Tip for starting small group #4: Patience

Patience is required for small group leaders on two different levels.  Call it big-picture patience and little picture patience.

Big-picture patience is trusting in God over a period of weeks or months.  There are several areas that this can be hard.  One is in the area of the size of the group.

When it becomes time to sign the covenants it’s easy to think that the size of the group is pretty much set.  It’s easy to believe that the faces you’re looking at are the core of the group.

What I’ve seen is that this is not often the case.   Virtually every small group has grown considerably after the signing of the covenants.  Some have undergone considerable evolution after the signing of the covenants.

There were weeks that it felt like I was spinning my wheels.  Times I’d prepared and struggled and it turned out hardly anybody was showing up.  I was reassured to hear that a small group leader whom I respect a lot, in a similar situation, starting throwing stuff around in frustration.  It was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone.

In these situations, when it seems like it’s going to be hardly anybody, the temptation will be to cancel.  I am increasingly convinced that this is the worst decision a small group leader can make.

Some of these nights that I walk in frustrated that there’s hardly anybody showing up have turned out to be the best nights I’ve had.  Occasionally, folks who think about not showing actually turn up.  (That’s what happened wih the above-mentioned leader: nearly everybody ended up showing up after all) 

More frequently, these nights take on a casual, even intimate flavor that larger groups don’t afford.  Sometimes I wonder if God watches us cancel small group, frustrated.  I picture him saying “The knucklehead!  I engineer this perfect opportunity for close fellowship– just the leaders and one other couple– and they threw it all away because nobody else was going to show.”

I think it’s also important to continue to meet even with mediocre turn out because it sets a precedent, even an expectation.  I’m not saying that we should expect 100% attendance from anybody.  But I am saying that human nature works such that sometimes we fabricate excuses not to show up: I can’t count the number of times that I have not particularly wanted to go to small group and I have ended up so very thankful that I did, as I look back on it.  If this is true of me, the small groups guy, how much more true will it be of somebody who’s just started going!

Meeting regardless of attendance means rewarding those who always show up for their ongoing commitment.  It helps everybody stay in the habbit of meeting together, which is what Paul told us to do.

In a subtle way, it kind-of raises the bar, too.  If I don’t show up on a given week but the whole group cancels, I can think “Well, that worked out for the best.  Nobody really wanted to meet.”  Then, a week or two later, when another reason not to show up rears its ugly head (and we all know that they will!) if I don’t show up, in my own brain at least, I don’t really think in terms of having blow off small group twice in a row.  I can rationalize that the first time wasn’t really my decision, my fault, my responsibility.  And in a certain sense, this rationalization is true… however, if I hadn’t decided not to show, the small group most likely would have met, whether I realize it or not.

The truth is that it takes a certain brand of stubborn determination to meet consistently.  Especially early on.  Eventually it becomes a habbit, it becomes easier.  Easier… but it’s never easy.

 Little picture patience is trusting God for a few moments.  Perhaps you’ve asked for volunteers to share in some aspect of leadership.  Maybe you’ve thrown out a discussion question.  The silence can seem deafening.

As the leader it’s easy to feel personally responsible for that silence… Like it’s my problem to fix by filling.

The truth is, that everyone in a group shares responsibility for the silence.  Everyone bares a burden for filling it.  I say frequently– though probably not enough– that the leader ought to talk LESS than everybody else.  This means that sometimes there will be silences that somebody else will have to fill.

One of the best reasons to have others lead discussions is that standing outside of this role, you can learn a lot.  When I was recently sitting back and listening to someone else lead a discussion, I was interested to notice that I didn’t hold her responsible for the silences, when I was a participant.  I felt like the silences belonged to all of us.

This was a marked contrast to my experience as a discussion leader.

The truth is that even if others do hold us responsible for the silences, even if people don’t like them, this doesn’t change much.  Silences can be powerful.  Sometimes that’s the only time we hear God speaking to us, is in those silences.  Sometimes we run away from silences for this very reason.

Because it’s no fun to spend an evening in a conversation that  is punctuated by numerous awkward silences, this might be a good thing for folks to experience.  It might lead them to question themselves, to wonder why there are these silences.

Perhaps as good leaders we can even call this for what it is.  What would happen if, when a silence erupted, we didn’t give up on the silence.  What would happen if we didn’t find a way to express the answer we were looking for.  What would happen if we said something like “Nobody is answering much tonight.”  or “That’s a long, awkward silence.  Does anybody have any thoughts about why that question was is so hard to answer?”

Big-picture or little-picture patience can be taken too far.  There’s a point at which it is simple foolishness, even insanity, to expect things to change if we keep doing things in the same way.

Patience is only a virtue if we’re doing everything we can.  Sometimes people aren’t showing up because we haven’t created an irresistable environment.  In fact, almost by definition, if they are not showing up, we haven’t created an irrestible environment.  Sometimes the silence comes from people feeling unsafe to answer or simply confused by the question.  

It’s so hard to find the line… I don’t have a hard and fast rule… But Jesus’ illustrations, as always, help.

He so often spoke about growing plants.  This is such a great image because a gardener doesn’t actually grow the plants.  God does.  A gardener creates an environment that fosters growth if he is good at what he does.  If he’s not so good, the environment isn’t either.

Small group leaders are gardeners.  They create an environment that fosters growth.  Growth always takes time.  Seasons in our souls are not like seasons for a plant.  They aren’t measurable by a calendar. 

Ultimately, a good gardener will know he’s on the right track because he’s reaping one harvest after another.  As brutal a bottom line as this is, a small group leader knows he’s on the  right track in exactly the same way:  S/He experiences the harvest of watching people grow in Christ.  Not growth that they are responsible for, simply growth that they created an environment for.

Good gardeners occasionally have bad luck.  Bad gardeners occasionally have good luck.  The good news is that none of us is stuck.  None of us are hopeless.  We can always get better.  It’s just a matter of balancing patience with realism. 



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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

3 thoughts on “Tip for starting small group #4: Patience”

  1. Thanks for asking. We sign covenants in our own blood and then go slaughter a puppy.
    Just kidding.
    Actually, the way we do small groups works like this:
    Groups begin in an open phase, and after about two months members sign a covenant. I’ve been mulling over ways to make covenants more flexible and group-specific, but right now, it is a 1-page document that expresses values like confidentiality, commitment to attendance, etc. With the signing of the covenant a group enters the covenanted phase. At this point, people aren’t welcome to randomly stop in any more: members have a bit of a warning.
    I know how all this sounds. I go into an explanation here if you’re interested.
    I’d love to hear about what your small group is doing and how it goes.


  2. Ooops! I put the link above in the wrong sentence. Click on that final blue sentence if you’d like to see the post where I explain covenants, multiplication, and the rest of the nitty gritty.


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