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Navigating 5 Challenges of Small Group Leadership

Small groups are great. And then the people show up. It might not become apparent on that first, exciting night. But at some point, you will hit a wall of tensions and challenges that no amount of prayer, training, or biblical study can prepare you for. 

Small groups are great. And then the people show up. It might not become apparent on that first, exciting night. But at some point, you will hit a wall of tensions and challenges that no amount of prayer, training, or biblical study can prepare you for.

When you navigate the challenges well, you create a safe place for community and growth.

  • A safe place for struggling marriages.
  • For questioning millennials.
  • For exhausted parents.
  • For the successful business person who is facing his or her greatest career challenge.
  • The students doubting their faith.
  • The single mom who doesn’t know how to balance the kids and the job.
  • The adult who has always had faith figured out but is now deconstructing it.
  • For the brand-new follower of Jesus who is excited about everything and zealous to change the world but with no grounding in truth and lacking intact.

As a small group leader, you will face many challenges. Here are five of the most common.

1. The Expectation Challenge

There are as many reasons for joining a group as there are people in your living room.

  • Some participants are looking for a counseling group
  • Some are looking for their best girlfriends
  • Some are looking for other Bible scholars
  • Some are just looking for some time away from the kids
  • Some participants are looking for community while others are looking for discipleship

Naming and managing the expectations from the beginning is critical.

To navigate the expectation challenge, give voice to it on the first night. Ask everyone to share why they joined and what they hope to get out of it. Then, establish a set of shared expectations and values that will guide the group.

  • When will you meet?
  • What are your goals?
  • What preparation is expected of participants?
  • Will you value flexibility or punctuality?
  • Will you value being an open group (where others can join at any time) or predictability (where people know exactly who to expect on any given week)?
  • Will you value getting through the study material or getting the study material through you?

There are no right answers or wrong answers. The goal is clarity around shared expectations.

2. The Communication Challenge

Every group is filled with a range of talkers. There are fast talkers, long talkers, no talkers, off-topic talkers, hijackers, rabbit-chasers, complainers, and gossipers. It’s easy for the conversation to drift, to become divisive, to derail without strong leadership.

To navigate the minefield of communication challenges, determine some rules of engagement. What postures, tones, and attitudes will characterize your conversations? What words, phrases, and approaches are encouraged? What is discouraged or disallowed? Establishing rules of engagement brings freedom with healthy boundaries in order to create safe places for constructive conversation.

Some examples could include:

  • What is said in group stays in group.
  • Everyone participates.
  • We will ask clarifying questions.
  • We will validate the experiences and opinions of others.
  • We will lean in to listen.
  • We will not interrupt.
  • We will not ramble.
  • We will not gossip.

Again, there are no right or wrong rules of engagement. The goal is clarity and agreement.

3. The Chemistry Challenge

There are thinkers and feelers, extraverts and introverts, optimists and pessimists, athletes and artists, Republicans and Democrats, people who read Revelation literally, those who read it metaphorically, and those who don’t read it at all. And somehow they all find their way into your small group. Creating community with such varied and fascinating types can be difficult, but it can also provide a richer environment for learning and growth when they learn to lean into one another.

To navigate the chemistry challenge, allow space for people to be known and to belong. One way to do that is to ask people to share their stories or parts of their stories. Even thoughtful icebreakers can go a long way toward discovering strengths in the differences.

  • Share a hero, highlight, and hardship.
  • What accomplishment before the sixth grade were you most proud of?
  • How did your family celebrate holidays?
  • What was your high and low this week?
  • What is your earliest memory?

Creating community can be difficult, but it can begin by creating spaces to share stories.

4. The Leadership Challenge

Once you step into leadership, people think you are the expert.

  • The ultimate Bible scholar
  • The esteemed theologian
  • The counselor
  • The fervent intercessor
  • A great housekeeper with Martha Stewart hospitality gifts
  • Everyone’s friend
  • Always standing by and available
  • The perfect Christian with the Fruit of the Spirit abundant in your life.

But you didn’t sign up for any of that. You just signed up to lead a small group. Navigating the leadership challenge begins by taking the pressure off of yourself.

It continues by communicating clearly to your team that you are not the sage from the stage but the guide from the side. And that you feel perfectly comfortable not having all the answers and protecting healthy boundaries.

  • It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” and “What does everyone else think?”
  • It’s okay to say, “Let’s give that a week to think about.”
  • It’s okay to say “no.”

5. The Mess Challenge

Small groups are messy because they are about people taking their brokenness and baggage and dumping it in your living room. There are sin messes, relational messes, and everyday life messes.

  • Divorce
  • Job transitions
  • Lost pregnancies
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Near-death accidents
  • Deaths of parents and children
  • Someone who was once a small group leader walking away from the faith

Your job as a leader is not to fix the mess but to create a safe place for it to be brought to light and a nurturing place for growth and healing to happen. Messes are difficult, but they have the potential to take your group to greater levels of transparency, authenticity, and growth.

To navigate the mess challenge, enlist some help, advice, and coaching. Talk to a pastor, a small group pastor or coach, or a more seasoned leader who has experience that might be helpful.

Don’t try to be a savior or a therapist or hazardous waste manager or any other role outside your training. Instead, communicate unconditional love, be present, and look for opportunities for everyone to grow through it.

Some messes are problems to solve. Some messes are tensions to manage. All are incubators for miracles if we invite God’s presence into it and choose to be with people through the process.

The process of community formation and spiritual formation is not linear. It is two steps forward, on step back, and three steps sideways. It is filled with difficult questions, nagging doubts, and confusing experiences.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But it’s also the least interesting path. As a small group leader, don’t be intimidated by the challenges. Instead, recognize the opportunities they offer to make disciples and to grow yourself as a leader.

Read More: 5 Qualities of an Amazing Small Group Leader

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