During my undergraduate studies, I pursued a degree that required me to take some of the more challenging math courses that the university had to offer. One particular course I had to take was Calculus 3 (also known as multi-variable calculus). After a few weeks in, I quickly realized that my instructor for the course was terrifying. Not only was his teaching style unapologetically abrasive and unsympathetic, he would laugh at and criticize his students who answered his questions incorrectly in class. In my stubbornness to try to see it through, I unfortunately ended up failing the course which meant that I had to take it once again. The next semester, I chose a different professor, who was arguably the kindest, gentlest, and most sympathetic math teacher I had ever had the pleasure of studying under during my undergraduate career. I’m happy to say, the semester ended up with a completely different result and I ended up acing the course.
Becoming involved within a church’s small group ministry can sometimes feel similar to this. Oftentimes, the small groups we join will yield an incredible experience that is exactly what we need in our lives from week to week. Yet there are times when we hear of an individual who mentions that their small group leader is not allowing enough time for group conversation or that the group that they had signed up for is not aligning with the expectations that they held. While the good times in our groups can help transform our lives for the better, the less-than-positive experiences can leave us wanting to try another group. But this does not have to be the case, and we small group leaders can implement some strategies that can help lessen the number of negative experiences that occur within the church’s small group ministry.
Adhering to Group Expectations
During one of our first meetings, a reflection on expectations can help us pause and meditate upon what exactly our group is trying to accomplish. Oftentimes, groups tend to focus more on fellowship, on learning, on serving, or on a mixture of any of the above. By establishing ahead of time the degrees to which these areas are pursed, there becomes less of a chance for confusion or dissatisfaction as the group continues to meet throughout the span of its life. For example, if a group’s goal is to be a Bible study, the group becomes ineffective and loses its purpose if the group members only socialize and never crack open the Bible once that evening that they meet. Similarly, if a leader brings their Bible and begins to lecture to the dinner-social fellowship group, the group in this case also strays away from its original purpose.
Navigators of Discussion
In their book Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits encourage group leaders to promote participation, explaining that “since shared participation creates broader ownership of the group, all group members should be encouraged to participate often in the facilitation and leadership of the group meeting. This essential also reminds leaders to promote participation by being navigators of discussion, not teachers of curriculum. The difference is critical. Every time leaders ask open-ended questions, they are inviting participation. More than sharing the right answers, we want people to share their lives” (emphasis mine). In a post-Covid world, we stand to benefit more from a community that gives us a space to share our story and to let us live out our faith. This key point ties in directly with the “Love/Learn/Serve” breakdwon, where there are distinct differences between how a class is led versus a small group, or how a community service-oriented group is organized versus a prayer group.
Balancing Content with Life-Change
For new group leaders, being at the helm of a group can at times feel daunting. What if no one wants to open up and be vulnerable when answering my questions? What if I feel that I don’t know enough about the topic to lead a conversation? This is the beauty of a discussion-led small group that leans on materials like sermon discussion notes or a community book: leaders have the content to fall back onto. If it occurs where there are not that many individuals who care to open up a given week, then that’s okay. In such a case, the group is able to use the book (or sermon notes) as fuel to help drive the interaction between the group members. While answering the previously prepared questions, group members can slowly open up at their own pace and eventually come to the realization that they are establishing connections with one another. Nevertheless, life and its challenges still occur (even in the midst of us attending small groups). If the discussion at the beginning of a group meeting reveals that a member of the group is experiencing some major life changes and that they are in need of prayer, then the group can shift gears and minister to those who can benefit from an extra helping of grace and love. Exploring multiple options like these of where to take the group can encourage the group leader to be in alignment with the Holy Spirit’s direction and also help foster an environment that can generate more organic positive life-change to occur within the lives of each group member.