Facilitating a church small group is sometimes far more challenging than one might imagine. There are, what sometimes feels like, set patterns that frustrate the outcome. Add to this the fact that there are unique challenges with which you will be faced when you are at the helm of guiding discussion among a group of individuals with different backgrounds and beliefs. Great patience, wisdom and discernment are needed to protect the group as a whole from bad teaching as well as from potentially volatile situations that may monopolize time or jeopardize the safety of the group. The more a small group is encouraged to invite those from outside the covenant community, the more challenges you may face.
Learning the art of faithfully guiding discussion is paramount for facilitating well. Compromising by affirming wrong answers or squelching conversation by shooting others down in a small group or Sunday School setting are two of the dangers which we constantly face. When a group of individuals is encouraged to give input on any given biblical, theological or practical subject, you can most certainly expect awkward and inaccurate comments. The challenge with which we are faced is that of being able to handle such comments or interactions with wisdom and grace–while avoiding unnecessarily heavy-handed rejection or compromisingly soft-peddled encouragement.
Another challenge is that of stoping a crisis before it hits–or getting out of one when it hits. A small group can become a place of hostility as well as a place where extremely needy individuals monopolize time and treat the small group like a therapy session. Many, many years ago, I led a small group bible study in Philadelphia. A man who had been through some very traumatic experiences heard about the group and began to attend. This man also had a great anger problem. On one occasion, as I sought to keep the group from denigrating into a therapy session (for the benefit of the group on the whole) this man started yelling, threatening and seeking to intimidate me. Thankfully, after quite some time, the group as a whole was able to calm him down enough for us to make it through the small group. That was an experience that has forever shaped the way I think about how to better facilitate small groups.
More recently, I was leading a small group that met in the clubhouse of an apartment complex. Because we were gathered there, much to our delight, several individuals unexpectedly showed up to our small group from the complex. Toward the end of the night, we were caught off guard when a women–who was visiting for the first time–started to cry over the experience of recently having been discriminated against. This woman then told the group twice that when it happened she wanted to pull out a gun and shoot everyone in the building of the workplace where the discrimination had apparently occurred. I had to think quickly. How do you respond to someone who has verbalized something of this magnitude without the small group turning into a therapy session or an unsafe environment? By the grace of God, several of us led the group to a felicitous end by means of empathy and spiritual recalibration as we prayed over her and as I sought to counsel her after the meeting. These are just a few of many examples of what you could happen when you are called to facilitate small groups or a Sunday School class.
Over the years, I have learned that the following six principles are vital if we are to facilitate well:
1. Don’t Unnecessarily Embarrass. The most dangerous thing about opening up public discussion in a small group or Sunday School setting is that you are liable to facilitate embarrassing moments for those who say wrong or unclear answers. As much as you can seek to lead the discussion away from embarrassing someone, the better. For instance, if someone says something off the wall, the worst thing you could say is, “No, that’s completely wrong,” or “That’s not even remotely close to what I was looking for.” To do so is to embarrass the person who has probably sheepishly offered what they believed to be a plausible answer to your question. It may simply be that you have not asked the question clearly or in a way in which what you were seeking after.
2. Don’t Unjustly Affirm. There is a tendency in those who do not want their audience to feel embarrassed by something that they say–or who want to seem less offensive in correcting their audience–to unjustly affirm those who say something wrong in answer to a question. A facilitator or lecturer responding to a completely wrong answer by saying, “That’s good…” or “Well, that’s a great thought…” or “Ok. That’s really good…” We do not want to encourage people in wrong thinking because of our fear of man or idol of approval.
3. Commend Whenever Possible. While we do not want to enable wrong thinking, we do want to look for what we can commend in a believer’s answer–even when it is not the answer to which we were hoping to guide the group. Someone may have missed the gist of your teaching and, in answer to a question about something taught, take the discussion in a different direction. One helpful phrase that you can utilize is, “OK. I can see where you are coming from…” This may seem disingenuous, but it is often necessary as it can help take away the embarrassment or awkwardness of shooting wrong answers down.
4. Rebuke when Necessary. The principle of commending when possible does not mean that we ought never tell someone that they have given a wrong or dangerous answer. It is our responsibility to protect one another from false teaching (Heb. 3:13; 10:25); however, we must also learn to discern what force to use with the individual(s) with whom we are interacting. If it is a young or new believer, we do not want to discourage them in their study and desire to interact (2 Tim. 2:24; 1 Thess. 5:14). If it is someone coming in to stir up trouble, propagate false teaching or encourage a sinful lifestyle, we must learn to give a stronger response or rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 1:13; 1 Thess. 5:14).
5. Look for the Opportunity to Segue. The principle of commending when possible or rebuking when necessary must always be followed by seeking to segueing to another point or person in the group . We do not want to merely commend for commendation sake; we want to commend when possible for the sake of moving the discussion along as smoothly as possible. This often takes a good bit of finesse, but gets easier the more you have to do so. When someone has answered a question in a deviating manner, you can say, “Ok. I see where you are coming from. Would anyone else add to that or have another thought?”
6. Keep a Firm Hold on the Discussion. The most important thing for a small group facilitator to learn is the importance of keeping tight hold of the group discussion in order to guide it to a productive and felicitous end. The well-being of the group on the whole depends, in large part, on the guidance given by the facilitator. If someone is seeking to monopolize the time, you can always gently say something like, “Well, we can always talk about that after the study. Let’s take a look at our next question.” The more you have to do this, the better you will tend to get at it. You have to be willing to inadvertently upset those who just want to talk for the sake of being heard. While that should never be a goal, it is inevitable that this will occur. You will almost certainly make particular individuals upset–especially if they are seeking to control the discussion. The whole point of having a small group or Sunday School facilitator is to have someone keep the group on track. It is loving to help keep things focused for the benefit of all. While it feels more loving to just let people talk and talk and talk, it is actually usually to the detriment of those in the group to do so.
There are many other principles and techniques that can help facilitators lead well in a small group or Sunday School setting which open discussion is encouraged. These are a few that I have benefited from seeking to follow over the years. At the end of the day, a good facilitator will seek to lead with the most gentleness, faithfulness, wisdom and discernment for the benefit of the group as a whole.