Friday, October 29, 2010

Does Everyone Have a Place?

I’ve been thinking about your place and my place and everybody’s place this week. Where do you “fit”? What about me? How about Aunt Betty? Seriously, is there a place?

There is a biblical answer to those questions, actually. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 12:12

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” 1 Corinthians 12:12 (NIV)
Then give that entire section (vs. 12-27) a read. It gives us an answer quickly and succinctly. There is a place for everyone!

For some, the Apostle Paul’s answer is comforting. It provides a home—a place to belong. For others, the answer isn’t quite so positive. This text confronts the fact that the social misfits many of us would like to avoid—are unavoidable. Not only are they a part of our community—Paul reminds us they are an integral part! They may not look like us, think like us, live like us, or even vote like us. Yet they are us!

We’ve formed and launched 46 new small groups at the church where I serve within the last year. We’ve launched empty nester groups, newly married groups, and just about everything in between. The common denominator of all these newly formed small group communities is diversity—each group is filled with a mix of very different people.

Fact is, in God’s community there is a place for everyone. The problem for some of us is that place is not where we want or expect it to be. Our place just might be filled with a group of people who are not nearly as spiritually mature as we are. That place might be a group that has radically different theological positions than we do. That place might be a group that are far more liberal in their lifestyle than we are. That place might be a group of people who don’t “fit” anywhere else.

So a better question just might be; can I handle the place God has for me?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When a Key Leader Leaves

I talked with one of my best small group leaders today. We talked about a few of the cool things going on in his group, a few of the interesting happenings in his life, and a few of the intriguing opportunities that God has recently been providing for him.

That’s when he dropped the bomb every small group pastor dreads. He informed me that he was sensing the need to step aside from his small group. God was opening some other ministry doors for him and for his wife.

Breathe. Exhale. Inhale. Ouch that one hurts!

This leader is moving on for good reasons—kingdom reasons. Yet that doesn’t make the sting of losing one of your best any easier. Frankly, it’s a weird feeling. On one hand, you’re excited this leader is mature enough to make such a decision and be obedient to the call of God. Yet there is a personally painful side that hurts to invest in someone and see them move on.

In the study guide, Growing Others, author Carl Simmons engages with this transition, “You know it’s a good thing, but it can still be painful to let someone you love and have shared life with move forward without you…when that time comes, hopefully you’ll both recognize it for what it is and take joy in it, despite the sadness that comes along with letting go.”

As a small group pastor, I have to trust what God is doing in this person’s life and in what He will do through him in the lives of others. It simply cannot be a silo-esque ministry mentality! These types of decisions are about leaders’ recognizing and submitting to God’s kingdom purposes—not about my ministry. So I listen. I encourage him. I offer him the best possible counsel. And I pray for his future ministry.

Then, in my own moments, I consider the “plans” and dreams I had for this small group leader—for his continued and potentially increased involvement alongside me. And I’m challenged to submit to the reality of Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.”

So God’s work in small groups moves on—without this small group leader’s involvement as I had planned. I’m choosing to trust that God’s plan is much better than mine.

* * *

Join the conversation and share your thoughts, experiences, or insights about losing one of your key small group leaders.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Look in the Mirror!

When was the last time you looked in the mirror? Not in the way you might be thinking, rather in a spiritual self-examination sort of way? Frankly, a mirror isn’t even necessary. It simply serves as a metaphor of self-awareness.

Do you ever take the time to consider you? Do you ever examine your own faith journey? Do you ever evaluate your spiritual leadership?

Seriously, if you’re a spiritual leader of any kind, knowing yourself is of critical importance. To lead, you have to engage with:

• An understanding of your faith heritage
• An honest look at your faith journey
• The reality of God’s call on your life
• How you’re stewarding your specific God-given gift(s)
• An understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader

These are just a few of the items that are critical for a spiritual (small group) leader. To truly know who you are, how God has created you, and how you are using these realities for His kingdom purposes is critical for any leader who is genuinely pursuing Christ-centered leadership.

This week, I’ve been in dialogue with a pair of small groups who are struggling because their leaders’ have not looked in a mirror lately. In spite of the group members’ strongest attempts to break through the leader’s fog, they cannot gain the attention of the person who is supposed to be their shepherd—leading them and caring for their needs. Instead, both groups are wandering because their leaders have not spent time evaluating their own leadership.

In his book, Practicing Greatness: Seven Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leadership, author Reggie McNeal writes, “The single most important piece of information a leader possesses is self-awareness.”

Before your next small group meeting, take a few moments in front of the mirror of soul-examination and self-awareness. How are you doing? How about your leadership? How would those you lead/serve answer that question? Would they respond with affirmation?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions—it’s time to become more self-aware.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Less-Than-Best Friends

Time to engage with an honest question; how many of the people in your small group do you really connect with? Be honest—you’re not best friends with all 12 members of your group.

The reality is that you probably enjoy the company of one or two couples more than you do the rest. You likely talk with one or two individuals more than you do with everyone in the group. Your interests are probably more closely aligned with a couple specific people in your group than they are aligned with everyone’s. That’s just how it is.

