By Ben and Lynley Mandrell
John and Lisa were excited about their new small group. Their first session was off to a stellar start. People were chatting, the room was buzzing with positive vibes, and the food was a hit.
As John called the room to attention, he took a moment for introductions and then asked each person to share one genuine prayer request. He urged the group to “start with sincerity” and to share from the heart.
The exercise began healthy and strong, but when it came time for Joe to share, he took the opportunity to criticize his ex-wife in the harshest way. John desperately waited for a moment to interrupt, but Joe was already deep into his rant.
As a leader of small groups, has a situation like this ever happened to you? Leading an effective group is no easy task, but it’s vital to the health of the church.
In leading two churches over the last 17 years, and working closely with ministry leaders, we’ve observed what makes for a dynamic group, and what makes for a dud of a group.
These principles apply to small groups, Sunday School classes, and student or kids ministries.
One of our favorite leadership maxims is this: Culture is created by the positive behaviors we celebrate, and the negative behaviors we tolerate.
If you want people to attend your ministry, you must give a great deal of attention to the culture. Here are two things that will destroy the culture of your group if you don’t pay attention to them.
1. Loose speech
Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21), and where words are many, sin is not absent (Proverbs 10:19).
The Bible is filled with more verses like these about the destructive nature of speech. And the group leader has to be the one who will call a foul.
Here are two categories of speech we’d like to discuss: gossip and flattery.
Gossip is saying behind someone’s back what you’d never say to their face. Flattery is saying to their face what you’d never say behind their back.
[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Gossip is saying behind someone’s back what you’d never say to their face. Flattery is saying to their face what you’d never say behind their back.[/epq-quote]Both gossip and flattery are community killers. They’ll quench the Holy Spirit’s work in a millisecond.
Proverbs 6 describes seven things God hates. The list culminates with this: one who sows discord among the brethren. Another way to say it: one who stirs up conflict in a community.
The way you speak when people are in the room and when they aren’t in the room will set the tone for your group ministry.
As people get to know one another in group life they can see the flaws in one another. We all have blind spots when it comes to our own sin.
Christian brothers and sisters are supposed to speak only what is helpful in building others up.
If there are people in your group, in your class, or in your ministry who exhibit a pattern of talking behind others’ backs, you’ll have to put a stop to it.
One of the hardest and least pleasant acts of leadership is confrontation—even when it’s done in love.
Flattery can also be a problem in group life. After a class, for example, one class member might say to another: “That breakfast casserole you brought today was delicious. I really hope you’ll send out the recipe.”
Then as soon as the person offering the compliment reaches the car, they let their spouse know how bland and soggy that breakfast was. This may seem like a silly example, but it’s a common experience in the church.
Pay attention to the empty compliments shared in your group.
Monitor yourself: Be sure that you, the leader, are speaking in a godly way, with complete sincerity to the members of your group. And be careful about the way you speak of them privately in your home.
I once heard a retired, respected pastor—with tears in his eyes—share that one of his children had walked away from the church with deep resentment and anger.
“My wife and I, after long days in ministry, would come home and speak ill of the saints within the privacy of our house,” he said.
“We needed a place to process our emotions, but we were not careful to protect the little ears from the poison. I did not guard my son’s heart.”
Negativity is the native tongue of the enemy. As a leader you set the tone with the way you speak of the body of Christ, and what you tolerate.
One surefire way to shrink your group is the toleration of a loose tongue.
2. Loose schedule
We live in Western culture, which places a high value on the use of time. In fact, many people you know hate wasting time. One of the bad habits we’ve noticed throughout ministry is the tendency to wait on the latecomers.
This is a bad idea that sets harmful precedents. Start on time and finish on time. In addition, always explain to the group how you’re planning to use the time.
Start on Time
Most groups have a person or two who are perpetually late. The group leader may believe it’s insensitive to begin on time and force that person to walk into a room that’s already focused.
However, a good portion of your group resents their time being wasted because a certain person is chronically late. Your more introverted group members like to move into the action sooner than later. Pre-class small talk wears some people out.
If you keep starting late, they’ll start showing up late to avoid the anxiety of an unfocused room.
End on Time
Ending on time is important because it gives people the confidence to make a plan once the group is over.
Did you ever have a teacher or group leader that would lecture past the allotted time or allow group members to ramble, paying no attention to the clock?
Did you like that teacher? Of course not. Don’t be that person.
Use Your Time
Finally, evaluate how the allotted group time is structured. Make a plan for how you’re going to use the time each week and share that information with your group.
You could say: “Today, for the first 20 minutes, I’m going to warm us up with some thoughts around this passage, and then for 10 minutes we will break into groups and discuss. I have a plan for how we’ll break into groups. We’ll finish up today with prayer requests.”
That little bit of forecasting gives people a sense of calm that the driver knows where they’re going, and he or she is committed to getting there on time.
It’s not desirable to come back to a group that always starts late, runs late, and is poorly organized. Show people you value them by showing them that you value their time.
People will grow to eventually distrust and disrespect a leader who tolerates negative behaviors. As ministry leaders, there’s a temptation to succumb to people pleasing.
Sometimes it’s easier to keep the peace by overlooking gossipy group members or acquiescing to those who are insensitive to others’ time. But as leaders, we’re called to do the hard things.
Catch these negative behaviors early. Don’t let them become part of your group’s DNA. Create a healthy culture in your group by not tolerating negative behaviors—and celebrating positive ones.
BEN MANDRELL (@BenMandrell) is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. LYNLEY MANDRELL is the wife of Ben Mandrell. Before coming to Lifeway, Ben and Lynley spent five years in Denver, Colorado, planting a church designed to reach the unchurched. They are the parents of four and live just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.