Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part I

Consider the words “good” and the words “tough.”
There are some things which are either one or the other. Steak for example, is either good or tough. Generally it can’t be both.
There are other things which are good because they were tough. I remember a class my senior year of high school on American Government. I worked harder in that class than I ever did in college or graduate school. That class was good because it was tough. I might not have realized it back then. But I do now: that class was good because it was tough.
The words “good” and “tough” can also be applied to a question. We can say “That’s a good question” or “That’s a tough question.”
There are interesting similarities and differences between the questions we classify as “good” and the questions we classify as “tough.” Both types of questions don’t have easy answers. Both types of questions indicate that the questioner has thought it out.
But there are differences. I’m quite likely to tell my kids that they’ve asked a “good” question if I’m comfortable with the idea I don’t know the answer. I’m much more likely to tell a small group member that they are asking a “tough” question if I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I don’t know the answer.
That’s a surprising realization for me: the difference between a “good” and a “tough” question is not in the question itself. It’s not in the person asking the question. It’s in me: my expecations of what I think I’m supposed to know. Or maybe it’s in my fears that I’m going to expose to others what I don’t know. Most likely it’s in both.
There is a level on which this is not good.
The power of a small group is in the process of uncovering truth together. The Holy Spirit does not only work within us. He also works among us, between us.
It is not practical to expect that most small group leads have received thorough, seminary-level training. We should not act like the answer man (or woman) for a variety of reasons.
Wise people who have had the luxury of years of formal religious education struggle with providing the right answer to good (tough) questions. This does not mean that we leaders should not attempt to answer questions.
But it does mean that we should not position ourselves as the dispensor of knowledge. This can be hard. Others might want us to be in this position. It can be enjoyable to be placed in this position. Like many enjoyable things, though, it’s not healthy for us, and it’s not healthy for our members.
Questions begin to look like good ones, and not tough ones, when we recognize that we are not responsible for answering them.
But reframing the questions doesn’t make them go away. As leaders, we don’t need to give verbal answers to good (or tough) questions. But just because we’re not giving the answers, this does not mean that we shouldn’t do anything.
If we are passive, as small group leaders, and do nothing, when people pose tough questions several unfortunate results can occur. The first is that members get a sense that there is no point to asking these questions, that no answer will get found. The second is that we appear to be passive, weak leaders. The third is that unhealthy, unhelpful answers can appear.
Let’s make this concrete.
Suppose that someone in your small group asks about the nature of hell. Our first instinct is to approach this as a tough question. Even if we’re clear in our own hearts about the answer to this question, these answers aren’t easy or popular. It’s easy to feel like as the leader we ought to have some sort of easily accepted, pat explanation. But the truth is, it’s a mistake for the leader to always present herself (or himself) as the teacher.
It’s also a mistake for the leader to do nothing.
If we are passive and silent, some members might attempt to do their best. You probably have somebody in your small group who reads theology books for fun. Perhaps he is not the most sensetive person. If there is a silence, a vaccuum, he’s likely to chime in with some very blunt assertions. Perhaps they will be doctrinally correct. But they are also likely to be divisive, and perhaps even insensitive.
On the other hand, maybe that mellow person who’s sampled other religions will respond to the questions about Hell. Perhaps this person will make statements that are easy to swallow, but out of sync with your understanding of scripture and the church’s doctrine.

It’s easy at this point, to wonder: Just what should a leader do? If he shouldn’t always answer the question head-on, and he shouldn’t sit back and be passive, what else is there!?!?
The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all, easy answer. There will be times that you will do too much. There will be times that you won’t do enough. Despite appearances, though, there is a pretty wide menu of options available to a leader that don’t involve directly answering the question at hand. I’ll suggest a few of these in my next post.


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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 “Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part I”

  1. that’s a good discussion on a tough issue. I think I’ve experience all of those scenarios myself, from not answering the question at hand to just answering it in a way that sounds as if there’s no other possible way to understand it. I enjoy throwing out some answers and share how some of them are more valid than others and then ask them which one they believe in and why or is there another answer that I have yet to explore. Sometimes I’ve just asked them what they thought initially, but some are timid thinking they’ll say the wrong thing, some offer their thoughts which often times I’ve never thought of it that way before and they help fill the pieces of my biblical worldview, but certainly avoiding the questions has been the worse of options to follow.


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