Lecture 02: Small Group Leadership
Course: Small Group Dynamics
Lecture: Small Group Leadership
In this next major segment of the instruction we are going to take up the issue of leadership. Gary Yukl defines leadership this way: “The process of building commitment to the organization’s objectives and empowering followers to accomplish those objectives.” That definition embodies several major aspects of leadership. Leadership is about building commitment. It’s about articulating objectives and it’s about empowering people to accomplish those objectives.
A. Realities of Leadership
Here are some of the realities that all leaders face. Leadership is a communication process. For that reason, leadership must be earned and given by others, not simply demanded by the leader. A person isn’t a leader simply because their position says they are. They are given leadership as a communication process involving other people. Leadership involves interpersonal power. In the third major segment today we are going to discuss at some length the issue of power in relationship. At this point, all I would like to say about power is that it is a relational reality and it involves having resources that other people value. Leaders are people who possess resources that other people value.
The next reality of leadership is that it implies change. Leadership involves taking people from one place to another, being part of God’s process in taking them from one point to another.
Another reality of leadership is that leaders tend to cast either shadows or light. This is language used by Parker Palmer, who in his writing about leadership said: “Leaders are influential people who cast either light or shadows on the people whom they lead.” Shadows involve ways that leadership produces concealment, hiding and fear. Some of the common shadows involved in leadership involve the confusion of identity with role. Some leaders are unclear about their true identity in Christ and instead take their identity from their role. They assume, for example, that because they are a pastor, that is their identity. Identities and roles, what you do and who you are, are separate issues.
Another very common shadow is fear. Some leaders are afraid of failure, of their own inadequacy, afraid of what others will think, afraid of change; and so they cast those shadows on the people with whom they work. One of the common shadows is called “functional atheism.” If you ask most people in Christian ministry, “Are you an atheist?” they will of course say, “No.” Functional atheism is the reality that while people will deny being atheists, they function as if they are. Functional atheists are people who believe that everything has to do with me and every process is related to what I do and my responsibility. A functional atheist group leader is a person who has to have their hand in every aspect of everybody’s life. Because I can’t trust God to handle someone else’s life, I’d better do it. A functional atheist group leader is a person who feels like they have to manage every aspect of the Bible study. “Because I can’t trust God to actually teach people and illumine what God wants them to know, I have to manage that. I can’t trust other people in the group to teach one another, so all ideas have to come through me.” Functional atheism is a huge problem in group leadership and it betrays a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty.
In contrast to casting shadows, we also by God’s grace have the potential to cast light. Light exposes, it illumines, it reveals. 1 John, chapter 1, starting at verse 5 reads like this: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with God, yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” Listen to what verse 7 says about casting light: “But if we walk in the light as God is in the light…”- now watch this consequence – “then we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Some leaders cast light, they reveal, they expose. They are themselves known. And the Scripture says that when we walk in that kind of revelation, the way that God is that revelation, then we have fellowship with one another. Fellowship is enabled as we cast light of revelation on one another. One of the sad realities of small group/home church life is that for many people, a small group at church is the least safe place to be who they really are. That is because so much shadow has been cast that says, “I’d better pretend to be perfect, I’d better pretend to have it all together.” If you cast light as a leader, you invite people to come out from hiding in the shadows. In that move is fellowship.
Another reality of leadership is that leaders tend to either deform or reform the persons and organization that they influence. The question in leadership is never, “Will I influence?” The question always is, “In what direction will I influence?” All your actions, all your words, will tend to reform or deform the persons with whom you have influence.
Another reality of leadership is that leadership demands effort and time. You should not expect it to be fast, you should not expect it to be easy, you should not expect it to be cost-free. Leadership will demand more of you than you might realize.
Another reality of leadership is that leadership can be a ministry of service. At its best, small house group leadership is an opportunity for you to serve the people with whom God has given your privileged position.
Another reality of leadership is that leaders must reconcile group goals with individual member goals. They are not always the same thing. We hope through the process of covenanting that there is some consistency between individual needs and group needs. Leaders constantly have to bring these two sets of needs together. Leadership also involves managing the dynamic between relationship and task. Here are the two central factors in all group or home church life: relationship and task, or content. Those two issues are constantly in play together: how much relationship, how much content? How much attention do I give to each? Your job as a leader is to manage the dynamic between relationship and task, or content.
