The Challenge Of Challenging People

What works, and what doesn't, when leading a group of challenging people.

Challenging people. Wounded people. Dysfunctional people. Each year we find more of these in the church, creating a challenge for small group leaders. A regular small group in the church might have one or two of these people, in which case the leaders can buy and read my booklet, "Why Didn't You Warn Me?" But what do you do with a whole group of people who are so wounded that they don't conform to the "norms" we expect in small groups? Recently, one woman I disciple was invited not to join a recovery group she had signed up for. I'm not surprised. She's a challenge! But the rejection only added to her wounding. What could the leader have done to include her since this was a recovery group? As I have led groups of severely wounded women, I've learned several keys about what works and what doesn't.

  • Be clear and open when inviting participants:

Many wounded people already have had problems being part of a group, whether Christian or secular. They already feel ostracized. So I'm pretty open when I choose to lead a group of challenging people. I let them know that, in addition to Bible study, we will be developing good group skills. Most people are open to this.

  • Keep it small:

A skilled leader might be able to lead a group of six to 10 members, but when dealing with challenging people, limit it to four. It's OK. It'll feel like 10! You want plenty of time to do the study and to process group issues. Plus, you can expect numerous distractions, which will reduce your effectiveness.

  • Agree to the rules in advance:

I like to use a group covenant that members read, discuss and sign. This covenant will include meeting time, attendance and punctuality expectations, discussion limitations, goals, confidentiality requirements, boundaries, and anything else you expect to be an issue. Members need to clearly understand your expectations and also to share theirs.

  • Stress attendance and punctuality:

It's important to be clear about your expectations for both attendance and punctuality. Challenging people always have something come up. Their car breaks down, their kids get sick, they get sick, their favorite TV program is on … They need to understand that their absence creates a hole in the group. They also need to understand that arriving late or leaving early is disruptive. Start the group on time, regardless of who is there and try very hard to end on time, regardless of how much is left to cover. Sometimes it's helpful to schedule the first 15 to 20 minutes for visiting, but clarify when members are expected to arrive and when the study or worship will begin. Talk about attendance and punctuality often and affirm those who make improvements.

One challenging group I led several years ago had a covenant for attendance and in 10 weeks, 10 people, we had only one absence! When that one person missed a meeting, everyone saw how important each was to the group dynamics. With only four people in the group, attendance is even more important.

While encouraging people to attend consistently and arrive on time, be realistic and learn to flex. This population will probably have a lot of attendance and punctuality issues.

  • Discuss group processes:

In a group of challenging people, you will have some who talk all the time and others who won't open their mouths. It's important to discuss group expectations in advance, then provide reminders when it becomes necessary. Set the tone by being lovingly open with both the talkers and the observers. Feel free to cut off the person who never takes a breath and to call on the quiet one. Use humor and be frank. You might even use a minute timer and agree in advance that each comment will go no longer than the time allowed. Just like in a board game, it's OK to call "time!" Praise the quiet one for speaking longer than last time.

This may be the most difficult leadership skill of all. Challenging people often are lonely and when they have someone to listen, many will go on and on—and on. It takes real grace to lovingly cut off a member over and over—and over without zoning out. But in the end, they will be grateful.

  • Set boundaries:

Since many challenging people are lonely and in need of friends, they may want to become your new best friend. You need to decide if that's your goal. I set moderately firm boundaries, telling members that I only answer the telephone when it's convenient, and that I may not be able to spend a lot of time on the phone. I make sure members understand that my family requires much of my time and is my priority. Then if I'm spending time with family, I don't answer the phone. I let the machine answer, then I call back when I can. If I have limited time, I tell the caller immediately, then try hard to stick to that limit. Challenging people always have a crisis. They always need to talk. I need to give up my Messiah complex and remember that they reached their present age without me and will probably live many more years without my undivided attention.

  • Enforce confidentiality:

As with any group, confidentiality is essential. You'll hear amazing stories and it will be tempting to share with family and friends. Don't. Even challenging people need to know that their private lives are private. Enforce confidentiality in the group, as well, dealing with breaches immediately and firmly.

Leading a group of challenging people can be, well—challenging. But you'll be glad you did. They are delightful, and watching them grow will be the most enriching experience you've had in a long time!

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