5th in a Series on Why to Join a Small Group
Ok, maybe disaster is too strong a word. Call it extreme discomfort, stinging regret, and probable loss of relationship. When people seek out a church small group for growth and support, they’re acting on a need for good relationships, so it’s doubly disappointing when they join a group and get hurt.
Leaders need to take responsibilithy for setting a loving, respectful tone. More than that, groups need to come up with some ground rules that help everyone feel safe. I’m going to start by just diving into how I’ve personally messed up in my group. Call it a cautionary tale.
Disaster 1 – We Weren’t on the Same Page at All
So we had a terrific, high functioning, homogenous group when a new couple joined. Basking in our automatic harmony, we neglected to review the norms of our group with them. We covered some basics, like when we met and what we did and the need not to break confidentiality, but we’d forgotten some of the rules that had become so ingrained they were not longer spoken.
One of them – the right to ask one another hard questions to help each other be accountable and make biblical choices.
One meeting, the newest woman began to complain about a relational problem, and I asked her a very personal question about that relationship. She looked stunned.
After several long seconds, she said, “I’m gonna plead the fifth on that one.”
And I realized – we hadn’t talked to this new couple about accountability at all. My question came out of left field for her. She had never granted permission for us to ask that kind of question, and as a person who had no experience in a Christian community, it just seemed intrusive and judgy to her.
I think her trust in me took a few backward steps that day, and it would have been avoidable if we’d been more clear during the onboarding process.
Disaster 2 – We Let Couples Blindside Each Other
Couples can be tricky in group settings. Common wisdom in group dynamics is that people in the group should say what they have to say to the whole group, without breaking into factions. This keeps everyone in the loop with no one feeling excluded. Nothing destroys a group like people talking behind one another’s backs.
But couples have a prior allegience to one another that has to be considered. One fateful meeting, a wife spoke openly about an unresolved conflict with her husband that put him in an unflattering light, and everyone in the group heard her out. A few faltering comments were made offering support to both of them, but none of us really knew how to handle it.
The husband was angry and shocked that the whole group allowed this interaction. He felt threatened and walked out, and they didn’t return to the group.
As we analyzed how to keep something like that from ever happening again, we settled on the rule that no marital conflict should be brought up within the small group unless the couple has previously discussed it and agreed to seek the group’s guidance and support.
That wasn’t the first time one spouse had used the group as a place to seek help with a marital issue at the other spouse’s expense, but you can bet it was the last.
As someone with a degree in counseling, I’d had a sense all along that we were venting too much about our spouses, but I never did anything about it until we lost two people from our group.
Disaster 3 – We Let Each Other Whine Too Much
I’m the biggest whiner of all, so I’m mostly talking to myself here. I think sometimes getting empathy from my small group, and having my problems prayed for, made me slower to do things I needed to do to take better care of myself.
For instance, I’ve suffered depression my whole life, but didn’t go on an antidepressant till I was 40. Having wonderful friends who listened and cared probably kept me from suffering worse depression, but I should have tried the drug a lot sooner!
There’s a fine line between venting in a healthy, honest way, and whining too much, but we have to help each other find it. We need to get comfortable with offering patient, affirming support and respectfully encouraging action. Some groups stay stuck by supporting an unhealthy status quo (like when we complain about our churches). Some groups stay stuck by trying to fix each other all the time without truly understanding and empathizing first.
Truly loving each other will help us avoid both. Love comforts and speaks truth at the same time.
Small Groups – Incubators for Healthy Relationships
The Bible is full of guidance for how to relate to one another. Small groups are the perfect place to learn this guidance and put it into immediate practice. We work on getting it right with good hearted people who are all committed to the process and playing by the same rules. That strenthens us to go out and relate well to the rest of the world, to bring in the same peace and joy where we live and work.
Because of my small group, I can bring three insights to any situation:
- Expectations need to be clear at the start of any group process.
- Couples need to be aligned before they involve a group in a marriage issue.
- It’s not helpful to let people complain too much without taking positive action.
Question for Reflection:
Have you ever been in a group situation where you’ve failed to communicate clear expectations and suffered for it? How would you handle it differently now?
4 thoughts on “3 Tips to Avoid Distaster While Leading a Church Small Group”
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Colleen, gained through years of experience. I remember being a member of a small women’s group years ago that had fallen prey to complaining and dissatisfaction. The facilitator asked us to write down the reason(s) we came to the gatherings and what we hoped to gain as a result. The answers were surprisingly varied. We learned the same lesson that you mention here (although for a different reason): we weren’t on the same page. Discussing our objectives and choosing a few to focus on helped us to get back on track.
Thanks Nancy, that’s a good suggestion. Even established groups could benefit from doing this occassionally.
Hands-on, real life experience trumps theories ever time!
Indeed it does! Thanks Mitch!