Here is a reality of group leadership. Even good leaders will not make every group successful. A functional atheist group leader believes that the success or failure of the group is entirely up to them. It is true that we have influence with groups. We cast light or we cast shadows. It is not true that everything is about you. Even good leaders will not make very group successful.
A final realty of group leadership is that each leadership task is different. Leaders must be flexible. Your ability to exercise flexibility in methods of leading, in behaviors you exhibit, that flexibility will help you immensely to engage each task. What ought to be on your mind as a leader is, what is demanded of me right now with this group? Not last week, not last month, not last year. What is demanded of me right now? As one given by God’s grace responsibility for shepherding this group, what is demanded of me?
Those are some realities of group life. Now I’d like to talk with you about some obstacles to effective leadership. I have divided these obstacles into internal obstacles - issues that happen inside the life of the leader, and external obstacles – those issues that happen outside of the leader.
B. Internal Obstacles to Effective Leadership
Here are some internal obstacles to effective leadership. The first internal obstacle is a lack of humility. Some people have described humility as having a sane estimation of yourself. A lack of humility, a lack of a sane estimation could show up in two very different ways. One way is to assume that you are utterly incapable and unusable by God. That is not a sane estimation of who you are, for the simple fact that God can use anyone and anything. A lack of humility might also show up if you think that you are the end-all and be-all of group life. If everything is about you, you aren’t functioning in a sane fashion, you lack humility. Either of those evidences of a lack of humility will produce obstacles to effective leadership.
Another internal obstacle of effective leadership is fear of failure. I am afraid. As a leader, I am afraid that what I try might not turn out very well, and so I don’t try at all. I’m afraid of an enervation. I’m afraid to risk, and so I don’t; and in doing so, I condemn both myself and my group to a kind of mediocrity.
Another internal obstacle to effective leadership is discouragement. Any of you dear brothers and sisters who have been involved in any aspect of leadership knows what it is like to meet with frustration, with shattered hopes, with dreams that didn’t come about. You had the best expectations, you prepared well, and the group life did not go as you had hoped. In the face of that discouragement, some people give up.
A fourth internal obstacle to effective leadership is the leader’s inattention to their own spiritual life. God designed for us who follow him to inhale and exhale: To inhale, to receive the breath of God, the Word of God, the encouragement of other brothers and sisters in Christ to breathe in, inhale the gifts of God, and to exhale in ministry to one another. The problem for a lot of us is that we spend so much time exhaling, that we end up exhausted and without breath. We give and we give and we give; and over time, if I’m not attentive to my own spiritual life, I have nothing else to give. God wants you to inhale and to exhale. My plea to you is, take care of your spiritual life: the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fellowship, solitude, reflection. Take care, dear brothers and sisters of those spiritual dynamics because in them you inhale, so that you have something to exhale.
C. External Obstacles to Effective Leadership
Those are some internal obstacles to effective leadership. Here are some external ones.
Poor time management. If you prepare badly, if you manage your time badly, you will not set yourself up to be very effective in group life.
Another external obstacle to effective leadership is your inability to deal with relational conflict. In The United States, at least, it is estimated that people in pastoral ministry spend 25% of their time managing conflict. Your inability to manage conflict with other human beings will be a deterrent to effective leadership. That is why in our third major session of this instruction, we are going to take up the issue of relational conflict.
The third external obstacle to effective leadership is your overload and burnout. Some leaders attempt to take on too much, they say “yes” to too many commitments; they try to imbed themselves in too many groups. The result is, they end up without resource to be effective.
A fourth external obstacle to effective leadership is poor communication management. Especially in this respect, I’m talking about the tendency of some leaders to dominate group life. Some leaders come into a Bible study and expect for the Bible study to not be in fact a discussion, but to be an essay, a report of all of the things that the leader has learned. Good leaders are people who point to Jesus Christ and lift up people in their group.
So, we have obstacles internal and external, obstacles to effective leadership.
D. How Do Leaders Become Leaders?
Next comes the question, how do leaders become leaders? There are, chiefly speaking, three ways that people become leaders. First, some people get appointed to leadership. Second, some people get elected to leadership. Third, sometimes leaders emerge from group communication. Being appointed and being elected are relatively clear, I will leave those two alone.
