Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"W" #3: Surviving the Mess

Contributed by:
Eric Dunaway
small groups pastor

I'm not sure if she was the first person to make this statement, but Heather Zempel told several thousand people who tuned-in to Willow Creek's Group Life conference a couple of years ago that small groups are messy. In fact, she spent a good amount of time talking about "poo" to make her point. It's true, groups are messy because people are messy. You can't throw a bunch of flawed people into a group and expect it to be anything but messy from time to time. I may have been naive enough at one point to believe that my groups would escape this reality. I'm not anymore.

Messes happen. They don't have to be catastrophic messes, but they will happen. So when we approach group life, we needn't wonder if but when. Furthermore, we need to know how to navigate those messes, because surviving the mess is a big win for our groups.

Our group made this discovery a few months ago. Things were going well... very well, in fact. Our group was really gelling. I think we all felt that we were very well connected, even to the point that I was nearly tarred and feathered for merely suggesting that we'd ever "split" the group to form a new one. Last fall, however, as we resumed our group we discovered that we were losing two couples... another followed shortly after that. We were suddenly half the group we used to be.

Now, I don't want to paint this over-dramatic picture of tension and turmoil that ravaged through the group, tearing it apart at the seams. The truth is that those families had good reasons for leaving, and they did so with relationships still intact. For some of us, however, this brought a few things to the forefront of our awareness that needed to be addressed. If anything, it caused us to realize that messes happen, and when they do we need to be prepared. It also made us aware of some things we can do as a group to prevent the really big messes from happening. Here are a few simple things that I think can help each of our groups realize this win:
  1. Open communication. The bottom line with this is that group members need to be completely honest with each other. The #1 deterrent to this principle is the fear of hurting someone's feelings and/or the fear of confrontation. In light of this, we often opt for the easier, but messier option of just bailing suddenly; we may or may not extend the courtesy of an email stating that we're leaving the group. In worst-case scenarios, we leave all email and phone calls unanswered. That's just not healthy. As we enter into community with others, whether they're long-time or brand new connections, we owe one another the dignity and respect of open communication.
  2. Ground Rules. It sounds a little "elementary," but ground rules can set the stage for healthier group life and help us navigate small messes while avoiding the bigger ones. They help group members come to an agreement on how situations will be handled as a group. For example, the group can, and should, establish a few things from the very beginning; things like what's shared in the group stays in the group, the priority of members' attendance, ways in which members will offer respect to each other while they're sharing in the group, and even (at the risk of sounding redundant) open communication. If we're wrestling with an issue, we need to talk about it with the group. If there's a concern that involves the group, we need to talk about it together. If there's something between us and another member, however, we need to talk with that member - NOT with someone else in the group. These, among others, are important ground rules that groups should establish early on to avoid fatal messes. 
  3. The Group Agreement. This is actually a resource we offer to groups that encompasses the first two things. It provides a platform to begin open dialogue about the group, record certain ground rules, and becomes something your group can refer back to as a reminder. 
I can honestly say that every group I've been a part of has been a tremendous blessing to me and my family. And yet, each of them have been messy at times. The beauty of it is that messes don't have to be terminal. There is a way to survive the messes. In fact, there are ways your group can even grow through the mess, as ours has. And when that happens, everyone wins

Can you think of other things that have helped your group survive the mess? Would you take a moment to share those in a comment?

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