The Three Levels of Small-Group Problems

Learn how to classify and resolve periods of "temporary chaos" in group life.

My husband and I purchased a house recently, and it got me thinking: Do you ever wish you could just put your small group on the market and let some new leader deal with the problems? If you've never felt this way, then you probably haven't been leading for very long. And if you're thinking to yourself, Problems? What problems?, then strap yourself in, because this could be a bumpy ride.

If you lead a small group, you will encounter problems. There's no way around it. When you deal with people, it gets messy. These problems can range from the fairly benign (people won't talk in my group) to the very serious (someone has threatened suicide). That isn't to scare you; it's to equip you.

When faced with a problem, it's important to identify the type and severity of the problem, and then determine the next course of action. That's the purpose of this article.

Level 1 Problems

Level 1 Problems are the ones that will be encountered in every small group at some point. Examples include the following:

• People will not engage in discussion

• People shy away from praying out loud

• Someone repeatedly skips down rabbit trails and takes the whole group on the journey

• Prayer requests are shallow

• EGRs (Extra Grace Requireds). These people tend to be a bit more needy—they need more prayer, need more encouragement, and need more of you.

These are typical small-group issues, and you will face them at some point if you haven't already. Here are some steps for addressing these types of small-group problems:

Pray. Don't use prayer as a last resort; stay on offense with prayer.

Address the issue first with the person individually. Be natural and seek to understand from their perspective. Make "observations" instead of accusations. For instance, "I've noticed that you don't comment much in the discussion. Is there something we can do to make it easier for you to engage the topic?"

Be creative. This is especially helpful for the person skipping down rabbit trails. Come up with a time limit, a hand signal, or some other means to help them stay on track. You can actually make this fun and not burdensome.

Be patient. None of these problems will kill your group, and taking the time to allow them to be solved naturally will create a culture where community can emerge.

Level 2 Problems

Level 2 Problems will also occur in your group if you stay together long enough and allow community to emerge. Here are some examples:

• Someone in the group monopolizes the conversation or takes on an authoritative or self-righteous tone

• Someone in the group constantly causes division or makes divisive comments

• "Discussions" (read: fights, arguments, conflict) erupt in your group

• Conversations and relationships remain shallow and surface-level. Your group becomes a pseudo-community, in other words.

• Gossip runs rampant

• You have chronic complainers, or negative talk and attitudes emerge

• Someone in your group needs to be confronted about a sin

These problems require a little more skill and a bit of confidence. Here are some ideas:

Pray. Again, get out of the defensive posture and attack from an offensive position.

Don't ignore the issue. You know there's a problem, and it's likely that everyone else in the group knows there's a problem. Ignoring problems never makes them go away.

If the problem lies primarily with one individual, approach that person first. Again, make observations instead of accusations. Seek to understand them. Pray with them when you talk them.

Get help when needed. If the individual is unresponsive or unrepentant, implement the biblical method for conflict resolution found in Matthew 18:15-20. Get a co-leader, coach, or pastor involved in the process.

If something happens in your group, process it as a group. Don't ignore that the tensions exist or that the community is staying at a surface level. Address the topics within the group setting.

Protect the group. If a problem persists, it may be necessary to ask a person to leave the group.

Level 3 Problems

Some unfortunate leaders encounter Level 3 problems during their first week of leadership. Others lead for years before encountering one. These are problems that you are not equipped or expected to handle on your own—they are outside the scope of small-group leader responsibilities. Examples include the following:

• Drug and alcohol abuse

• Repeated offensive activity in the group

• Inappropriate relational and/or sexual behavior between group members

• Repeated divisiveness

• Suicidal tendencies and/or threats

• Eating disorders

• Divorce

• Mental and emotional instability

Here are the action steps:

Prayer. Pray for the situation, but also be sure to get others (fellow group leaders, accountability partners, pastors, etc.) to pray for you.

Notify your coach and/or pastor immediately. Be sensitive about who you tell. If it's a big problem, you may need to send it all the way up the chain to a member of the pastoral team immediately.

Be honest. If the person thinks they have told you something in confidence, inform them that you are obligated, as a person in leadership within your church, to let a member of the pastoral team know about the issue.

Follow up. Your coach or pastor will work with you to develop an appropriate plan of action and care.

If you're a small-group leader, don't submit your letters of resignation yet! Working with people is tough because people are broken. That means that our small groups will break every now and then, and the most important thing is to know how to fix that break. Always lean on your coaches and pastors to help you navigate these issues.

I will end with a quote from community guru John Ortberg: "People who love authentic community always prefer the pain of temporary chaos to the peace of permanent superficiality." Good stuff.

—Heather Zempel is Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and author of Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Discipleship.

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