Can Small Groups Break Up Well?

What should church leaders do when a group is on the decline, but no one is willing to pull the plug?

I recently joined the leadership team for my church's small-groups ministry. During a recent Saturday breakfast, one of the church's longtime small-groups leaders (we'll call him Tim) shared an unusual, and uncomfortable, predicament.

For several reasons I'll explain in a moment, Tim's group of eight years—one so close that members actually stood bedside with him a few years ago as his wife passed away from a difficult illness—decelerated during the past six months, basically to the point of becoming defunct.

But no one was willing to officially call it quits.

"I honestly don't know what to do," Tim said. His eyes screamed with frustration and disappointment. How could he pull the plug on a group that meant so much to him and its members?

The Problem

The demise stemmed from a few factors. One couple valued the group's closeness to the point of insisting no new members get added. Another couple didn't want to study the Bible or read a book as a group—only social activities were acceptable. And another couple felt spurned when other members didn't provide the support they needed during the deaths of two parents and the developing health issues of the other two.

In time, the twice-monthly gatherings didn't attract full attendance, or they got postponed due to scheduling conflicts. By midway through last year, postponements grew in frequency.

Which led to Tim's question: How do I end it?

The Solution

Our committee offered some thoughtful advice. One member suggested a social gathering of the group, one in which Tim and his wife (he has since remarried) could acknowledge the group's decline and offer a regularly scheduled social gathering to bring these people together for fellowship—all the while bringing the "official" label of the group to a close.

Meanwhile, Tim and his wife could start a new group, one built with a new set of people eager to plug in. It was an attractive solution, since it allowed the existing group to follow its natural course, but also allowed an able and available leader in Tim the chance to fill a glaring need at the church (which had few, if any, experienced leaders available for a growing list of people who wanted to join a small group).

Tim liked the idea. He set the meeting—a Sunday night dinner at his house. We offered prayer and some resources to help him with what likely would be an uncomfortable topic.

The Open-Ended Question

But afterward, Tim contacted the committee's chair and said he just couldn't bring himself to break up the group as they gathered together and ate. Who could blame him? The recent challenges aside, he loves his group members. It's the kind of devotion we wish all group leaders felt for their members.

In my mind, this situation also raises myriad questions: When should a group break up? How does a leader do it well when some, perhaps all, of the members don't want to break up, even though the group's decline can't be ignored? And when does the church's leadership step in to make sure a group with increasingly unhealthy dynamics doesn't sap away the energy and attention needed for potential new groups?

—What do you think? This article was originally posted on our sister blog, Off the Agenda. Click here to add your thoughts to the discussion.

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