Let’s take a few minutes to pray together.” [SCREAMS. CRYING. YELLING.] “On second thought, we gotta go. It’s Mia’s nap time.”
The idea of a church small group sounds great in theory. But week by week, it can be frustrating. Maybe in your small group, the kids outnumber the adults. Or you never know who is going to show up. Or you squirm in your seat every time John gets on a soapbox.
I’ve been a pastor for 14 years, and for 6 of those years, I’ve been directly involved in small group ministry, where I hear about the same practical obstacles time and time again. Below are the three most frequent questions I’m asked and some options for addressing these challenges in your church.
This is the biggest hurdle that small group leaders and members face: What do we do with our young kids? There’s no easy answer, but here are several workable ideas.
Pitch in for a sitter. If every family fronts $8 to $10 per meeting and shares their babysitter lists, usually a group can find someone who will come watch all the kids for an hour.
Swap men and women meeting. Some groups choose to meet three times per month: once as men, once as women, and once as a whole group. When only the women meet, the men stay home with the kids, and vice versa. Then the third meeting is mostly bonding time, and the kids can be part of the action.
Swap sitting duties. If a group has several families involved (five or more), a good alternative is to rotate couples who do the sitting. Each week, one couple watches all the kids while the other adults meet and talk. This can happen in different houses, or in the same house, using different rooms. In this model, there is no need to pay or depend on a sitter.
Include the kids. If kids in the group are in elementary school or older, I suggest involving them in the group, at least occasionally. It is important for kids to grow up viewing the church as a family and seeing themselves as part of the present church, not just the “future of the church.” Adolescents can learn to dialogue with adults, and younger kids can be asked to share their fears, successes, or excitement about things happening at school or church.
Commitment and attendance
After childcare, this is the most common issue I’ve heard from group leaders: “How do I get people to show up consistently?” I have four suggestions.
Decide on the highest value of your group. If your group wants to be outwardly focused—meaning you wish to invite new people to join, utilize the group for community outreach, and multiply groups—then you will need to have a critical mass of consistent, mature people. If your priority is deeper relationships—meaning you want this group of people to become closer friends and wrestle through the practicalities of following Jesus together—you’ll need to be upfront about your expectations for depth of relationship.
Complete a group covenant. I urge all new groups to agree on their values and commitment expectations shortly after the group forms. Among other things you might want in a group covenant, one should be attendance.
Revisit attendance and commitment once or twice per year. I recommend all groups extend an off-ramp once per year, preferably at the end of summer. Simply say, “Next month I think we should revisit our group covenant. Think it over and consider if you want to commit to another year with this group, or if you need to try something different in this season.”
Schedule meetings in advance. The two best ways to do this are: (1) agree on a regular rotation so it’s never a mystery when the group will meet next, or (2) at the end of every meeting, confirm your next two gathering times.
Many groups have at least one “over-talker.” Perhaps it’s the person who wants to give good advice but speaks too soon and too simplistically. Or the person who takes on the role of therapist when someone shares a struggle. Maybe someone in your group is prone to interjecting or talking more than listening. Here are some quick tips to help in these situations.
Choose. Instead of asking the whole group a question, call someone out: “Suzanne, what do you think?” You can also start a question like this: “Let’s go around the room and each take 60 seconds to answer this question.”
Interrupt. “I know I’m interrupting, but I want to hear what Suzanne has to say.” It is counterintuitive, but letting people know you are interrupting is more polite than covertly cutting them off.
Thank them. If you feel too intimidated to interrupt, wait for a subtle pause and say, “I liked what you said about ___. Who else has a comment?” Many over-talkers are simply verbal processors who have a habit of never ending a sentence. When they come to the end of a thought, they’ll cue everyone that they are still talking—maybe by raising their voice inflection so it doesn’t sound like they are concluding a thought, or by adding a filler word (“so…”) to keep the next person from jumping in. Take advantage of those subtle pauses!
Non-verbal cues. Leaning in and using your hands or facial expressions can hint that you want to say something. I often look around the room for someone visibly waiting for a chance to talk, and I’ll point that way. Everyone turns to look, and the conversation naturally shifts.
Confront offline. This is never fun, and it must be done gently. Nevertheless, if the whole group dynamic is suffering, it may be necessary for you to speak with the conversation dominator privately.
If these suggestions fail to resolve a tension in your group, consult your pastor or whoever oversees small groups in your congregation, who will likely be personally acquainted with the people in your group and may have other practical suggestions specific to your circumstances.
Nik Schatz serves as the executive pastor at Hershey Free Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He holds a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and a DMin from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.