What I want to talk about for a few minutes is emergence of leadership. Very often, leaders emerge. There are, in fact, no leaderless groups. Even if no leader is appointed, leaders will emerge. They could emerge by being appointed; they could emerge by being elected; but more often, they emerge by a process of group communication. Some people emerge because of their personalities. You get nine people together and the personalities of some individuals will emerge as leaders more often than others. Be careful, though. Some characteristics of personality will definitely hinder group leadership. For example, the characteristic of arrogance, a lack of humility, will hinder group leadership; but their opposites will not necessarily be sufficient for group leadership. So personality, while a factor, won’t completely explain emergence of leadership.
A second way that leaders emerge from group communication is through the circumstances. The person who was supposed to lead didn’t show up one night and there you were in that circumstance, so you took the role. Circumstances are one way that leadership might emerge. Leadership might also emerge through different styles. In group leadership some leaders are more oriented toward telling people what to do, they are authoritarian. They possess the knowledge and they will tell people what those people should do. The leadership style for some others is to be more persuasive than authoritarian. These people don’t tell others what to do, they sell people on an idea. So you have authoritarian styles of leadership – they tell people. Persuasive styles of leadership sell people on ideas, but don’t do so much direct telling them what to do. A consulting style of leadership is one in which they participate more with the group. They don’t sell the group the idea, they are involved with the group through an open process of listening and cooperation in discerning where this group is to go. Some people evidence a democratic style of leadership, where all people share with equal voices and the group may vote for a decision that maybe the leader even disagrees with.
What I just outlined for you are four different styles of leadership. Those styles will tend to work well in different situations. For example, with very competent group members, a democratic style of leadership might work well. Sometimes leaders emerge because of the style of leadership they embrace. You will notice over your experience in group life that some situations ask for a kind of leadership that the leader does not possess the style to provide. Some situations will demand a style of leadership that fits the leader’s natural style very well.
Another way that leadership emerges is in service. Sometimes the people who emerge as leaders are the people who engage in true service. Richard Foster in his book, “Celebration of Discipline” describes some aspects of self-righteous service vs. true service. Here are just a couple of his thoughts: “Self righteous service” he writes “comes through human effort. True service comes from a deep relationship with God. Self-righteous service is impressed with the big deal, it serves especially when the service is large. True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service, it welcomes all opportunities to serve. Self-righteous service requires external rewards, it seeks human applause. True service rests contented in hiddenness, it is living out a new center of reference in which God’s divine nod of approval is completely sufficient. Self-righteous service is temporary; having served, it can rest easy. True service is a lifestyle.”
E. Minimal Leadership Tasks
Once leadership has emerged, those leaders have particular tasks. In small or house group life, Roberta Hestenes suggests that there are four minimal leadership tasks. At least, leaders need to do these four tasks. The first is to pray. The life of the leader is a life bathed in prayer. That prayer is specific, it is personal, for the individuals that God has given you privilege to be involved with. That prayer takes place before and during and after meetings. So it is the task of the leader to pray.
It is the task of the leader to prepare. The leader does not personally need to do every aspect of this preparation. Their job is to make sure that every aspect is done by someone. So, you prepare the environment, the room you are meeting in, the seating you will be using. You prepare the resources that will be used. Have extra Bibles on hand, for example. You will prepare the meeting itself. A wise leader comes into the meeting having a relatively clear sense of how much time is going to be devoted to the different aspects of group life at this meeting. That doesn’t mean that the agenda becomes god. The agenda is a guide, but only a guide. It is the responsibility of the leader to prepare for the meeting.
It is also the responsibility of the leader to prepare questions. Hear me on this point, my brothers and sisters. Do not as a leader, leave it to chance that you are going to come up with a good question when you are sitting in the group. Plan the questions that you intend to ask before you come to the meeting. Others will emerge in the meeting and that is okay, that is up to God. Your job is to come prepared.
So, good leaders pray and they prepare. The third of the minimal leadership tasks is to guide. You guide the use of time. You guide the flow of discussion. It is your job to help assure that people there feel included; they have an opportunity to participate; that the meeting not be dominated by one or two voices. It is the fourth of the minimal leadership tasks to care for members. If you create a safe environment, you will invite people to let you know when they feel ignored. You can be sensitive to when members might feel attacked, when members carry a particular burden. Your job as leader is to care for the members. It is not your job alone. Ideally, we hope all members of the group are also caring for one another; but minimally, you are responsible for caring for others.
