While every small group is unique, all small groups share similar challenges. Here are a few common situations with which facilitators should be aware and how to deal with them.
The Extreme External Processor
Some people talk in order to think. This in and of itself is fine! This behavior becomes rapidly not fine when this person dominates the conversation and is always steering the conversation in a personal direction. If left unchecked, other members of the group will disengage, and small group time will become a drag.
You can try:
Asking in general if someone who hasn’t spoken would like to. “Would anyone who hasn’t spoken yet like to add something?”
Calling on individuals who have not been able to get a word in edgewise. “Sam, you look like you’re trying to say something.” Of course, it is always appropriate for someone to pass when invited to speak.
Politely telling that individual to shut up! “Scott, you’ve had lots of opportunities to talk about your thoughts. I would like to be sure others have a chance to speak.”
If this seems to be an ongoing, group-wide problem, it might be helpful to add to the group norms. “If you always speak first, count to three before speaking. If you never speak first, don’t stop to count!”
If the problem persists, the facilitator might arrange for a private conversation with the individual to explore ways the person can remain fully engaged while affording that privilege to others.
The Extreme Internal Processor
This is the person who comes faithfully to the group, seems to be thinking deeply about the conversation, but won’t share her thoughts spontaneously. She doesn’t seem willing to jump into the fray, and would never interrupt another person who is talking.
You can try:
Opening the space for internal processors. “Does anyone want to share who hasn’t shared yet?”
Specifically inviting that person to speak. “Christine, you seem to be thinking about something. Would you like to share?”
A group activity that provides time to think before sharing out loud may provide the opportunity for internal processors time to gather their thoughts and be on equal footing with the external processors. “We’re going to take a few minutes and explore this topic in pairs. Take a moment to think about what you want to say. Then turn to your neighbor; each of you will take 3 minutes to share your reflections.”
The Extremely Lonely Person
This is the person who is so relieved to be listened to by other humans that he dominates the conversation, often to the detriment of the group. This person often turns the conversation to his favorite topic, which is not usually the subject at hand. The loneliness is palpable, and compassionate facilitators will want to allow them to continue to talk – but don’t do it! If left unchecked, the entire group will check-out after a few sessions.
You can try:
Rephrasing the question and call on another person. “Does anyone else have thoughts on…”
Refocusing by asking the Extremely Lonely Person to answer the question you’ve asked. “John, I was wondering if you had thoughts about how we meet Jesus in our day-to-day lives.”
Finding this person friends! While this may seem like an extreme problem for multiple individuals in your parish, speak to your parish leadership about creating a group for these individuals so that they learn how to talk to each other and mutually support one another.
For some people, loneliness is a lifelong struggle, and our task as people who follow Jesus is to be compassionate for the lonely. However, this does not mean that this person should be allowed to run amok in your small group, because it will turn off all other participants to any small group activity and will likely alienate the individual further. Work with your parish leadership to find a better and lasting solution for your group and parish.
The Bible Know-It-All
Every church has one! Whether this person genuinely knows scripture, or only thinks that she does, this can wreak havoc in a scripture-based small group by creating monologues about scholarly debates on authorship, arcane questions of biblical languages, or textual criticism. Knowledge and love of scripture is a good thing, but Episcopalians love to hide their heard behind their head, and this sort of conversation pulls us away from sharing our experiences. The purpose of small group ministry is to link scripture to our daily living and to open places of trust and vulnerability so that participants can see God working in their lives. This cannot happen if the group is arguing about whether John the Evangelist was also the author of the Johannine Epistles.
You can try:
Relating the topic at hand back to everyday life. “Sarah, how does this passage speak to your situation right now?”
Bringing it back to the heart. “How does it make you feel that Jesus promises to always be with us?”
Gently reminding participants that this is not a Bible study. “That’s an interesting summary of the Arian controversy, but we’re here to figure out what it means for our own lives that Jesus and the Father are in a close relationship, since we are called to follow Jesus.”
This person came the first week and then doesn’t show up for the next two weeks. Or says they can only come weeks three and four. Or really wants to come, but something keeps coming up. Unfortunately, having someone enter a short-term small group halfway through is disruptive. This may not be as disruptive if group members are already intimate with one another, but having people come in and out is a real group-killer. It doesn’t feel secure. As a facilitator, you may have to have some tough conversations about accountability. Ideally, setting clear expectations for attendance will encourage individuals to commit more carefully next time and bring vitality to the whole congregation.
