Competing for Channel Capacity

Creating healthy spans of care

Answer "YES" or "NO" to the following questions:

  • Do you regularly have feelings that you have neglected your small group members or family?
  • Do you frequently find yourself failing to send that email, note or making that phone call to a group member you wanted to encourage and support?
  • Do you struggle with keeping your group members' prayer list current and complete?
  • Do you have difficulty finding time to "hang out" with your family or group members because of a full schedule of work, school or church activities?
  • Are you frequently out of emotional energy making it hard to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who are weeping?
  • Including your family, do you have 12 or more individuals that you are taking initiative to shepherd and see develop?

If you answered "YES" to most of these questions, then you may have exceeded your healthy span of care. Span of care is the number of people, activities, and projects that you have significant responsibility for. While many of these areas are very worthy of your care and attention, each of these responsibilities compete for your available time, energy, and emotional resources. The risk involved in exceeding your healthy span of care is that you may exceed your ability to effectively respond to the care and development needs of those you shepherd.

In his book The Tipping Point (Little, Brown and Company), Malcolm Gladwell notes that we each have a "channel capacity." Channel capacity is the number of things we can continually manage in our memory at any one time. On average, we can manage seven unique pieces of information in our mind at the same time. That is why U.S. phone numbers have seven digits because Bell Telephone thought that was the longest number an average person can remember easily. We also have a "social channel capacity" which determines our emotional capacity for connecting our lives with others. Studies show that if you ask people how many individuals they have in their life whose death or loss of connection would be devastating to them, people on average have 12 individuals with whom they are deeply connected. That means to maintain emotional stability, the most we are typically able to care for and invest ourselves deeply in, at any one time, is 12 people. When you consider your immediate family is part of that 12, then the number you can effectively shepherd in a small group is probably considerably less than 12.

Our healthy span of care and our channel capacity are closely linked. If our healthy span of care, either activities or people we are caring for, exceeds our channel capacity, then competition for your time and energy can render you ineffective. You can feel incredibly productive and have contact in many people's lives, yet not be able to care and shepherd those who have been entrusted to our care. And worse yet, constantly exceeding your span of care will drain your energy and emotions to the point of burnout. This is a human reality, but it is a reality that is particularly relevant to small group leaders. The condition of burnout and a desperate need for rest is alive and well among many small group leaders because of constant violation of healthy spans of care.

Jesus, as a small group leader, clearly modeled the need for healthy spans of care in his ministry. Not surprisingly, He chose a group of 12 for His primary development ministry. The Gospels go on to record that Jesus had an even more intense connection with only three of the 12 disciples.

There are many other places in scripture that model appropriate and healthy spans of care including Jethro's advice to Moses in Exodus 18 which advocated healthy span of care ratios of 1:5 and 1:10.

As a small group leader, how do you protect yourself against violating Biblical span of care principles and creating unhealthy competitive pressures in your life? There are a few principles that can help.

Apprentice. Make sure that an apprentice small group leader is in your current span of care. Beyond your family, the one person(s) that you need to be pouring your life into is an apprentice who can begin to include some of your small group members into their span of care.

Multiply. If your span of care is already too large and you have apprentice leaders ready to assume more responsibility of their own, then multiplying your group is a natural and healthy strategy. It's not uncommon for groups to swell to fifteen or twenty members. Unless leaders and members expect their group to multiply, Jethro's words to Moses will forever haunt them: "You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out." (Exodus 18:18)

Get Coaching. As a group leader, include yourself in the span of care of a small group coach, mentor, or small group point leader. In your role of caring for others, you need to be cared for as well. You need someone who can restore emotional energy to you by investing in your life.

Boundaries. Finally, set healthy boundaries and rely fully on God's power and strength at work in your life. Learn to say "no" to some relationships, activities, and responsibilities…even good ones if you know they will violate your healthy span of care. Be attentive to the Spirit's work in your life, and focus on those relationships and responsibilities where God is clearly working through you.

By maintaining healthy spans of care, you can reduce the energy draining competition in your life and have more God-empowered impact in the lives of those you shepherd.

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