While every small group is unique, all small groups share can similar challenges. Here are a few common situations of which facilitators should be aware, and how to deal with them:
The Extreme External Processor:
Some people tend to talk in order to think. This in and of itself is fine! This behavior becomes rapidly not fine, however, when this person dominates the conversation and is always steering the conversation in a personal direction. If left unchecked, other members of the group will disengage, and small group time will become a drag.
You can try:
- Asking in general if someone who hasn’t spoken would like to. “Would anyone who hasn’t spoken yet like toadd something?”
- Calling on individuals who have not been able to get a word in edgewise. “Sam, you look like you’re trying tosay something.” Of course it is always appropriate for someone to pass when invited to speak.
- Politely telling that individual to listen! “Scott, you’ve had lots of opportunities to talk about your thoughts. Iwould like to be sure others have a chance to speak.”
- If this seems to be an ongoing, group-wide problem, it might be helpful to add to the group norms. “If youalways speak first, count to three before speaking. If you never speak first, don’t stop to count!”
- If the problem persists, the facilitator might arrange for a private conversation with the individual to exploreways the person can remain fully engaged while affording that privilege to others.
The Extreme Internal Processor:
This is the person who comes faithfully to the group, seems to be thinking deeply about the conversation, but won’t share her thoughts spontaneously. She doesn’t seem willing to jump into the fray, and would never interrupt another person who is talking.
Here are some things to try:
- Open the space for internal processors: “Does anyone want to share who hasn’t shared yet?”
- Specifically invite that person to speak: “Christine, you seem to be thinking about something. Would you liketo share?”
- A group activity that provides time to think before sharing out loud may provide the opportunity for internalprocessors time to gather their thoughts. “We’re going to take a few minutes and explore this topic in pairs. Take a moment to think about what you want to say and then turn to your neighbor and take turns sharing your reflections.”
The Extremely Lonely Person:
This is the person who is so relieved to be listened to by other humans that he dominates the conversation, often to the detriment of the group. This person often turns the conversation to his favorite topic, which is not usually the subject at hand. The loneliness is palpable, and compassionate facilitators will want to allow them to continue to talk — but don’t do it! If left unchecked, the entire group will check-out after a few sessions.
- Rephrasing the question and call on another person: “Does anyone else have thoughts on…”
- Refocusing by asking the Extremely Lonely Person to answer the question you’ve asked. “John, I was wonderingif you had thoughts about how we see this Sign of Life in our day-to-day lives.”
- Finding this person friends. While this may seem like an extreme reaction to a short-term problem during a small group session, it is not. If loneliness seems to be a persistent problem for multiple individuals in your parish, speak to your parish leadership about creating a group for these individuals so that they learn how to talk to each other and mutually support one another.
For some people, loneliness is a lifelong struggle, and our task as people who follow Jesus is to be compassionate for the lonely. However, this does not mean that this person should be allowed to override the conversation in your small group, because it will turn off all other participants to any small group activity and will likely alienate the individual further. Work with your parish leadership to find a better and lasting solution for your group and parish.
The Bible/Theology/Liturgical Know-It All:
Whether this person genuinely knows scripture, or only thinks that she does, this can wreak havoc in a scripture- based small group by monologing about scholarly debates. Knowledge is a good thing, but Episcopalians love to hide their heart behind their head, and this sort of conversation pulls us away from sharing our experiences. The purpose of small group ministry is to link our faith to our daily living and to open places of trust and vulnerability so that participants can see God working in their lives.
You can try:
- Relating the topic at hand back to everyday life: “Sarah, how does this passage speak to your situation rightnow?”
- Bringing it back to the heart: “How does it make you feel that Jesus promises to always be with us?”
- Gently reminding participants that this is not a bible or theology study: “That is an interesting summary of theOxford Movement, but we’re here to discuss how these signs of life are a part of our daily life and relationship with God.”
This person came the first week and then doesn’t show up for the next two weeks. Or says they can only come weeks three and four. Or really wants to come, but something keeps coming up. Unfortunately, having someone enter a short-term small group halfway through is disruptive. This may not be as disruptive if group members are already intimate with one another, but having people come in and out is a real group-killer. It doesn’t feel secure. As facilitator, you may have to have some tough conversations about accountability. Ideally, setting clear expectations for attendance will encourage individuals to commit more carefully next time.
- Set clear expectations from the very beginning. If an individual plans to miss more than two sessions, theyshould not sign up. Invite them to participate during the next round of small groups if timing is better andencourage them to participate in Signs of Life as an individual or in a forum setting.
- Stress at every session how important it is to show up for group time together, because small group is aboutbuilding relationships with one another so we can be in better relationship with God.
