I was standing in front of an intimate group of about 15 people, passionately sharing some of my best small-group leader training. And then it happened. A woman pulled out her phone and started typing.
Immediately, my body filled with frustration as my head filled with a non-stop inner monologue: You have got to be kidding me. I had already given the whole "put your phones away so that you can focus" speech and still she was determined to be texting, searching the web, or probably checking Facebook. Seriously? Ugh! I was so irritated. Some people! I thought to myself, becoming increasingly agitated each time she pulled out her phone.
At this particular training event, I was teaching skills for self-control, composure, and creating safety in small groups. As my self-control was quickly slipping away, my head continued to blow up with more judgments: She's so disrespectful. Come on, the least she could do is to step out or make it more inconspicuous. If she doesn't like what I have to teach, why did she even bother coming? What's wrong with this lady?
Then, miraculously, it occurred to me: I was losing my self-control and judging this woman's actions—the very things I was trying to train these leaders not to do. It seems to me that God makes people teachers so he can teach them a lesson or two, and this was a classic example.
I decided to take some deep breaths and instead of continuing to let my head run through the judgments, I was actually going to model what I was supposed to be teaching. I said aloud to the group, "I'm feeling like my composure is going out the window." Turning to the woman on her phone, I said, "I notice you're typing on your phone."
Before I could continue, the woman excitedly piped in, "Oh, Beth, this stuff is so great. I don't want to forget any of it. I didn't bring a notebook, so I'm taking as many notes as I can on my phone so I'm able to remember it and apply it!"
I'm pretty sure I turned a beautiful shade of red. I'd completely let my judgments paint a picture of this woman that was entirely untrue.
This happens all the time in small groups. While we're discussing our lives and differing views and opinions, we observe an action, behavior, or comment that causes us to perceive a threat. Perhaps someone says they think the Bible isn't true and we take it as a personal attack on our faith, or a raised eyebrow during a story about our kids makes us think someone disagrees with our parenting methods.
When that happens, our brain immediately jumps to "protect and defend mode." Our minds fill with assumptions in an attempt to make sense of the situation and make ourselves feel better. This is natural and normal. It's a beautiful part of how God wired us. If we let those assumptions run rampant, though, we can create a lack of safety in our groups, invent false stories that become the basis for our interactions, and, ultimately, lose the ability to love and care for our group members well.
The good news is, there is another way. Though we can't completely prevent our heads from going into judgment mode. We can notice when it starts and choose another path instead. Here are some practical steps to shift from judgment to loving well when you're leading a small group:
1. Regain Composure.
In order to do this, we first must recognize when we start to lose it. When I lose self-control or composure, I usually do three things:
- I notice it in my body. Usually, I stop breathing, get tense in my chest, and look away. Other times, I power up and stare at the person.