You’re not going to be best friends with everyone—you weren’t in elementary school and you’re not going to be as adults.

Yet God has still placed you in a small group community with these people—some who’ve become your closest friends and some who’ve not.

I discussed this issue with a small group leader yesterday. He told me that the couple he and his wife were closest with in his small group had left the group (on good terms) within the last few months. They had to wrestle with disappointment, disillusionment, and the honest question of whether or not they wanted to continue.

They pressed on. They fought for a community that was centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ and not mere likes and dislikes. They sought authentic Biblical community. And their group has bonded in a way they could not have imagined! It doesn’t take away the sting of missing their closest friends. But their group has grown into a level of authenticity before God and before each other that is far richer than a simple friendship.

Christ-centered community is about more than friendships with people we like. It’s deeper than that. It’s about journeying through both the fun and the not-so-fun with people who are less-than-best friends. It’s about doing life together with our brothers and sisters in faith.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blessings, Surprises, and Appreciation

I received a surprise yesterday—a pleasant surprise.

I met with one of my small group leaders and key ministry partners to catch up on some significant things that God has been doing in his life. We talked about life-changing stuff that he has allowed me the privilege of walking through with he and his wife. The stuff that literally changes the course of your faith journey 180 degrees. Awesome, powerful, humbling stuff.

I love those types of meetings, because I am given the amazing opportunity of being ushered into a front-row seat of the amazing work of The Father in someone’s life. As a pastor, this is one of the best perks of my job!

Then something interesting happened. He handed me a card.

The card communicated how much he and his wife have appreciated my friendship and support during this exciting time in their lives. I was humbled. But there’s more. They also included a gift card to a local restaurant for me and my wife to enjoy a night out. What a blessing!

As a pastor, I don’t get many “thank yous”. I know the pastors and ministry directors I work alongside don’t get much positive feedback either. This is not a complaint as much as it is the reality of life in the church today. So, when we do receive a note (or a gift) of appreciation it really ministers to us.

Have you thanked your pastor for his ministry recently? Have you told the person who provides leadership to your small group ministry how important they are to you, your group, and your church?

A little encouragement goes a long way!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tossing Judgment Around

This week, I learned of a small group situation that troubled me. Judgment was being tossed around like the pigskin at an Indianapolis Colts game.

“They’re not serious about your faith.”
“They’re judgmental of everyone in the group.”
“They don’t want to pray enough.”
“They don’t know how to have fun.”
Have you ever heard this sort of thing before? I’m sure you have—unfortunately! Two questions come to mind: First, what can you do about it? Second, should you do anything about it?

Allow me to respond to both questions.

First, you can do something about it. Yet that something may not make a great deal of difference because the injured parties just can’t—or won’t—forgive. They’ve already left the group, mentally and emotionally. They’re done.

Yet there is hope if people can hear and practice the lost art of forgiveness. Living in Christ-centered community is hard. That’s why the Apostle Paul exhorted us with so many “one another” passages in Scripture. The one that applies to this difficult situation perhaps more than any other is found in his letter to the church in Ephesus:

“Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love." Ephesians 4:2 (NLT)
As we humble ourselves before God and take view of His amazing grace, we recognize our own sin—our own issues. It makes judging others much harder when you have an honest view of your own “stuff”.

Second, you should do something about it. Because community is hard it takes work. It involves personal sacrifice. It comes with a cost. That’s why the Apostle Paul gives us a strong exhortation in the following verse:

“Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” Ephesians 4:3 (NLT)
He writes, “Make every effort”. That means we are to work at it. We are to strive for unity. We are to fight for peace!

When judgment creeps into your community—and it often does—take heed of the Apostle Paul’s words. Begin with a posture of humility. Seek to forgive. Then make every possible effort to be unified.

This can stop the football-like judgment game. And it just might save your small group.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Are You Getting Enough Face Time?

How much time do you get with your small group leaders? That’s a question I had to ask myself about two years ago. Do I spend enough one-on-one time them? Am I truly available?

Because face time is important, I’ve made it a personal goal to meet with at least two small group leaders per week. That’s a minimum. Lunch, coffee, a meeting at the church, or a simple drop-in at their place of employment (when appropriate) is the means. Connecting and investing is the goal.

The church where I serve has more than 6,000 participating in worship each weekend. That makes it easy, unfortunately, to miss people for weeks on end. That certainly is not ideal, so I have to be intentional—both about meetings with me and about linking leaders with other leaders.

To do this, I’ve implemented a pair of opportunities that are working well. A quarterly gathering of leaders called a Small Group Leader Symposium and a monthly time called Coffee and Conversation with the Small Group Guy.

The symposium is our venue for ongoing leadership development and for linking leaders with leaders. Each quarter, we examine a specific issue pertaining to small group leadership. You know, stuff like dealing with the EGR (extra-grace required) person in a group, maximizing your time together, and leading your group into God’s presence in prayer. I’ll do a time of teaching and digging into the issue, then provide discussion time for leaders to dive into the issue together and then share ideas. These times are not one-on-one opportunities with me, the small group pastor, but they do provide face time for leaders with me and with other leaders.

