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Building community in a group

“Salvation is individual, but not individualistic. God’s people are called together in community.” (Francis Schaeffer)

Group community can be defined as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” The life of following Christ was never meant to be solitary. The early Christians pursued it in groups not much larger than our small groups. They met exclusively in homes for the first 200 years or so of the movement. By meeting in a small group, we are imitating a time-tested format for spiritual life. Small groups are the ideal setting in which women can learn what it means to take on the character of Christ.

Women join a group to meet some type of need. Some want to mainly study; others want to mainly socialize. Most want a balance of both.

Advantages of Small Group Participation

Some of the advantages of participating in a small group are:

  • Encouraging one another during good and bad times
  • Solving problems together
  • Asking thoughtful questions when one has a decision to make
  • Benefiting from one another’s insights into the Word of God.
  • Listening to God together
  • Praying for each other
  • Practicing how to love one’s neighbor
  • Learning to receive care from others
  • Seeing Christianity is real as you see God work in others’ lives
  • Experiencing the pleasure of helping another person grow

Since women join and/or participate in a small group in order to have some need met, we as small group leaders can help to meet some of those needs. How we do that is often as unique as we are. But, every small group is likely to experience some challenges to community.

Think About It:

What have you gained by participating in a small group?

Connect, Connect, Connect!

“Connection” is the key word to building community. You must connect with your co-leader as described in the previous section. Then, your role in your group is to also connect them.

1. Connect the women with you.

You as a small group leader set the tone for the group. Through your actions, you say, “I care about you.” Here are some ways to connect the women with you.

  • Try and sit by a different woman each time your group meets. Break out of your comfort zone; it’s worth it! 
  • Get to know the women in your group by name and face. Greet them by name whenever you see them.
  • Become familiar with their husbands’ and children’s names and general ages (preschool, elementary, high school, college, adult). Ask about them and if needed, keep notes and refresh yourself before a meeting.
  • Know where they live, where they lived before, and what job or career they have (or had before motherhood).
  • Love them through smile, words, and touch.
  • Be transparent and honest about yourself.
  • Actively seek interaction with them outside of small group.
  • Be on time. Being on time sends a very positive and welcoming message.

Think About It:

How important do you think it is for a small group leader to intentionally connect with each member of the group?

2. Connect the women with each other.

  • It has been said that every woman needs 3 connections to stay in a small group. The connection with you is the first one, also with your co-leader if you have one. They need to connect with at least two more group members.
  • Be a “matchmaker.” Pay attention to common interests (occupations, hometowns or home states, pets, # of kids, ages of kids, live in the same neighborhood). Encourage those with common interests to get together outside of group time.
  • Plan times for your group members to get together. Even if only 2 can attend, they can connect with one another.
  • When one is absent, let the rest of the group know what is going on and encourage them to join together to pray or help her.
  • Discourage discussing controversial topics (denominations, politics) that may isolate anyone or divide the group.
  • Look for ways to build community in your small group.

Challenges of Small Group Participation

“Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” (Henri Nouwen)

The small group leader “facilitates.” To facilitate means to “make an action or process easy or easier.” As the servant-leader for your group, your role is to make being part of a group “easier” for those who participate. At the start of a small group, most of the women are strangers. The challenge for the leader is to help build community within this group of “strangers.” That involves overcoming hesitancy, incorporating authenticity, and working at connection.

Think About It:

How did you feel when/if you joined a small group (Bible Study or other) for the first time?

Hesitancy

First-time participants will often have underlying questions and concerns about their participation in a small group setting. These are more often felt rather than verbalized: Will I be accepted or rejected here? I’m afraid I’ll look stupid or nervous. Will I feel pressured and pushed to perform in some way?

Some other feelings, concerns and fears that women might have when they are meeting with their small group for the first time are:

  • Who will be the real leaders here?
  • Will I tell too much about myself? What if I really open up my feelings? Will I embarrass myself?
  • What if everyone rejects me? If the group attacks me?
  • What if I’m asked to do something I don’t want to do?
  • Feelings of silence and awkwardness or high anxiety.

