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.
The pace of life can certainly interfere with group life. A wise person observed, “Today, people have more ways than ever to connect, yet are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” I would certainly agree. There is a big difference between things that keep us busy versus things that keep us connected.
Facebook is an incomplete substitute for face time. But, face time can be rare. What do you do when group members are on the road with their job or overwhelmed with their kids?
Well, what happens outside of the group effects what happens in the group. The time we spend with our group members outside of the group meeting will increase the quality of the group meeting experience. Typically, we would think of inviting group members to a barbecue (or is that grilling out?); meeting for a cup of coffee; or even running an errand together. But, what do you do when they can’t get together?
Phone a Friend. Busy friends probably don’t have an hour to talk, but they might have a few minutes. Just call to let them know that you’re thinking about them. A quick check-in to follow up on a prayer request or let them know that they’re missed means a lot to group members. Recommendation: It’s best that male leaders call male group members, and females call females. We wouldn’t want our concern to appear to be something else.
Pray on Their Voice Mail. If you feel prompted to pray for one of your group members, why not let them know? When you call, even if you just get their voice mail, let them know that you are praying for them and their situation. You might even want to pray right there on the phone. It will especially mean a lot to let them know you just called because you care, and that’s it. If you add on two or three reminders, questions or other information at the end, they might wonder why you really called. Suggestion: This works great on personal voice mail, but not so great on a home answering machine. Just imagine if someone else in the house hears a message that says, “I am praying for you and the difficulties you are having with your spouse…”
Email. Written communication is far more difficult than in-person or even voice communication. Emails lack tone of voice and attitude. If I emailed, “Glad you could make it to group last night,” did I mean:
A. I was glad that you were there.
B. Even though you were very late, I’m glad you could make it.
C. Even though your attendance has been very erratic, I’m glad you could grace us with your presence.
D. I feel like the group is a very low priority to you, so…
You get the picture. Emails can help us stay connected, if we know a person well, and if we are very clear with what we mean. Caution: Never try to resolve a conflict via email. It will turn into a nightmare. Even if someone shoots you an angry email, ask when you can meet face to face to discuss the situation. If you write an email in response to a conflict, push “Delete” not “Send.”
Social Networking. While Twitter, Facebook, Text Messages, Instant Messages, Skype, Tokbox and other social media tools can be overwhelming, they can also help you stay up to date with your group members. Again, the same cautions apply as with emails. It’s not the same as a conversation over coffee, but sometimes 140 characters or less is better than nothing.
Blog or Yahoo Group. A blog is a great way to share announcements and information with your group and receive their comments. Blogs are fairly easy to set up and many like blogger.com are free. Your group members can subscribe in a variety of ways and connect with each other. Yahoo Groups are another way to stay connected. Like blogs, yahoo groups can be made public or private depending on the level of communication your group is giving.
It’s great to get everyone together, but sometimes that’s hard to do. While these other means of keeping contact are not as good as a group meeting, they just might help your group stay connected with busy people.