Carving out a 90-minute block of time for a small group to meet does not sound like too difficult a task, but trying to work around the schedules of 6 or 8 other people is a feat that almost deserves a spot in the Olympics.
My current small group almost did not get off the ground. I recall its inception, almost seven years ago, when a handful of us were crying out for some time apart to discuss God's Word and to reflect and pray together.
"How are Monday evenings for you?" I asked.
"Good. No, wait! That's the night I tutor, but Tuesdays are good."
"Not for me," said Julie. "Alfred has soccer practice over in Plain City on Tuesday and Thursday night, and I have to drive him."
"Yeah. Thursdays are no good. I have a class," Sue said.
"Hmmm. Well, Wednesday is out because it conflicts with other church meetings. I don't suppose anyone wants to do Fridays, do they?"
"I work every other Friday and Saturday," said Jane, a registered nurse.
That left Sunday, and nobody wanted to schedule something on a Sunday.
Most people worked during the day, so daytime meetings were out, except for Saturdays.
"Saturdays are my only day to run errands," someone said.
"How about breakfast on Saturdays, before heading out to run errands?" It suddenly got very quiet.
Jen broke the silence, "I hate to sound less-than-spiritual, but that's my only morning to sleep in." Everyone laughed and nodded, then sighed with relief.
This discussion, or something like it, took place on a regular basis. Each time we came to the same conclusion: There was no good time that worked for everyone. That always stopped us in our tracks.
With the pace of modern life what it is, are small groups going the way of the horse-and-buggy? I do not think so. The challenges just require some creativity and flexibility, two things I was short of but soon learned.
I prayed for God to make a way and for me to see it.
Redefining the Perfect Time
"There's just no good time that works for everyone!" I complained to my husband. Somehow, hearing those words out loud unlocked a door in my thinking. I needed to accept the truth of that statement and stop waiting for the perfect time, the time when everyone could come. Thursday evenings worked best for the greatest number of people. I decided to offer a group on Thursday evenings and see what happened.
When the announcement first appeared in the church bulletin, several people approached me to say, "If only it wasn't on Thursdays, I could come." Doubts about my choice began to creep into my thoughts. I kept these to myself and expressed regret that a conflict existed. "I'm sorry to hear that. If you ever find yourself free on a Thursday evening, though, come and join us." This was an unusual statement for me to toss out since it sounded like a person was welcome to drop in when it was convenient and that there would be no commitment. I was hesitant about creating that kind of environment. It is one thing to invite newcomers to try the group, but another thing to have people drift in and out willy-nilly. How would that affect bonding and freedom in sharing? I was not sure, but those were the words that came out of me.
To my surprise, quite a few people showed up that I did not know were interested in joining a group. Apparently, the desire to participate was greater than I knew. I had only considered the handful of friends who had initially approached me. I had not thought outside my own circle. I had not realized how inward thinking I had been. What fun it was, getting to know some of the newer people in church, and a couple of them brought friends who did not attend our church. I had not considered THEIR needs or schedulesâ€¦but God had.
Redefining the Perfect Participant
The composition of the group stayed pretty consistent, working its way through a 13-week study guide before breaking for holidays. When January rolled around and we came back together, to my surprise I needed to set up more chairs.
Sue's class was on a different night that semester, so she was free to attend. "It's okay if I join mid-year, isn't it?" she asked. "Of course. And you're getting in at the beginning of a new book!" This fit neatly into my idea of when people should join a group.
Julie came, too. With her, though, I encountered a problem, and the problem was with me. Soccer season had ended and her son was in another sport. For this one, she had worked out a car pool arrangement where she only drove every third week. "Is it okay if I miss every third week?"
I forced myself not to look disappointed, but to say how glad I was to have her. In that moment, I became aware of a prejudice in me. Without realizing it, I somehow had adopted a very judgmental "where are your priorities?" attitude. Julie simply was not fitting my idea of a good small group participant.
It was clear to see, as the weeks went by, that Julie was wholeheartedly engaged in the group. She was always prepared and she actively participated in the discussion. She prayed for requests others brought and remembered to ask for updates on previous requests even when I neglected to think of this.
Once again, my perfectionism was shown for the obstacle it was. I needed to start accepting her participation and rejoicing in it on the weeks she was available, instead of dwelling on the week she missed. THIS was a key change in attitude for me and a turning point in ministering in these times.
Redefining the Perfect Materials
When summer came and I knew vacations would interrupt attendance, I sought materials where each lesson stood somewhat independent of the others. This created a "come when you can" atmosphere that was very popular. Nobody ever felt "left out" or "behind." In past small groups, when a person fell behind in the study guide, they would sometimes stop coming. Now, the guilt of missing a week was lifted. Each person was just as prepared as the next, even if a week had been missed. At the end of summer, I opted to continue using this type of study guide instead of a guide where each lesson builds on the one before it.
At the end of a year's time, my perfectionist attitude about what a small group should be changed a lot. God answered my prayer, that I would be shown the way. It was not by changing the circumstance of the busy lifestyles, but by changing my focus.
People were looking for a sense of community that I knew was best achieved through small groups - opportunity to discuss God's Word, reflect on it and pray for each other. In the end, that is what they got. However, my initial desire to create the perfect small group almost prevented it from happening. In my attempt to create the perfect small group, I overlooked the benefits of the imperfect small group.
If you are up against the challenge of too-busy schedules, do not give up your dream of a small group, just the particulars of how that group should look. Pick a time and put it out there. Let people choose to come or not as they can. Do not make them feel guilty if they cannot participate 100% of the time. Put out the welcome mat and leave it out. Choose materials that make it easy for people to step right in, even if they are newcomers or part-timers.
If you are successful at creating this type of freedom, do not be surprised if people's too-busy-to-commit schedules suddenly loosen up. You would be amazed at how people figure out how to rearrange commitments once you offer something that leaves them wanting more!