II. Leading Discussion
So far we have talked about some realities of group leadership and some obstacles to group leadership and how leadership emerges and some tasks. I want now to take up the very pragmatic issue of how you lead a discussion. Your group health will have something to do with the leader’s ability to facilitate an effective discussion. In this session, we are going to talk about some principles of leading discussion. We are going to talk about the very common issue of unequal participation and how you get the talkative people to let others have a word, and the quiet people to speak up. I will give you some practical hints about that.
A. Why Have a Discussion?
The first issue that you need to address when leading a discussion is to ask the question, why have a discussion in the first place? This sounds simple. It isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Leaders need to be clear about their answer to the question, why have a discussion? Here are three good responses to that question. First, we have a discussion because I want to find out what other people are thinking. Second, I want to have a discussion so that I can increase involvement by the leaders. Here is a truth of group life. People will support what they believe they are part of creating. If you provide opportunities for people to be involved in creating the group life, they will tend to be supportive and committed to it. To the extent that they feel like they are not part of creating something, neither will they be committed to it. So, one of the reasons that we lead discussion is to increase involvement. I want them to participate, not simply to receive. A third reason that we have discussion is that we want to arrive at a conclusion or a solution. I want to arrive at a conclusion or a solution, sometimes one that I would not have come up with on my own as the leader.
B. Some Principles in Leading Discussion
With those motives in mind, here are some principles for leading discussion. Your first principle is, avoid questions that have one right answer and instead, figure out a way to make the group member the expert. Sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, leaders play a game by which I try to get group members to parrot the answer that I want them to say. This does not help me find out what they are thinking. It helps me receive what I want to hear. This is not good group leadership. A good discussion is one in which the group members become the experts. Here is an example: If I’m teaching a Bible study lesson on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, I could ask a question that goes like this: “How did Jesus expand on Old Testament teachings?” If I ask that question, there are people who will be filtering their minds to come up with the right answer. They are afraid that they are not going to get the right answer. They are intimidated because the leader asked the question and already knows the right answer and their job is to figure out what that answer is. But you will not learn what they are thinking. Instead of asking that question, if you ask a question like this: “If people in your village put the Sermon on the Mount into practice, how would life in the community change?” When I ask that question, the group members become the authorities, not me. They are the ones who know how communal life might change if the Sermon on the Mount were actually lived. That kind of question will prompt lively discussion, while the previous kind of question will tend to shut it down. So, principle #1 is, make the listeners the experts and avoid questions that have a right answer.
A second principle of leading discussion is, don’t judge. We send people a very destructive, double message when we say the following: “This is an open group. I hope you feel safe and secure here. We want to hear what is on your mind.” There is nothing wrong with the message that I just sent. The problem is if my behavior contradicts that message. My behavior contradicts it when I end up judging the response that somebody offered to the thoughts being discussed. We are talking, for example, about one of the miracles of Jesus and one of the group members says, “I don’t know if I can accept that Jesus really walked on the water. Do you really think he walked on the water?” That honest disclosure, if it is met with judgment on my part, will tend to shut down any future disclosure on his part. Not judging doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything everybody says. There are ways for us to probe, but we do that probing with grace and humility, not with judgment and condemnation.
The next principle of leading discussion is, don’t preach. Small group/house group leaders, hear me clearly. This will be a huge temptation. If you have prepared well, you have prepared a Bible study, you have poured hours and your soul and your time into listening to the Scriptures, listening to God’s Holy Spirit, you have learned a tremendous amount about a passage of Scripture. The small group is not the place for you to tell people everything that you have learned. If the object of discussion is to find out what they are thinking, not to get something off your chest, you will have to resist preaching. There is a time, Praise God, for preaching, this is not it. If your objective is to find out what they are thinking and increase involvement from them, this is not the time for you to say everything that you have learned.
Another principle of leading discussion, be fully present. You do this with words and you do it with your eyes, your body, your tone of voice. When someone gets the sense that I am present - not just physically, but mentally and spiritually present, desirous of hearing what they have to say, they will tend to be more involved in the discussion.
Here is another principle for leading discussion: Plan potential questions ahead of time. Do not wait until you get to the meeting to plan questions. When the question is unclear, you can clarify, you can restate it, you can paraphrase it; but only do so if you are reasonably sure that the question is unclear.
