Leading Small Groups Out of a Rut, Part 2
By Dr. Bill Donahue
April 25, 2012
The most challenging small group is the stuck-in-a-rut group. It is not growing, and it is not dying. You can feel it at the meetings, observe it in the relationships and sense it in the leader. There’s some Bible reading and discussion, some sharing and socializing. But one week leads to another and nothing changes. There are no emotional highs and few depressing lows. It feels flat.
Though things are not going poorly, there is nothing really great happening either. The group is stuck. But why? What are the potential causes?
There could be many factors involved, but over the next few weeks, we will take a look at some of the most common. Last week, we looked at how lack of cohesion impacts a group. This week, we discuss drift, complacency and fatigue.
When I was a young teenager, two friends and I rented a small boat with a nominal 15-horsepower engine and headed to a good fishing spot in the bay at Ocean City, N.J. We cut the engine and dropped anchor but caught nothing. Taking advantage of the shifting tides, we decided to weigh anchor and troll, drifting along with the current, engine off, hoping for a flounder dinner.
Unawares, we drifted toward the open sea where a storm was brewing off the coast. But we were oblivious to the danger, our backs turned toward the ocean as we focused on catching fish. Suddenly, a dark shadow passed overhead. We gazed upward as we drifted under the bay bridge, the last landmark that separated our fledgling boat from the Atlantic Ocean. Panic struck. We started the engine (after five pulls on the cord!) and, with just enough horsepower to battle the tide, turned and headed safely back to the dock.
A few more minutes and we would have been swept out to sea. Not good in those pre-cell phone days. Drifting can be deadly.
Another reason groups get stuck is, over time, groups and church leaders lose their focus. They start with clarity and intention, but then everyone just gets busy and distracted. Slowly they drift off course, a few degrees every month, until one day they are sitting in a circle asking, “How did we get here?”
Here are three kinds of drift common to group life:Vision drift. Vision drift occurs when the focus becomes more about the meetings than building community. Your groups should understand what community is and why relationships are essential to growth and mission. You also need to make sure you have clearly formulated the theological basis for community in your church. Having that foundation makes the purpose of groups more spiritual than strategic. Plus, it helps you discern if your ministry structure is program-driven or rooted in biblical wisdom. Additionally, you must ask yourself if your small group ministry’s communication—verbal and written—is clearly tied to Christ’s teaching, vision and practice concerning community. Finally, figure out how your key leaders respond when faced with energy-sapping obstacles. Do they respond with external motivation or internal passion fueled by a love for community?
Strategy drift. Once the vision and values of community are taught and embraced, it’s easy to think everyone “gets it.” Which means it’s extremely easy to coast into ambivalence and apathy. In order to avoid that temptation, you need to be clear on your overall strategy as a church—and how small groups fit into that vision. Then, with that as a baseline, make sure your other ministries are aligned to your strategy for group life. Finally, ensure your groups can be characterized as loving communities for people to grow in their spiritual journey and personal impact and that each group is creating pathways for the unconnected to find meaningful relationships.
Personal drift. We can also lose our personal connection to Jesus, the vine. We, as leaders, need renewal and restoration. So be honest and ask yourself some questions:
Am I experiencing the life I am inviting others into so I lead out of who I am becoming rather than what I should be doing?
Am I finding places for spiritual and emotional renewal and for physical recreation?
How is my personal connection in community? Am I modeling the life-to-life connection I envision for others?
Where are my stories of life change coming from, and how current are they?
COMPLACENCY and FATIGUE
Complacency usually sets in when we are exhausted, depressed or disillusioned. Our uncertainty about our effectiveness, the apparent lack of growth in people we are leading or simply the weariness that comes from too much time spent in emotional or spiritual battles leads to a general malaise.
Leaders need a short retreat to get away and refocus, re-energize and reconnect with God. Get around some mentors and others who have come through this phase. Remember the stories of life-change you have seen, and trust God is still in the transformation business. Believe there really is a promised land on the other side of the wilderness. But whatever you do, fight complacency—or you will stay firmly entrenched in the rut.
Check back for more on how transition and legalism affect small groups. This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.