The central issue of all these fears and feelings is trust vs. mistrust. Whom can I really trust in this group?

Authenticity

Authenticity is an essential ingredient of a small group, but it requires trust. Building trust takes time, though, before women may open up and share what’s really going on in their lives. You, as a leader, need to share some of your own joys and struggles. Be authentic yourself. This gives them insight into your own faith walk with Jesus and helps them to identify with you as an ordinary woman, not the “superior” leader.

Connection

Connection is valuable for building community in a group as well as between ministry partners. It is important for group members to connect with one another and connect with the message of transformation being shared through the Bible study or life modeled by the small group leader.

Many groups will naturally connect with one another. If at any time your group is struggling to connect, be proactive to step in and create stronger connection within your group through any means you think might work with your women. One way is to connect them with you by spending time with them individually. That encourages women to attend the group more regularly. Another way is to pick a project the group can do together to serve other people.

Think About It:

What are some ways to facilitate building trust within a group so as to encourage authenticity?

The Complexion of a Small Group

The complexion of a small group will be as varied as the women attending. Every woman has a need to feel heard, a need to be valued, a need to experience love, and a need to contribute. Occasionally, leaders will face some challenging situations emerging from the personalities and life situations of the women participants. How we handle these challenges may influence how well our group experiences community.

A leader can help the individual and the group to meet these challenges by loving each woman and by redirecting and giving perspective as needed. First…pray for ideas; our God knows that woman best. Here are some gracious yet practical ideas others have discovered for dealing with the following challenges:

The Overly Talkative Gal

What you can say:

  • Good answer, I appreciate that. (Quickly) Okay, now someone else.
  • Okay, I need some of you shy ones to speak up on the next question.
  • It’s not fair to expect _(talker)_ to carry the discussion. (Ha, ha)

What you can do:

  • Recognize that some people are just uncomfortable with silence so they feel the need to answer every question. Model to them that you are not uncomfortable with silence.
  • Ask her apart from the group, “What clue do I use to let you know you’re talking too much?”
  • Enlist the talker’s help in getting the others to participate.

The Excessively Shy Gal

What you can say:

  • I can see you have something to share.
  • I can see those wheels turning.
  • I’m sure you have something to contribute.

What you can do:

  • Ask her if she wants to be encouraged to speak up.
  • Observe if she has anything written then ask, “Would you like to read what you’ve written?”
  • Encourage her prior to small group to be willing to share for the benefit of the group.
  • Most do want to join in, but be sensitive to those who don’t. Some quiet women like to just listen but will speak up when they are ready.

Think About It:

What have you seen small group leaders do to effectively facilitate a group including “the overly talkative gal” or “the excessively shy gal”?

The Argumentative Gal

What you can say:

  • I understand how you might feel that way.
  • Can we save that question until we get through with the study?
  • Let’s get together and go over that outside of small group.
  • Let’s see if we can find a really smart lady to join us for lunch!
  • (Controversial doctrine): For years, theologians have disagreed on that one! I wouldn’t argue that point, but you may enjoy talking to one of our pastors.

What you can do:

  • Gently talk to her later about what the group needs to accomplish in a short time frame.
  • Remind women at the beginning of the year that there will be different doctrinal views represented in our groups and that we are not here to discuss them but to study the Bible.

Extenuating Illness

This can be frightening because of the potential time demands. Don’t try to do it all. We have to balance our care of others with our commitment to our own families.

Here are some ways to realistically and graciously meet needs without overwhelming yourself or the group:

What you can say:

  • I have to go to the grocery store. Is there something you need?
  • I had just a few minutes but wanted to call and check on you.
  • I can do that. I’ll just need to be home by 3:00 for my kids.
  • My plate is kind of full today. Can this wait a day or two?

