When Is a Small Group Just Another Meeting?

And what should you do about it?

I'm going to attempt to paraphrase a story I heard at a small-groups conference a little over a year ago, so please bear with me. The conference was the 2007 Purpose-Driven Small Groups gala at Saddleback Church, and the speaker was Randy Frazee. The story centered on Frazee's first attempt at small-group ministry as the senior pastor of a large church in suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas.

Being the senior pastor, Frazee wanted to make sure that his small group was an example of excellence for the rest of the church to follow. So after much prayer and deliberation, he and his wife invited the most spiritual couple in the church to serve as co-leaders, and then the most athletic, most attractive, most intelligent, and most wealthy couples to round out the group. They called it their "Super Small Group."

The only problem was that the couples' homes were spread out over several miles, which meant that Frazee and his wife had to travel between 25 and 40 minutes each way to get to their group meeting every week. After a while, the added time (and added money spent on childcare) began to take its toll. Still, the Frazees persevered, and the Super Group settled into a regular and comfortable routine.

About this time, however, Frazee's new next-door neighbor—a real whiz at hospitality and socializing—began organizing regular get-togethers within the neighborhood. Soon, the little community was coming together at least once a week to play games, share food, chat, and pretty much experience a suburban version of Acts 2:42 (minus the selling of property, of course). Consequently, Frazee's Super Small Group became less and less appealing in light of what was happening in his own back yard.

He described one specific occasion when the next-door neighbor set up a street-wide potluck event. The evening of this event happened to coincide with the meeting time of the Super Small Group. Frazee described his sense of loss as he and his wife pulled out of their driveway and watched children playing kickball in the street, men playing horseshoes across a front lawn, families gathered together over steaming plates of fried chicken and cool glasses of lemonade, and so on. (As Frazee told the story, I got a picture in my mind of a penniless child looking through a candy-shop window, both hands pressed longingly against the glass, as several of his friends filled up bags and bags of sweet confections.)

Tough Questions

It was a great story, and I'm sure I haven't done it justice, here. But that was when I first began to ask myself the question: When does a small group become just another meeting? When does a community of spiritual friends devolve into just another obligation?

These questions were especially meaningful to me at the time, because my wife and I were experiencing a similar type of frustration with our own Super Small Group. Two things contributed to our aggravation: 1) We had recently moved 45 minutes away from our church to live with my wife's parents (and escape the high rental prices of suburban Chicago), and 2) Our infant son was becoming increasingly mobile, self-willed, and loud.

Week after week, Jess and I would rush through dinner and load up our minivan with bags of diapers, wipes, books, toys, and spare clothes. Then we would leave at 6 to make our stop-and-go trek toward the home of the group's host couple, my wife often scrambling to write down answers to the week's homework questions as I drove. Having arrived, one of us would begin mingling with the group, while the other took our son to a spare room to keep him occupied and (relatively) quiet. After an hour or so, we'd switch places.

Whew! Just writing this down brings back tough memories and emotions. It was a genuinely tough time for our family, and one unavoidable fact made things even more difficult: I was the group leader.

Tough Answers

What would you do in a situation like that? How would you handle being involved in a group that you genuinely loved, but was genuinely draining the life out of you and your family?

Jess and I decided that our best course of action was to leave. We waited until the summer, when our group naturally took a break for a couple months, and then informed the rest of the group about our plans. It was a difficult conversation, of course, and we still miss seeing everyone on a regular basis—we miss the community that had been built. But we know it was the right call.

That still leaves our original question unanswered, though. When does a small group cross the line between supportive community and draining obligation? Obviously, I don't advise people to skip out of their small group every time things get a little inconvenient or stressful. So how do you know when it's time to go?

There's no straight answer, of course. But there are some common symptoms I've observed in my own life, and in the lives of others. Here are a few of the main ones:

  • You bring a negative attitude to the group. I would often pour out my frustrations to the rest of the group during our prayer and fellowship times. I wouldn't complain about the group situation, necessarily, but would instead gripe about my commute to work, our inability to purchase a home close to the church, our frustrations as new parents, etc. I knew things had gotten a little out of hand when my wife began to scold me after meetings for being "morose."
  • You continually "misfire" in your responsibilities within the group. Things like forgetting to answer homework questions, not following through on promises to pray for people, forgetting to bring snacks, and so on are all signs that you are mentally and emotionally detached from the group, if not physically.
  • You regularly fail to attend group meetings. This is physical detachment. If the group has become low enough on your priority list that you are unable to consistently attend, it's probably time to move on.
  • You've identified a clear alternative. Like Randy Frazee and his neighbor's community gatherings, sometimes there is a specific activity or opportunity that you find yourself thinking about often. "If I didn't have to go to small group, I could … ." Now, I'm not talking about a television show you'd like to watch, or more time spent at work. I'm talking about a different way to slake your inborn need for community.
  • You just know. Small groups are cyclical—they all have a pattern of birth, life, growth, decline, and death. The same thing is true for individual involvement in a small group, and sometimes you just know that the time has come to try something else.

In lieu of a conclusion, let me again emphasize that leaving a small group should not be your first response to difficulty, conflict, or any kind of stress within your group. It should not be your second response, or fifth. Any decision to walk away from a supportive community of Christians should be a last resort—a final option.

But sometimes we need to be reminded that it is an option. And if your small group has become something life-draining instead of life-giving, it's an option you may need to consider.

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