Meet some of my best friends. While they don’t try to cause problems intentionally (at least most of the time), they can cause headaches for any small group leader. Here are some ideas for coping.
Michael Motormouth: He talks too much. Sometimes he makes sense, but often what he says is only marginally insightful. When he is excited, he dominates the group and in the process the others become quiet or withdraw.
As the leader, try to sit next to Michael to regulate his participation more easily through eye contact and nonverbal interaction. After Michael speaks, ask the group, “What do others of you think?” If Michael still speaks so much that it is hurting the group, talk privately with him. Affirm his eagerness and enthusiasm. Explain the goal is whole group involvement. Ask him to help by making sure others are involved. If he is the type that always jumps in when there is a second of silence, tell him that silence is okay, and that it is often the doorway leading toward participation for quieter people.
Wilma Off the Wall: Unfortunately, Wilma’s comments often seem unrelated to the topic of discussion. They are disruptive and lead to frustrating tangents. When the group is studying the Beatitudes, Wilma asks about predestination. When the topic is self-image, Wilma focuses on baptism.
As the leader, take a moment to try to discern a possible connection. There may be one in Wilma’s mind. If you don’t perceive one, don’t simply dismiss Wilma’s concern. But do find a quick way to get the discussion back on track. Say to Wilma something like this: “Wilma, that is an interesting idea. Since it isn’t the focus of today’s study, could we explore it later or after the meeting?” You need to be willing and able to intervene in unproductive discussion, otherwise the group’s frustration will grow.
Johnny Come Lately: Why does he always show up ten or fifteen minutes late? He is often apologetic, offering every excuse imaginable. He even promises that it will never happen again. But it does. His tardiness is hurting the group’s sense of togetherness and morale. The group is almost forced to start again when he finally arrives or to start late—but that makes it hard to do everything the group is committed to.
There is always value in reminding members of expectations for group life. One of those will be to start on time. Unless it is just a question of several minutes, you will be wise to keep starting on time and increasing Johnny’s incentive to be there promptly. You may need to address him directly outside of the group or even within the group. If all else fails, then have someone in the small group arrange to meet him and actually accompany (bring) him.
Wanda Wallflower: Sometimes she is so quiet for so long that you even wonder if she is dead. Her silence mystifies many in the group who don’t know whether she is disinterested in the discussion or in them or what. The ability of the group to come together is limited by her lack of involvement.
It is possible that Wanda is feeling deeply alienated from the group and therefore has withdrawn. Alternatively, she may simply be a very quiet person or fairly nonverbal. Keep striving to establish an environment that encourages widespread participation. Be quick, but not phony, in affirming contributions. Sit across from Wanda so you can make eye contact and look for nonverbal hints that she has a comment to offer. Only ask direct questions as a last resort.
Dogmatic Dante: He is confident that he has all the theologically correct answers. He holds a hard-line on some rather controversial, debatable issues. Open-ended questions, meant to bring broad participation and thoughtful discussion, are often met by clear, but abrupt, short answers. These answers tend to end the discussion because everyone else is intimidated or afraid of sounding wishy-washy.
Ultimately, Dante needs God to help him develop a new level of humility. You don’t want to remove Dante’s confidence in Scripture or in the fact that God does have answers for questions, but he needs help in appreciating the complexity that surrounds many questions and many answers. He also needs to grow in valuing the learning process for both others and himself. Point out to him how the group will benefit from taking more time to reach conclusions.
Doug Whallon, “Redeeming Conflict,” in Small Group Leaders’ Handbook: The Next Generation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).