The coffee and conversation time is all about face time. Each month, I plop myself down at a local coffee shop for two hours in the late afternoon. The goal of this time is to be available to leaders for dialogue—small-group related or other. There’s no official agenda. It’s simply an opportunity to connect and converse. Sometimes just a couple leaders will drop in during the two-hour window. Other times, I’ll have six or more. It’s about being available!

I believe my role is a small group pastor is to pour into the small group leader as they pour into the lives of those in their small group. So, being available to talk, pray, and discuss issues is critical.

Whether you oversee 10 groups or 100—face time is important. Go out and get some!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

“I Don’t Like Our Book”

How do you like those words? If you’re a small group leader, you likely just shivered reading the title of this blog entry. It strikes at the core of your leadership. It questions your judgment. It can halt the progress of your group.

Earlier this week, I interacted with a leader who is dealing with this issue. It may seem like something simple, but there are many questions to consider. Do you press on? Should you dismiss the person’s opinion? Do you take a group poll? Is the book’s subject matter (finances, evangelism, missions, etc.) the real issue—not the book? Do you punt the study like a football on Saturday afternoon? How should you handle this situation?

Allow me to make a few suggestions:

1. Assess the Person – Unfortunately, some people won’t like or approve of any book your group selects as a resource. They tend to be contrarian—no matter the subject or author. Is this that person? If so, you need to listen to their concerns, but not give up on the resource immediately. Learn the root of their distaste for the book. Then use discernment about the validity of their concern and/or issue. If you’re not dealing with a contrarian, get the facts of their book angst and then proceed.

2. Assess the Group – Ask a few others from the group for their honest opinion. Is the book or resource connecting with people’s head or heart? (A resource needs to do one—at a minimum—and preferably both.) If group members are not being challenged to a deeper understanding of God or a deeper understanding of whom they are before God—the resource is not worth continuing. Be sure to get group feedback before making the final decision.

3. Assess the Cost – Punting a study resource comes with a cost—both financial and in group momentum. Are these costs worth it? Get group feedback. Evaluate and make your decision with this in mind.

4. Develop a New Plan – If your group has decided to move on to another resource, find a clear next step. This will help you avoid the loss of momentum. You can do this by coming to the next group meeting with a few book ideas and/or study suggestions. Then, quickly transition into another study.

Don’t let the dreaded phrase, “I don’t like our book” get you down. Take a few moments to asses, develop a new plan, and move forward with confidence.

Friday, October 01, 2010

What is Learner-Based? It’s the ‘L’ in Group’s R.E.A.L Philosophy!

How do you learn? I mean really grasp and understand something?

Do you just read and retain? Do you discuss the different elements with a knowledgeable friend? Do you break the content down into an acronym? Or does it come down to brute memorization?

How do you learn?

Fact is; we all have different styles of learning. Some of us are visual learners. We see an image or watch a short film and we’ve got it! That’s why pastors everywhere are always looking for the most poignant illustration possible—they make the point stick.

Others learn with their hands. They have to touch something. Tear it apart. Then put it back together.

Still others have to read and re-read. Some need to study and study and study some more. Essentially, it comes down to face time with the material.

I was reminded of my own learning style last week when I was asked to teach the Greek alphabet to my son’s second grade class. As I was preparing my “lesson”, I couldn’t help but think of the hours I spent in seminary beating the Greek alphabet and language into my head. I had to read and re-read. Memorize. And then I met a group of fellow students to sort through our questions and discuss. My learning style took far more time than many of my classmates, yet that’s what I had to do to learn Biblical Greek.

Group Publishing recognizes that each of us have different learning styles. Within a small group of adults, likely many different styles are represented every time we get together. The question that Group is asking is a good one—what will it take to help everyone learn?

Group also went one step further. They have incorporated many of these styles (visual, interpersonal, etc.) into their study questions and activities.

In R.E.A.L.: Surprisingly Simple Ways to Engage Adults, author Carl Simmons writes, “To help people reach this level of understanding, our questions are surprising, specific, and personal.”

Simmons also adds a trio of elements that could spur others on to deeper levels of learning: interactive experiences, film, and music. Adding these elements into your study may bring the story or content to life for the different learning styles represented in your living room.

How do you learn? If you don’t know, it’s time to find out. Think through a few of the descriptions presented above. Ask your spouse. Ask others in your small group to help you discern how you learn most effectively.

But don’t stop there! Work to find the learning styles of each person in your group. This will help everyone become more consistently engaged in your study time—because they’re actually learning something!

Why? So you can unleash the power of learning in your Christ-centered community!

* * * * *
This is the fourth and final blog entry on Group’s R.E.A.L. philosophy. I want to hear which element most resonates with you? Which element has challenged your thinking? The top two responses will receive a copy of R.E.A.L.: Surprisingly Simple Ways to Engage Adults for everyone in their small group!