For some time my life has been an illustration of the ideas I'm going to share with you. I have struggled with a chronic illness for the past couple of years. Over that time, my symptoms have led to many different diagnoses. Most of which, unfortunately, were misdiagnoses. I even had times when my doctors all agreed there was a problem, but had no idea what the problems really was! It wasn't until well after a year of this process that an accurate diagnosis and treatment was determined, one that eventually began to help my situation.
The same can be said of small groups. Many small group communities can become chronically spiritually ill. But the symptoms don't always lead to an obvious diagnosis. Sometimes, like in my health situation the symptoms can be misleading. In those cases more time and tests need to be done to determine the true source of the symptoms.
I believe that misdiagnosis of small group ills is common and I am guilty of it often. Even in groups that I have led, I have seen unhealthy spiritual symptoms, and yet, been unable to accurately diagnosis and treat the illness, I just knew something was wrong.
Diagnosis of small group problems is still tricky, but I've learned a few lessons the hard way, so I thought I would give you some of the symptoms, misdiagnosis that I've made, and the eventual discovery of the root ailment along with some treatments that were helpful.
Case Study 1
Symptoms: Group members and group leader complains that group is not bonding despite their best efforts at fellowship. Group attendance wanes as little commitment is produced by stagnant group gatherings.
Misdiagnosis: I have thought the "chemistry" or affinity level of the group may be a result of a mismatch of people in the group either because of interests, life-stage, or generational differences. I've seen group members come to the conclusion the group would be better off if members were to re-shuffle into groups with people of more closely matched affinity and interests. For churches that have a seasonal small group schedule, this reshuffling seems to occur frequently as people go in and out of group life as they pick and choose groups they want to be involved in. In these situations, the "popular" groups/leaders grow their groups and less popular groups eventually dissolve. Some people who seem to have little affinity with anyone, find they have no group with which to connect. Even though some people never seem to "fit" anywhere, I've encouraged group members to reshuffle if "bonding" doesn't eventually happen.
Ailment and Treatment: While affinity can be important, in most cases, these symptoms indicate the group, and more importantly perhaps the leader, has a misunderstanding of the difference between "chemistry" and "community." Biblical community, at its core, is independent of chemistry. Chemistry has the expectation of unity that produces friendship and internal harmony within the group. While community can also produce a sense of happiness and closeness, community is not dependent on those feelings, rather it's rooted in love, action, and unity that builds one another up, and has impact beyond the group by reaching out to a variety of people. A group that is struggling to reach the goal of feeling "chemistry" or "closeness," is focused on the wrong goal. Typically, the ailment is not a poor combination of people that needs to be re-shuffled; the ailment is that the group needs to focus on what it means to love as Jesus loved. A combination of study and application of the "one anothers" of scripture would be a good starting point for treating this ailment, regardless of whether the group re-shuffles.It's likely the leader has not experienced this "one anothering" and may need to be in relationship with a mentor or leadership community that models this.
Case Study 2
Symptoms: Group leader complains of being "burned out" and wants to take a break from leading the small group. The group seems to be solid, but no other leaders are emerging from the group. The viability of the group seems to hinge on the leader's participation. If the leader takes a break, then the group, it seems, will also take a break or disband.
Misdiagnosis: I've encouraged leaders to take breaks and very typically the group agrees to take a break with the leader. In cases where the group continued to meet without the leader, many times, I've seen the group struggle to keep continuity. If and when the group and leader get back together, the refreshment of the group leader seems short-lived. The leader tends to feel tired again and the cycle continues, or the leader decides group leadership is not for him or her.
Ailment and Treatment: There may be two core issues here. One is the lack of ministry reproducibility. The other is the lifestyle pace of the leader. Establishing a rhythm of ministry and refreshment is important and taking breaks from leadership may be important at times. But, those breaks can come naturally if you are investing in other people and making it a goal to have everything you do be reproducible including your lifestyle. Coaching is the key to this situation. Sometimes people are very unaware of whether they are living life with too much velocity, or if their ministry is being reproduced in other people. A small group leader mentor or coach is very important to give feedback that will help avoid burnout in the first place. If your leaders are burning out, chances are they are not being nurtured in an effective coaching structure.
Case Study 3
Symptoms: "Anonymous" or "Confidential" comments start filtering in to church leadership that a particular group leader is teaching false doctrine, or the group is having discussions about topics that don't align with church belief systems.
