study is an important aspect of a group, if everyone leaves thinking, “Boy, that was good. See you next week” without sharing what’s going on in their lives, something is definitely missing. Here’s how to help your group open up: 1. Set the Right Expectations. When your group members joined the group, what were they expecting? Were they looking for a 60 minute inductive Bible study followed by brownies and coffee as thanks for surviving it? Were they looking for a free-flowing discussion of everything that popped into their heads? Did they know what to expect? Managing expectations is crucial for a successful group. Rather than dictate what the group will be or won’t be, it’s best to start by discussing what kind of group the members actually want. A simple exercise like having everyone write their top three group expectations on a card, then tabulating the results will go a long way in getting buy-in from the group. If the group skews toward Bible study, then gradually implement some aspects of care. Start with something simple like asking for prayer requests and closing the meeting with prayer. As the group continues to meet, begin to focus more on application questions rather than Bible exploration questions. Don’t get me wrong. The discussion should be based on God’s Word. But, you want to aim for where the rubber meets the road, not where the rubber meets the air. 2. Set the Example. “Speed of the leader, speed of the team” is a common axiom from Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. The leader sets the pace. If you are open with your life, then others will be open with theirs. If you hold back, so will they. A couple of years ago someone gave me an older car. It’s not perfect, but it’s transportation and a gift at that. One night I became frustrated with the dashboard lights. About a third of the lights wouldn’t work. Out of my arsenal of mechanical expertise, I pounded my fist of the dash. The change was both immediate and dramatic – I now had no dashboard lights. Driving in the summer or during the day wasn’t a problem. But, anytime I had to drive early in the morning or at night, I had absolutely no idea how fast I was driving. I was embarrassed by my “repair.” While I confessed the problem to my wife, I never mentioned it to anyone else. But, one day a circle of folks in the office were discussing their cars’ various ailments. I chose that moment in the safe circle of used car owners to confess my dashboard issue. A woman turned to me and said, “My husband has the same problem with his car. He uses his GPS to check his speed.” What a brilliant idea. I had a GPS. I no longer needed to fly blind at night. I had dreaded the conversation with the first officer who ever pulled me over. “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” “No, officer. My dashboard lights aren’t working.” Somehow I imagined only a scenario with multiple traffic tickets involved. Now, I had the knowledge to detect my own speed and avoid a traffic violation. I never would have learned that workaround if I had never admitted my problem. As Rick Warren says, “Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.” And, it has to start with the leader. I shared this story when I spoke at a church a few months back. The next week, the Executive Pastor called to say that my message already was making an impact. A man confessed to his men’s group that his marriage was on the brink of divorce. He and his wife were separated, and he didn’t know what to do. Rather than judge this guy for his situation, his group members rallied around him to support him and his wife through their struggle. My illustration of automotive failure helped him open up about his marital failure. Group leaders are no better than the group members they lead. You must be careful the leader title doesn’t block the way for your own vulnerability. If you’re group isn’t opening up, you need to check your own transparency in the group. Your honesty will encourage theirs. 3. Set the Meeting Agenda. To balance the need for open sharing in the group and the need to meet group expectations, the group agreement is the ideal place to start. If you’ve never created a group agreement, you should soon (Readmore here). The ground rules for your group could include an option where the group can help a member process a life situation. Some issues involve more than a casual mention during prayer request time at the end. If a group member has faced a devastating turn of events like a job loss, marital blow up, issues with children or other bad news, the group should allow space to even put the Bible study aside and support their friend in need. But, you don’t want your group to turn into the “crisis of the week.” While every group should offer support, there is a difference between a small group built on relationships formed around a Bible study and a true support group. If a group member needs dedicated support for marital problems, grief or a life controlling issue, then a specific support group may offer better help (Read more here). There is no perfect way to organize every small group meeting. Your group can’t offer only Bible study at the expense of care. But, your group also can’t avoid Bible study and only focus on care. As Andy Stanley says, “This is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.” If during the discussion, you notice a group member getting teary or tender, stop and ask if they want to talk about it. They might or might not. The last impression you want to leave is that the meeting agenda is more important than the group members in the meeting.
Let’s talk about the opposite problem from last week. Instead of low attendance, you find that everyone decided to show up. One group in our current series has 30 people meeting at their house. Is this legal? Will the small group police be visiting soon to split up the group? Here are a few tips for when your group attendance exceeds your expectations.
1.If your meeting space is large, then try to make folks as comfortable as possible. Just like a church auditorium, however, your room will only comfortably fill to 80 percent of capacity. If people sense that you have plenty of people in your group, it may become their excuse to back out of group. Make sure everyone feels like they have a place and that they are welcome to the group. Remember, community is what we need the most, yet resist. More to come on #3.
