Ruts to Avoid When Leading Small Group Discussions
At Calvary Monterey, we emphasize our small group ministry, believing it necessary for Christians to gather together outside of the large weekend meeting. Though Sundays are of immense importance, nothing can replace the wonderful one to another ministry that occurs when we get together in small groups. Homes, coffee shops, restaurants, parks, hiking trails, and other public spaces should be filled with believers who have decided to gather together for fellowship, prayer, accountability, and Scripture.
One way we have tried to help facilitate the above is through sermon-based small groups, which means a center point of the group is the discussion of the previous weekend's text and teaching. Fortunately, our church has adopted an expositional style, so, though the sermon is part of each group's discussion time, the Bible text the sermon was based on is the real focal point. The hope, of course, if for the bright light of the word of God to shine upon our hearts, individually and collectively.
Leaders of these groups facilitate the discussion. Sometimes these discussions are lively and edifying, other times they are not, but at all times the leader has a huge task in front of them. Recently, Pastor Matt Kehler led a training night for our leaders on how to lead the discussion, and he focused on a few ruts a leader ought to avoid when taking his or her group through a discussion time. What follows are his points, with some of my thoughts about them.
1. Do Not Fill Every Awkward Silence
As a pastor and long-time member of a church, I like to say that I collect awkward moments. The convergence of various cultures and generations and backgrounds into one in the body of Christ is bound to create moments, large and small, that are cringeworthy. One such moment often occurs when the small group leader asks a leading question and...the...response...is...chirp...chirp...crickets. Every group leader wants the conversation and encouragement to flow. We all want to sense the Spirit moving. We all want to help in any way we can, a relational oil which helps get the parts moving.
Matt's point, however, was that God is sometimes working in the silence. Every group has those who are quick to speak and, perhaps, slow to listen, but some members of the body take a little more time to get going. If someone is shy, they might rest easy letting the more extroverted members take over the conversation, but silence gives them space to eventually step forward and share. If someone is wrestling with a subject or sin, a quick word by the leader might rescue them from speaking. But it shouldn't. And, at times, the entire group needs to sit with a scripture or point or question for a little while, allowing the Spirit to interject. Perhaps the silence simply gives the group time to reflect on the fact they had not reflected on the text or message at all during the week, and no one in the group will rescue them from their lack of preparation.
2. Teaching Instead of Facilitating
We have gone out of our way to make sure Bible study teachers and leaders do not lead our groups. It is fine, and even helpful if they are equipped to do so, but the point of the discussion time is not to have a secondary teaching time. In the group I attend, I try to stay quiet as long as possible, and when I do share, I try not to teach and instruct, for I have already done that during the sermon. Instead, I want to answer the homework questions and share from my life with the group.
But leaders often slip into this rut, finding it necessary to bring insights and teaching into the discussion time. Armed with their leader guide, it is tempting for the leader to unload lots of information on the group. Certainly, in one sense, it is simpler to teach than to facilitate, but it is good to focus on getting people talking. It is in the discussion that struggles become unearthed, sins are confessed, weaknesses are expressed, and the group begins to minister to one another. There will undoubtedly be ample opportunity for the stronger and wiser believers in the group to share and teach and instruct, for that is biblical and right, but the leader should try not to get into a rut where they dominate the conversation. Ask questions. Follow up with more questions. Call on people in the group by name. Facilitate.
3. Allowing an Over-Talker to Dominate
Sometimes a group has a member who, often unwittingly, talks far too often. There is a finite amount of time the group has to discuss and share, and if one person habitually takes up a considerable chunk of that allotted time, the group becomes discouraged. Sometimes the members will make light of it when talking to the leader, little jokes about so-and-so and how much they talk. Other times they won't say anything, but their body language says it all. Soon, members will check out when the over-talker begins their diatribe. Often the leader recognizes the problem but feels awkward confronting it.
But a leader must walk through this with grace and dignity. Sometimes small deflections during the discussion will be enough -- "Thank you, John, but would anyone else like to share? What about you, Sally?" Other times a more direct route must be taken -- "John, let's wait for a moment before you respond, I would like to give a few others space to share." Or, "John, thank you, let's hear from a few others tonight."
Often, though, the over-talker is not aware of what they are doing and must be spoken to privately after the meeting. Be diplomatic and loving, but share with them directly about what has happened during the meetings. Reaffirm your love for them and appreciation for their perspective, but love them and the other group members by showing them how their sharing has taken up too much of the group's time. I have even known some group leaders who have gained the trust of the over-talker to the point they have a special code worked out between them, a way for the leader to, without a confrontation, signal to the member that they are close to crossing the over-talking line.
I admire those who have allowed Christ to mature them to the point they can care for a small group of believers, partly by leading discussions. It can be an awkward duty, but they have put their lives on the line for the glory of Christ. Certainly, small group ministry unearths all sorts of things, some good and some bad. Yet it is through times such as these that so many discipleship, personal ministry, and Holy Spirit moments unfold.