Another principle of leading discussion is for you to redirect questions from the leader toward other members. What will tend to happen if you are the house group or the small group leader is that people will constantly address the questions to you. You will be put in the role of the supreme fount of all knowledge, you are the one who has all the answers. Your job, if the goal is to find out what others are thinking and increase involvement, your job is to deflect those questions that are all addressed toward you, to other group members. When somebody asks a question directly to me, I will typically say things like, “I will be happy to respond. I’d like to hear from other people first.” Then I will direct the question to another member or leave the question open, to be addressed by whomever in our group.
A final principle for leading discussion is, be comfortable with silence. Once you are sure that the question is clear, do not answer your own question. People in small groups or house groups or classrooms quickly learn that if they simply be quiet, some teachers and some group leaders will answer their own question. So, you ask a question, nobody responds, what feels like an eternity isn’t, but it feels like it is. If you are patient with that silence, almost always someone will respond. There is experimental evidence to suggest that almost never will 15 seconds elapse before somebody offers a response. So, if you are sure that your question is clear, be patient with the silence, do not answer your own questions.
Those are some principles for leading discussion.
C. Equalizing Participation
Now we come to the issue of unequal participation. How do you get people who tend to dominate to stop dominating; and how do you get people who are quiet to be more involved? Here are some helpful hints. One move that you can make is to reaffirm the covenant. Probably what happened in the process of covenanting that we discussed in our first session, probably what happened in the covenant was an expression for people to be equally involved and feel like all are contributing. What you can do once that is articulated, is come back to the covenant to ask, how are we doing with it? How are we doing with this equal participation that you said you wanted in the covenant? Use that as a way to get at the issue. If you have a quiet person, you can offer them a special assignment. Pull them aside privately and say, “For next week’s lesson, we are going to be looking at The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5. I wonder if you would look at this section and come ready with some reflection” Sometimes, if quiet people have prior notice and some time to prepare and they have been requested to be involved, sometimes they will.
Another move you can make as the leader is to listen well and affirm the contributions of quiet people. In the group as a whole, when a quiet person risks saying something, I will affirm that comment in ways that leave them built up and encouraged. Afterwards, after the meeting, I will pull them aside privately and say, “Thank you so much for risking that, I know it’s not the easiest thing for you to do.”
Another move that you can make as a leader to help equalize participation is to consider other modes of communication. What tends to happen in group life is, we have one method of inviting response. I ask a question out loud and invite people to respond out loud in response. That is not the only way to communicate. Another option is, have people write a response silently. If I ask a question to the group and have everybody in the group write a response instead of speaking it out loud, the quiet people are just as involved as the more talkative people. The other thing that will tend to happen is, once the quiet person has written something, it may be easier for them to say it.
Another move you can make is to set up partners. So instead of addressing every question to the larger group, I will invite people to respond in pairs. Turn to a partner and discuss this. In that kind of setting the quiet people will tend to be more involved. So you can alter the way that you invite communication to help the participation be more equalized.
Sometimes where you sit as the leader makes a difference. Your rule of thumb when it comes to inviting response from quieter people is to sit across from them. The reason this tends to work is that eye contact tends to invite response. If I sit across from people, the eye contact is more direct and more natural with them; and that direct eye contact invites them to be involved in the discussion. Whereas, sitting directly next to somebody does not invite that same kind of opportunity. So if I have freedom about where I sit as the leader, if I sit right next to the louder ones, the more talkative ones, they will tend to not talk as much; and if I sit directly across from the quieter ones, they will tend to talk more. This is not the magic formula and it will not always work, it may help.
Sometimes as a leader, I directly invite talkative members to help me include others. I will pull a talkative member aside and say, “I appreciate so much your involvement and I want to see it continue. I also want you to help me think about ways that we might get these quieter people involved in our conversation.” That move sometimes helps. Sometimes I need to be more direct in confronting the dominant people. When I need to be more direct, I will do that confrontation in private, never in front of the group to embarrass them. My suggestion is, you get to the direct confrontation only as necessary as a later resort.
What I would like to do now is give you an opportunity to practice some of what we have been talking about. So here is the situation. Suppose that you are preparing to lead a discussion with a house group. The topic of the discussion is the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, found in John 4:1-26. I want you as a group to think about the principles of leading an effective discussion and write three good discussion questions that make the listeners the experts, that don’t invite judging, that are clear and understandable. So take a few minutes as a group to write three good discussion questions for John 4:1-26.