You can try:
Setting clear expectations from the very beginning. If an individual plans to miss more than two sessions, they should not sign up. Invite them to participate during the next round of small groups if timing is better and encourage them to participate in Meeting Jesus as an individual.
Stressing at every session how important it is to show up for group time together, because small group is about building relationships with one another so we can be in better relationship with God.
Following up with group members who were absent. There may be something happening in their lives that you don’t know about and it may be an issue to refer to your parish’s pastoral care team.
Whether this person lost their loved one last week or twenty years ago, you may have someone who is having real difficulty grieving, because grief is one of the most difficult and isolating of human experiences. It’s of utmost important to include this person in your group and to support his as he journeys through some of the hardest times of his life. At the same time, formational small group ministry is not therapy, and too much focus on any one person can entirely derail healthy small group dynamics.
You can try:
Directly acknowledging his grief. Whatever you do, do not pretend it does not exist or is too uncomfortable to talk about.
If appropriate, gently refocusing the conversation. “Thank you for feeling safe enough to share. It’s always hard to lose someone you love. Can we all have a conversation about how we meet Jesus even in the middle of loss?”
Following up with him after the small group session or in between sessions. “Jim, it sounds like you’ve been having a really hard time since you lost Patty. How are you doing?” and then actually listen. Sometimes just being listened to is an incredible relief.
Ensuring that your clergy person knows that this person needs to have a pastoral conversation, or be referred to further resources or counseling. Your clergy may not be aware of the full situation. It is always appropriate to call in loving reinforcements when someone is hurting deeply.
To learn more about being a better friend to those who are grieving, we recommend:
Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to those Who are Suffering and other resources from Stephens Ministries.
If Your Group is not Cohering
Sometimes, for any variety of reasons, groups just don’t gel. Maybe the group doesn’t feel right, or you can’t get through the weekly lesson. As the facilitator, it can be easy to blame yourself, but it is just as likely to be a hang up in the group process. It takes extra work to find the root cause, but the result will be a better functioning group and participant who feel empowered to continue in small group ministry.
Here are some things you can try:
First, have a conversation with your host. There are two leaders for each group not only to split the load, but also to share leadership. The group host has a different perspective and may be able to see group dynamics that the facilitator cannot.
If you are in the middle of your weekly session, take a 3-minute break. Get everyone up and moving. Use group stretching or even singing a simple hymn together, this can physically change the dynamics of a group.
If the group dynamics feel off for more than one week, ask individual members you trust to give feedback. Commit to making the changes they suggest. Sometimes the correction is simple, like the group is constantly being interrupted by people walking through the meeting area or the lights are buzzing.
Go over group behavior expectations at the beginning of each session, and gently but firmly follow up with infractions. “Allie, we decided as a group that we would keep phones in our pockets. If it’s really important, could you please step out of the room?”
Work together to create a new set of group expectations. Solicit feedback and create a rule of life tailored to your specific community. Time spend creating community is never wasted, even if it means you don’t move past the opening prayer in that week’s lesson.
Engage more learning styles. Maybe you thought your group was going to be conversation based, but you may determine you need to allow for time for reflective, experiential activities like journaling or creating art. Look into the other options provided in the curriculum or other types of curricula provided, like the multi-parish, young adult or older adult modules. Who knows, maybe your Boomers would really love an activity designed for teens!
Allow more space for silence. If no one is answering questions, you may just have a group of internal processors who simply need more time. Don’t fill the silence, let it grow until someone has something they would like to share.
Pastoral Care Emergencies
Life happens. And sometimes it happens right before your small group session. Because pastoral care emergencies vary in size and scope, there really isn’t a script for this one, except to let your heart and common sense rule. You might need to call your clergy person. You might need to sent that person home with another group member. You might need to just throw out your curriculum and talk about what happened. You might need to bring the group together and simply pray. Know that God is with you, and as long as you respond with kindness and faithfulness, your response will be enough.
Learning to become a good facilitator takes time and practice, but most of all a facilitator needs to learn how to wield their authority as the group leader. This is more than an abstract concept; you are the one responsible for ensuring that everyone benefits from your small group time, not just the high-needs individuals.