- Follow up with group members who were absent. There may be something happening in their lives that youdon’t know about and it may be an issue to refer to your parish’s pastoral care team.
Whether this person lost their loved one last week or twenty years ago, you may have someone who is having real difficulty grieving. Because grief is one of the most difficult and isolating of human experiences, it’s of utmost important to include this person in your group and to support him as he journeys through some of the hardest times of his life. At the same time, formational small group ministry is not therapy, and too much focus on any one person can entirely derail healthy small group dynamics.
- Directly acknowledging his grief. Whatever you do, do not pretend it does not exist or is too uncomfortableto talk about.
- If appropriate, gently refocusing the conversation: “Thank you for feeling safe enough to share. It’s alwayshard to lose someone you love. Can we all have a conversation about how we see signs of life even in the middle of loss?”
- Following up with him after the small group session or in between sessions. “Jim, it sounds like you’ve beenhaving a really hard time since you lost Patty. How are you doing?” and then actually listen. Sometimes justbeing listened to is an incredible relief.
- Ensuring that your clergy person knows that this person needs to have a pastoral conversation, or be referredto further resources or counseling. Your clergy may not be aware of the full situation. It is always appropriate to call in loving reinforcements when someone is hurting deeply.
To learn more about being a better friend to those who are grieving, we recommend:
- Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to those Who are Suffering (http://www.stephenministries.org/books/default.cfm/753) and other resources from Stephen Ministries
- There is No Good Card for This: What to do when Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love (https://www.amazon.com/There-No-Good-Card-This/dp/0062469991)
If Your Group is not Cohering:
Sometimes, for any variety of reasons, groups just don’t gel. Maybe the group doesn’t feel right, or you can’t get through the weekly lesson. As the facilitator, it can be easy to blame yourself, but it is just as likely to be a hang up in the group process. It takes extra work to find the root cause, but the result will be a better functioning group and participants who feel empowered to continue in small group ministry.
Here are some things you can try:
- If you are in the middle of your weekly meeting, take a 3-minute break. Get everyone up and moving. Usegroup stretching or even singing a simple hymn together can physically change the dynamics of a group.
- If the group dynamics feel off for more than one week, ask individual members you trust to give feedback. Commit to making the changes they suggest. Sometimes the correction is simple, like the group is constantlybeing interrupted by people walking past the room where you are meeting or the lights are buzzing.
- Go over group behavior expectations at the beginning of each session, and gently but firmly follow up with infractions. “Allie, we decided as a group that we would keep phones in our pockets. If it’s really important,could you please step out of the room?”
- Work together to create a new set of group expectations. Solicit feedback and create a rule of life tailored tothe needs of your specific community. Time spent creating community is never wasted, even if it means youdon’t move past the opening prayer in that week’s lesson.
- Engage more learning styles. Maybe you thought your group was going to be conversation based, but youmay determine you need to allow more time for other activities like journaling or creating art.
- Allow more space for silence. If no one is answering questions, you may just have a group of internal processors who simply need more time. Don’t fill the silence, let it grow until someone has something they would like to share.
Pastoral Care Emergencies:
Life happens. And sometimes it happens right before your small group session. Because pastoral care emergencies vary in size and scope, there really isn’t a script for this, except to let your heart and common sense rule. You might need to call your clergy person. You might need to send that person home with another group member. You might need to just throw out your curriculum and talk about what happened. You might need to bring the group together and just pray. Know that God is with you, and as long as you respond with kindness and faithfulness, your response will be enough.
Need more help?
- Learning to become a good facilitator takes time and practice, but most of all a facilitator needs to learn how to wield their authority as the group leader. This is more than an abstract concept; you are the one responsible for ensuring that everyone benefits from your small group time, not just the high-needs individuals.
There’s much more to say about small group ministry for parishes!
- Education for Ministry is a wonderful resource for creating and sustaining small group ministries in your parish. Based on a model of seminar, prayer and reflection, EfM groups are a balance of intellectual and prayerful work together. EfM mentors may be good resources for your small group leadership and former participants may become the backbone of your group. If you have a strongly academic group, you may suggest they look into EfM when this course is finished.
- Living Compass, offers short wellness courses for adults and teens on a variety of topics. Their courses offer specific ideas for the development of small group ministry. Your parish may already have a Living Compass trained Community Wellness Advocate. If your Lenten small group is successful, you might pursue further training through Living Compass.
- Sticky Church, by Larry Osborne, is an entire book dedicated to small group ministry. Aimed at a more evangelical audience than most Episcopal churches, Sticky Church contains valuable insights into how small groups function best.