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How to Embrace the Diverse Personalities in Small Groups

Every small group has some genuinely quirky personalities. I know because I’ve been one of them. In high school, I accepted a friend’s invitation to his youth group. Then he wanted me to check out his small group. Each member had a perceptibly unique influence on the conversation about God and life, but somehow the diversity worked.

For my part, I simply liked fitting in somewhere. It didn’t matter that we were all in different social circles at school. In the small group, we shared the common ground of discovering more about Jesus and ourselves.

Fast-forward years later, and I’ve led discussions in multiple small groups characterized by wide diversity. As I’m sure you’ve discovered:

Jesus has a way of accomplishing enormous things in each group, no matter what the individual members are like.

Here how “the usual suspects” in most small groups impact the life of the group, and how you can be proactive in the way you lead, given their eccentricities:

The Dominator:

These students manage to always be the center of attention. It might be a star pupil who enjoys answering questions or a comedian who keeps everyone laughing. Dominators can add life to the group, provided that other students don’t become just an audience.

  • Tip: Develop a one-on-one relationship with this student. The investment you make behind the scenes can nurture trust and teamwork, allowing this individual to contribute to the group. You may want to let a Dominator lead question time, for example.

The Spectator:

These people usually give minimal responses, even to direct questions. Their quietness might result from profound boredom, intense interest, introversion, high intellect, or insecurity about communicating. Although Spectators may seem more like ornaments than rooted members, their presence adds a crucial ingredient in the “recipe” of the group.

  • Tip: Pass out paper and pencils, then ask kids to write their responses to certain questions. Then invite everyone (including the Spectators) to share what they wrote.

The Gladiator:

This scowling teenager always seems to be at odds with someone else. The Gladiator’s fiery attitude may trace back to something that happened in your group, at home, or at school. The challenge is to not let the tension overtake the group.

  • Tip: Remind any teenagers who are frustrated with this person that Jesus receives us as we are and leads us to transformation. Intentionally sit next to a Gladiator, and privately ask any group members who are at odds with him or her to sit farther away. (Ideally, avoid having the two people sit across from each other; the stares can increase tension.)

The Manager:

Managers hate conflict and will do everything possible to avoid negative comments in the group. That means editing or repackaging people’s tougher comments, which can create feelings of resentment and eventually a reluctance to share.

  • Tip: Outside the group, affirm this person’s sensitivity to conflict and other people’s feelings. Assure the Manager that awkwardness is okay, especially if it leads to breakthroughs. If tension arises during group time, commit to join in silent prayer together (perhaps with a secret head nod). That way the Manager can be part of the solution without taking over.

The Worker:

These idealists are always looking for something to do. They’d rather accomplish “real” work than just have a discussion. A Worker might guilt the rest of the group into performing service projects at the expense of a study, for example.

  • Tip: Because Workers will light up when you mention a project or event, hand over the planning to them. Give Workers the responsibility of developing a special project you can do together every month or two. Knowing that’s ahead will help soften their resistance to group discussions.

The Terminator:

Some people feel the need to douse any iota of optimism, enthusiasm, or faith with excessive realism. Terminators will quickly list 10 reasons why something won’t work, but often their body language alone says it all.

  • Tip: A Terminator can identify real problems that need to be solved. Before the group studies something controversial or plans a big event, ask this person for a list of things to be aware of. Then be sure to cover those topics as a group.

The Poser:

For an Actor, the entire world’s a stage, so you can’t tell from one moment to the next if you’re getting the genuine version. Maybe something unique is at play; for example, you’re friends with the teenager’s parents and he or she fears you’ll say something to them.

  • Tip: Introduce a journal system so students can write their private thoughts after each small-group meeting. Assure them the journals will remain private and are just a way to wrestle with thoughts and beliefs.

Not every small group includes all of these personalities. And some teenagers may play more than one role. It’s tempting to react against each person’s negative contribution to the small group, so regularly remind yourself of each trait’s advantages.

The point isn’t to label kids, but to learn about them and be more proactive in leading them. By understanding each person, you can guide the entire group into a better understanding of themselves, other people, and Jesus. No matter which characters show up for your small group, Jesus is an artist, and he loves working with diverse “raw materials” as he creates a uniquely vibrant environment.

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How to Embrace the Diverse Personalit...

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