What you can do:

  • You can set aside half a day to help with the need. Communicate this clearly to her by saying, “I’m free for half a day tomorrow. Is there something I can do for you?” OR “I have a couple of hours this afternoon. Can I come to do your laundry?”
  • It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to do, just “be.”
  • Keep a willing heart, stay connected, meet needs, be realistic and set boundaries.

Think About It:

What have you seen small group leaders do to effectively facilitate a group that included “the argumentative gal” or an “extenuating illness?”

The Occasional Woman

Some women are hesitant at making a commitment to a group. Whether it’s rarely preparing for a class, sporadic attendance throughout the year, or consistently not showing up on the days when your group is providing the brunch food, we as leaders must do what we can to make them feel welcome and wanted in the group.

In a Bible Study group —

If you are leading a group that is doing a Bible study and has homework, please encourage all women to come and learn from the discussion time, even if they haven’t done the lesson for that day. It’s not unusual for someone to not get the lesson done for that week. However, some women routinely come to a study without doing the lesson yet freely participate in the discussion, giving their own opinions.

Here are some suggestions for handling this graciously during group time:

  • Glance at everyone’s books to see if there are answers written. When you notice one with a blank page, be cautious about calling on that woman to answer a question.
  • If she feels comfortable joining the discussion or answering a question, let her do so. Especially encourage her to answer the observation questions, which are from the text.
  • Reinforce the need to go to the biblical text as the source of truth. Keep the group focused on what’s in the lesson.

Some ways to encourage her to do the lesson at home yet not discourage her from coming:

  • Gently ask her privately if she has had trouble finding time to do her study or if she needs help in walking through and answering questions.
  • Ask her to research something in particular.
  • Offer to come to her house and work through a study with her. Perhaps she’s intimidated into thinking she can’t do it on her own. (See the “Commission” section for helping women learn to do a study.)

In any group —

Some women stay on the fringes of the group (examples: attending sporadically, forgets to bring food when promised, rushes in/out). You will need to devise ways to keep her connected to the group so that when she does attend, she feels welcomed.

Here are some suggestions for doing that:

  • Pursue a regular connection with her through text, email or phone call to find out what’s going on in her life and to let her know about the group. Share what you can from your conversation with the group so that when she does attend, she is not perceived as a stranger.
  • Keep mentioning her name every group gathering so they’ll remember her.
  • Continually let her know that she is needed and wanted.

Think About It:

What have you seen small group leaders do to effectively facilitate a group that included “the occasional woman?”

Emotional Pain:

A little girl was sent on an early errand by her mother, but she took far too much time to return home. When she finally did return, her mother wanted to know what had taken so long. The little girl explained that on the way she had met a little friend who was crying because she had broken her doll. “Oh,” said the mother, “then you stopped to help her fix the doll?” “Oh, no,“ replied the little girl, “I stopped to help her cry.”

This little girl knew exactly what her friend needed. When people are hurting, they need comfort. But, we often respond to hurting people in unproductive ways. None of us can know the depth of someone’s emotional pain; we can only direct them to the reality of God’s comfort.

Here are some ways we can give comfort to someone who is emotionally hurting:

What you can say:

  • Support. “If you need a shoulder to cry on, I’ll be there.”
  • Encourage. I can’t fix it, but I know Who can help. And, I’ll be here also.
  • What you can do:
  • Keep a willing heart, stay connected, meet needs, be realistic and set boundaries.
  • Sometimes her pain may need pastoral counseling or professional help. If that is the case, please direct her to someone who can make that evaluation.

Think About It:

What have you seen small group leaders do to effectively facilitate a group that included someone with “emotional pain?”

Other Situations Affecting Community

How would you graciously respond to the following situations in your group?

  • The Advice Giver —
  • The Pessimist —
  • Group size getting noticeably smaller as women drop out; how to keep the rest from getting discouraged —

Related Topics: Christian Education, Women