Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part II

Here is a link to a post where I explain why I believe small group leaders should often resist the urge to offer up answers to questions that can be seen as tough. If we’re not answering questions, the natural question is this: Just what should a small group leader do when tough questions arise…
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. But realize that you have a wide number of options open to you. Consider these:
#1) Pray Do it right there on the spot. But pray for real: it’s such a tempting thing in these circumstances to use prayer as a soap box to broadcast what you really think is the answer. While giving the appearance of prayer. This is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons, of course.

#2) Know how your church leadership would like you to do with tough questions before you get to them. You will get questions that are hard to answer. If your Small Group Pastor, Director, or Coach hasn’t given you some direction in this area already, you’d be wise to seek some direction out.
There are several different layers of support you should ask for.
A) If you have good reasons to expect a certain question will come up, you might ask for the specific response leadership would like you to give.
B) If you feel over your head, you ought to ask for a contact person for you to go to with questions and concerns.
C) You might ask for go-to people and useful resources that you can direct questioners to within the church.

#3) Validate the importance of the question O.K. Most of us are probably sick of hearing about active listening, the importance of restating what we hear, and all those related skills. But the truth is, the reason that so much is made out of these is because they are so very import. It’s likely that the person asking is nervous about the question they are asking; they probably know that it is a good/tough question. You response will create a community that feels safe in asking these questions. A few specific ways to validate the importance of the question:
A) Emphasize with the aspects of the question that you also struggle with.
B) Comment on the importance of the question. What are the stakes of choosing right or choosing wrong in this case.
C) Thank the questioner for their courage in asking the tough questions.

#4) Pass the buck to somebody else. Many of us rarely tap into the power we have when leading a discussion. The ability to ask a specific person who might be gifted and wise in a certain area is tremendous. If the question is one which requires a sensetive response, ask a sensetive person if they have any suggestions. If it’s a complex theological issue turn to your resident theologion. A variety of things are accomplished through this technique. First, you demonstrate your faith in the other members of the group. Secondly, you avoid positioning yourself as the dispenser of wisdom. Thirdly, you put the question in the best hands within your group… Or perhaps outside of your group. Perhaps you can suggest that the questioner brings the question to someone outside the group who you know is well-suited to answer it. Maybe you’ll ask for permission yourself to bring it to someone. If nothing else, asking the group for counsel, asking them if they know anyone with the right kind of discernment for the issue at hand is always an option.

#5 Engage in a content-to-process shift. The content of a question is the meaning of the question itself. The process is the question of how the question is formed, and why the person is asking it. A content-to-process shift is a way to change the focus of ourselves and our group.
Ordinarily we focus on the words people say. Sometimes, though, what someone says is not so important as why they say a thing. This is often the case with questions.
A person who questions the reliability of scripture might in fact really want to know if God is trustworthy. If it appears that a person is wrestling with a certain aspect of God, it might be the case that the person is really wrestling with this aspect of themselves. A person who asks why the pastor did such-and-such might really be asking if the pastor is a good person.
Sometimes the questioner might be aware of the thing they want to ask. Other times they may not. Either way, the tricky part of a content-to-process shift is to go about it in a way that does not look like you are condescending to the questioner.
I find it helpful to go about this in the form of a question; when possible I draw a connection between myself and the other person by saying things like “You know, sometimes when I ask those sorts of questions, I eventually find out that the real question I’m not letting myself ask is (fill in the blank) I wonder if that’s the case with you.” Or I might say “I notice that you’ve got lots of questions about (whatever it is) I wonder what makes you so curious about that.”
There are times that this might not be helpful. There are times that people mean what they say and say what they mean. If this is the case, a content-to-process shift won’t generally accomplish much.

#6 Make a plan Often times whatever words you or others might offer won’t change much, no matter how well-intentioned or wise they are. There all sorts of things that a group can plan to do to help resolve questions. After making these plans, a plan to revisit the issue (perhaps at the next group meeting) would be wise.
A) Plan to pray over the issue, perhaps each day.
B) Plan to think it over and communicate through out the week.
C)Plan to seek out counsel from others outside the group.
D) Plan to utilize resources such as condordances and the internet to research scriptural perspectives on the topic.


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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.

4 thoughts on “Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part II”

  1. #7: Study the crap out of the first 6 things on this list and have them readily available in your considerable memory.

    What the heck, Jeff? How am i supposed to remember all that? Do you have any idea what sort of minds the rest of us have? i’ll be fortunate to recognize that it’s a question at all; never mind the psychological scrutiny.

    Seriously, i appreciate your insights. Good stuff, cheap


  2. 1 and 5 are HUGE!!!!! All this came to a head last night. It was awesome, authentic, and shock the spiritual cliches out of us! Some serious pray had to take place, answers (and everyone has some great ones) were just not the only thing that could break our struggles. Keep the wisdom flowing my brother!


  3. My thanks to both of you for your ongoing encouragement. It was so funny, Steve (or maybe it was just God.) I posted the first part of this, and I was asking myself “Is there any point to writing this much? Is anybody going to read it?” and then, before I even got around to putting the finishing touches on Part II, your comments were there.
    “Outnumbered by 5” (Do you use your real name on the web? I always wonder what you’d like to be called in cyberspace.) I think you’re exactly right to notice that we can never memorize everything… Of course, nobody is going to sit around and say “Well, it’s time to employ strategy #3 of Jeffs, now.”
    The truth is that most of us practice most of the stuff with some consistency. In the course of my teacher training I came across the process-to-content shift stuff. I’d seen people do it, had done it with myself, but I’d never really identified what it was that was going on.
    Having a name for stuff, listing it out like this, can be helpful only in that it’s a way to draw attention to these practices, to perhaps be a bit more intentional, specific, and consistent on them.
    As the writer, it’s also a way to set the bar high for myself a bit. By challenging all the other small group leaders to do these things I’m really forcing myself to practice them as much as I should, too. One part of my motivation in listing them out this way is simply to prevent me from resting on my own laurels. When I’m tempted to take the easy (though not necessarily better) way out of a dilemna, the fact that I’ve written about them kind-of robs me of that cheap, easy fix. I think to myself “Man, if I’m expecting everybody else to do this, how can I not do it?”


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