Small Group Leadership

Q. This isn’t a theological question. You seem to have a good grasp on ministry and I’m hoping you can help me with a group-dynamics question relating to a small group setting.

I lead a small group in our church. One couple seems to be very good at getting us off-track from the study. As a leader, I don’t know how far to let the discussion wander from the point.

This occurs every week. When it happens, I pray for discernment but, quite honestly, I don’t perceive any clear guidance either way, so I let it go on until the conversation comes around to where I can grab it and continue with the study. By that time, I feel the train of thought has been cut and it’s difficult to continue.

Do you have any insights into the issue of leading small group discussions?

A. Sounds to me like there might have been a lack of communication as to the format of your study group, as if you’re trying to keep it more formal and structured while the other couple wants a free wheeling discussion. These preferential differences always plague the conduct of small groups.

As the group’s leader, you may have clear goals and even an outline of topics to be presented and reviewed each week. When the discussion veers from this outline you begin to wonder if you’ll run out of time before accomplishing your goals.

The other party seems to prefer a spontaneous approach, like “Let’s open the book and see where it leads us.” They may not even realize the conflict this causes you. They may also be frustrated discussion leaders themselves, unconsciously hi-jacking your agenda to meet their needs.

If you respect their views, even though their behavior frustrates your objectives, you could do one of several things.

1- Meet with them one-on-one to review your objectives as the group’s leader and ask for their help in keeping things on track. You could offer to assign them the responsibility of directing the group’s discussions from time to time to help meet their leadership needs in return for their cooperation.

2- Explain the situation to your Pastor and ask him to appoint them as leaders over their own group, or recommend that they be transferred into a group whose leader’s style is more compatible with their preferences.

3- If you enjoy the discussions and feel the only problem is that it conflicts with your goals for the meetings you could even offer to step aside in favor of them.

Small groups seem to function best when everyone in the group responds well to the leader’s style. Having conducted leadership training sessions for over 20 years, I know it involves teaching leaders to adapt their style to fit the needs of the people they’re in charge of.

But in informal settings like yours the goal should be to make the group as compatible with the leader’s natural style as possible. The key to success in a situation like this is to handle it with the love and respect due a fellow believer, maintaining the humility we should all strive to express in doing the Lord’s work.

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