2.If your space is too small, do the best you can on week one, then develop a strategy that night for the next week. Crowd-in the best you can to watch the DVD, then sub-group for the discussion (more on sub-grouping in a minute). If you have a friend in the group or basically anyone with a clue, you might ask if part of the group could meet at their place next week. If that person is not readily apparent, then just ask the group: “It’s obvious that we have a problem. Would anyone else be willing to have part of the group meet at their place?” Chances are that if most of your new recruits were just looking for a group in the neighborhood, they won’t be offended by meeting somewhere else. They’re just not attached to you yet.
3. Make sure everyone can get their word in. Any group larger than eight people (six in a restaurant) makes it difficult for everyone to talk in the group. In a larger group, a handful of the more boisterous members will tend to take over the group while the more timid members might get a chance to talk in the car on the way home. (Well, unless, they are married to a boisterous member.) Have everyone crowd-in to watch the DVD, then say, “Okay this half of the room will move to the living room, dining room, whatever you have available. The rest of the group will stay here.” Notice that I didn’t say, “Men, go in there. Women, stay here.” Your group, most likely, won’t stay at 30 people for the long term. Sub-grouping could lead to starting a new group down the road. (Now, I said “could.” I will keep my promise). Unless you want to intentionally start a men’s group and a women’s group, it’s best to sub-group by couples.
4. Quickly locate the potential leaders. Once the group has sub-grouped, you can either ask for a volunteer to lead the discussion or you can just see what happens. The leader will naturally rise to the top. Years ago, I heard a small group leader talk about sub-grouping 45 people at their house. They used every conceivable room in the house. Then, they asked the person with the most speeding tickets to lead the discussion. They were the risk takers.
I know that Andy Stanley said that “if it has a back row, it’s not a small group.” Andy is a wise and intelligent guy. But, I also know that some folks have a wonderful gift of inviting and including others. Why would I get in the way of that?
Small group leaders may be the only people who might ask that question. Professional athletes acknowledge their need for a coach. Many high powered business executives have a coach. But, why do small group leaders need a coach?
Well, let’s take a look at this the other way: what happens if small group leaders don’t have a coach? The first time we set out to form small groups at our church out West, we selected the best and brightest from our congregation. With these mature believers, we started ten new small groups. All of the groups were going strong, or so we thought, until they reached the end of the year. They all quit. When we asked why, the response was unanimous: “We loved our small groups, but felt like lone rangers out there.” I don’t blame them for quitting.
Leading a small group can be lonely at times. Every leader needs not only a coach but also a team of other small group leaders for encouragement and support. Sometimes in small group ministry we assume that the small group is the team. The truth is that the small group is our ministry. The team is made up of the coach and his/her circle of leaders. Together we can be encouraged. Together we can learn from others’ experiences. Together we can grow as leaders.
Your coach is available to help you. As leaders sometimes we feel that we should be able to handle every problem that crops up in our groups. That’s not true. While we would never want to exclude anyone from our groups, we certainly can’t care for every need in the group. When you feel overwhelmed by issues surrounding a group member, your coach is a great resource.
Let’s say that you have a group member who always talks about himself. And, that’s all they talk about. Most groups cannot tolerate a narcissistic person. For many groups, this is the beginning of the end. Your coach can help guide you in setting the proper boundaries for this group member. They can even help you refer the member to other help and resources at church.
You may be asking at this point: why can’t I just call the pastor of small groups? The answer is that you could. But, if hundreds of group leaders are calling the pastor, how long will that pastor last? In Exodus 18, Moses is confronted by his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses’ family had left him to live with Jethro. Moses didn’t have time for them. Moses’ days were consumed with solving the problems of all of the Israelites. Moses had very good reasons, he thought, for handling all of the matters himself. First, he was the only one who could do it. Secondly, the people liked coming to Moses. (I think maybe Moses liked it too).
Jethro pointed out to Moses that this system was no good. Moses was worn out. New leaders weren’t being developed. The people were frustrated. And, Moses’ family was living with Jethro.
So, Jethro offered a solution. Put the people into groups of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. If the leader of ten didn’t have the answer, then he would turn to the leader over him. The issue would travel up the chain until a solution was reached. Only the most crucial issues should get all of the way to Moses. The people would be happy. Moses would be less stressed. Moses’ family could return home. And, Jethro could live in peace. It worked.
This system was not only good for the Israelites, it’s also good for small groups and even business. Now, once upon a time, I thought that I could handle it all. What I discovered was that I could handle it all as long as “all” remained under 30 percent of our congregation. Anything above that created a debilitating, life-squelching bottleneck. That’s no way to treat a growing church body. Once a solid coaching structure was embraced, we reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in small groups. Leaders were better cared for. I was less stressed. My family moved back home (okay, they never left, but you get the point).
Everyone needs encouragement. Everyone needs a person in their corner that they can count on for support. No leader should stand alone. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who is your coach? What questions do you have for him or her? Take a little time to connect. Soon.