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How to Navigate the “Other Side” of Small Groups

An exasperated small-group leader stopped me to chat. One of my best leaders, he was dedicated and prepared. He just wanted a quick fix to get his small group back on track.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he admitted. “One guy is totally disruptive every week, and nothing I try works. The other group members are frustrated, and some have even stopped coming. I don’t know what to do.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my first conversation that week about what I call the “other side” of small groups. Discussions can get derailed in so many ways, and leaders need to know how to regain control.

Watch out for these five challenges:

  1. Rabbit trails and talkers—Getting off-topic may lead to deeper discussions of the heart. But sometimes students talk just for the sake of blowing up small-group time. It takes some discernment to tell the difference. If you suspect the detour is leading to a worthwhile place that interests students, then go with it. But if certain stories or movie references aren’t relevant, don’t be afraid to shut them down. It’s okay to say, “I’d love to hear more about that, so let’s talk afterward.” Then follow up and let students share when small group is over. A good rule of thumb is to set aside five minutes at the start or end of group to just chat.
  2. The “one”—Some students tend to regularly take over the conversation, making themselves the center of attention. Maybe they’re being a clown, or maybe they just keep talking over everyone else. No matter the circumstance (or the person involved), offer a gentle reminder to let others share their input. It’s always okay to redirect a student and encourage others to talk. Simply say, “I love what you have to share. Now I’d like to hear from _______.”
  3. Train wrecks—One minute you’re discussing Colossians and the next a student blurts out a seemingly unconnected personal crisis. It might be intense, such as admitting they’re cutting, or it might be a passing comment about how Mom is always drunk. The room goes silent, and no one knows what to say. That’s a great time to stop, focus, care, and pray. Move off the agenda and let the person know they matter more than the program. Depending on the topic, you may need to follow up afterward and acknowledge what was said in the moment. However you handle the situation, make sure students know they’re loved. And one caveat: If this sort of off-topic admission happens often, with the same person, it may be time to re-direct some of that energy into off-line counseling, setting a boundary simply because of the frequency.
  4. Debates—Conversations in small group can certainly get heated, whether over issues of culture or theology. Remember that healthy conflict and respectful disagreements can lead to growth, as long as you filter opinion from truth. Jesus’ words are true, while our interpretation of how to live them out can be subjective. Gently point kids back to the actual words of Scripture, especially when they take them out of context. Also, it’s okay for students to explore new thoughts, as long as they don’t attack other people. Quash any hateful words, and let students know when they’re being thoughtless or rude.
  5. Apathy, attitudes, and general grumpiness—Though we may not always see it or know it, there’s always a reason behind someone’s sour mood. It could be school, health, home, insecurity, and so on. Never take a mood at face value. Pull students aside after small group and let them know you’re willing to listen if they need that.

Navigating all these areas takes maturity, depth, and prayer. Whether you’ve been a small-group leader for a week or for decades, at times you’ll be blindsided with the “other side” of small groups. Sometimes it’s okay if you don’t get back to the plan—or don’t get to the plan at all. Just sit back and let teenagers be teenagers for a night. Occasionally going off-topic can lead to valuable insights into your students’ lives and hearts.

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How to Navigate the “Other Side...

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