Misdiagnosis: In many church traditions, doctrinal purity becomes a default prime directive. Church leaders feel the need to police small group "teaching" and swiftly deal with curriculum and discussion topics with a hint of controversy. In cases where I have been involved, church leadership has generally approached these situations by asking a group leader, who may be unknowledgeable about church doctrine, to step down for a time or initiating discipline and correction on groups perceived as being "off-track" with their study focuses.
Ailment and Treatment: In most of the situations I have investigated, the issue has seldom (almost never in my experience) been that a group leader has abused their position and deliberately led their group members astray. Obviously, we cannot ignore warning signs that a group is significantly getting off course, however, we should keep perspective on what our mission in group life is about. Truth and Biblical values are really important for Christ-followers to embrace as they grow toward maturity, but where else can people in most churches vocalize, struggle, and seek the Lord in a transparent way, but in a small group? I don't think that I've ever been a part of a small group discussion about doctrinal issues, when there wasn't some variety of viewpoints on some issues. Many of those wayward viewpoints come from diverse backgrounds, heritages, and lack of knowledge. If someone is not in a small group community of some type, where are those wayward viewpoints ever going to get evaluated and processed? Small groups provide the unique setting for those discussions to take place in relative safety. And, yes, in some cases, the group as a whole comes to the wrong conclusion about specific points. In those cases, shepherding is important.
But, here are some key questions to think about when approaching groups with ills in this area. Is it worse to have a group that is doctrinally pure but unloving and unwelcoming of outsiders? Or, is it worse to have a group who is loving one another, seeking the Lord, reaching out to others, but perhaps a little uncertain about fine points of doctrine? Only church leadership can really answer those overseer-type questions, but my experience has been to proceed with caution when facing symptoms of false doctrine. Sometimes the symptoms are not as destructive as what they appear.
Case Study 4
Symptoms: Group appears healthy on the surface but resists change, direction, or input from church leadership.
Misdiagnosis: Many Small Group Directors and church leaders including myself have labeled these groups as "out of network," and for the most part let them function that way. If there is an established group out there who doesn't want to participate in church-wide small group campaigns or benefit from leader training, I've tended to look the other way and focus on new groups and leaders who are on-board with the local church philosophy for small groups. Hopefully, these "out of network" groups are living out some form of Christian community and if they need something, then they will come to me as small group director.
Ailment and Treatment: Independent small groups may be functioning with the church's prescribed values, but if they are resistant to training, coaching, reporting, or reproducing leaders then it's really difficult to tell what is going on in these groups. Groups/leaders that do their own thing and are willfully resistant to coaching or whole-church campaign programs can be detrimental to the momentum of small group ministry congregation-wide. "Counting" an out of network group as part of the small group ministry structure of the church may send the message that you are endorsing a group who doesn't want to embrace the values of the church. If you are in a small group ministry environment where you are trying to achieve significant transition in small group ministry, it might be wise to release these out of network groups from the shepherding authority of the church. You might not find it necessary to shut down these groups or stop the group members from getting together, but you may want to make it clear that these groups are not part of the vision for small groups within church. By making that distinction clear to out of network groups, it brings the issue of the group's mission and unity with the church to the forefront, and hopefully benefits the group's ministry as they align with larger small group ministry of the church.
Case Study 5
Symptoms: Group is small (low numbers) and when one or two people can't make it; the group typically cancels for the week. This pattern of infrequent meetings has gone on for a period of time and the leader thinks it may be time to disband the group.
Misdiagnosis: In these situations, I have tended to hook these groups up to life-support and do anything to funnel new life into the group including sending new potential group members their way or giving my blessing on a minimal meeting schedule—once per month if that will keep them together.
Ailment and Treatment: In my zeal to not lose a small group (because lets face it, losing a group looks bad for the small group director!), I may have done more harm than good. In many of these situations, I now think it is far better to encourage these groups to disband. In many cases, these groups were operating with a weak community value system that was not going to allow the group to survive regardless of the number involved. The commitment to one another and to the mission of the group was not sufficient to sustain the group or multiply the group. Although not an affinity problem, it may be best to let this group reshuffle into other groups where values and mission are stronger. Be sure to take steps to insure healthy closure of the group, so members can re-integrate into other small group communities without baggage from their previous group experience.