Tensions in Group Leadership

In this video, Stuart Makinson discusses how to navigate five of the most common tensions faced by group leaders.


What do we do when the tensions in group become obstacles on the way to the destination we want in our group? Most the time, all the preparation, all the training, all the resources on groupleaders.org can help, but it doesn’t speak exactly to the situations that we find ourselves in in the middle of group. This is because every person is different and every group’s challenges and tensions are different too. Oftentimes, the very thing that causes these tensions in your group is what God uses to grow you and your group members.  

I hope it comes as a relief to you to know that you're not the one responsible for the spiritual growth of the people in your group. You're primarily there to encourage their growth and to help promote their growth. As tensions like these arise--and they always will, they always do--just know that you don't have to solve it or fix it, but there are helpful ways to manage these tensions. Let's take a look at five of the most common tensions we face as group leaders:  

First, what do you do with major questions of character? We don't know who's going to show up in our group. When a character flaw surfaces in someone--and we all have them--what do you do? What if someone is presenting issues in group that are just bad for their lives or bad for the others in the group? Do you confront or disregard? Do you confront them about this character flaw, this character issue, or do you let this one go? We want people to grow in their faith, but a sense of belonging in group is an important, vital part of that process.  

For people to feel comfortable talking about complicated truths, or sharing difficult parts of their story for them to grow, they need to feel safe and welcomed. Now you have this individual affecting the whole group with a personal character issue. As the leader, you're there to think about that individual and everyone else, too. There are definitely times when group members present enough of a problem that they have to be called out or challenged because they're creating a disruption that's not healthy for anyone in the group, including themselves. A best practice is to always confront privately, not in front of the group or the other group members. Even before you confront them, try to get advice and direction and counsel from a wise and trusted source, a person who you can trust to navigate this situation with you before you confront them privately. Always remember, leaders are the only people in the room thinking about each individual group member's growth and the environment as a whole.  

Now, a second and similar tension that arises, but usually isn't related to the person's specific character, is what to do when a group member is making theologically inaccurate statements in group, things that aren't true about God or us. Do you accept them where they are because of what you know about them already, or is this a case where the person needs to be challenged because of the statement they're making or the effect on the group it's having?  

We could just challenge the person every time. That's one way we could respond, but it's important for us to be aware that challenging these people every time is not going to lead to what we actually hope for this person. We can't make a difference in someone's life without carrying influence in their life. A poorly timed challenge can cause us to lose our influence in a heartbeat and it's our influence that ultimately allows us to be facilitators of change in their life. In this tension, we should be asking where this person is on their spiritual journey. What is God up to? What's he doing in their life? Are the other people in the group aware enough of the person or the situation to let this statement go, or do we really need to correct them and lead them towards the truth by telling them?  

You have to consider whether the theological question is core or peripheral. Is it a core issue, a core tenet of the faith, or is it in a gray area? Is it an area where we can believe one way and still all believe the same thing about who Jesus is, as the son of God, or is this an issue that is having an urgent or negative effect on this specific group member? If it is, we may want to confront it.  

Lastly, think about it from a relational perspective. What what's my relationship like with this person and how does this person view me? The bottom line with theological tensions in group is for us to think about whether we’re trying to make a point or a difference. Am I my trying to make a point with them about what's true and what's not, or am I trying to make a difference in their life by the influence I have in their life?  

As your group is having discussions around different topics throughout the group lifecycle, there's going to be a lot of times when somebody is looking specifically for an answer, which is tension number three. These people want to know yes or no, true or false. Can I do this or can I not do this? As the leader, most of the time they're going to be looking to you for the answer, and that's the tension that arises. In this moment, should I instruct or discuss? Should I just tell them the answer if I know it? That's not what Jesus did. He knew all the answers, but lots of times he just facilitated. So, should we facilitate? Should we ask the questions? Should we dialogue with them or the group about the topic instead of giving the answer, even if we know it? I mentioned this idea earlier, but remember that it's not your role to make people grow or to make them change, only to encourage their growth and change.

Most often, people change when they self discover, not when you tell them or when someone else tells them. In a tension like this, even being told the answer won't usually lead to change. People will apply truth as they discover it, not necessarily when they're told. Think of it like this: maybe you've heard the idea that truth is caught, not taught. If we really want to help them have those 'aha' moments, where they catch something, where the light comes on and they see what God says is true or what's wise for them in this situation, it’s best accomplished through conversation. You can definitely offer your opinion if you think that's helpful, but your most important role as a leader for this tension is to become a great asker of questions. Ask questions that help them self discover. That's what's going to lead to change. As you grow in that skill over time, it's going to end up being one of the greatest leadership skills that you have. When someone's looking for an answer, always remember that the truth is caught, not taught.

This fourth tension is one that lasts throughout the whole group and is felt by every leader. This is the norm within group. It's the tension of whether you should prioritize content or connection. We want both, right? On the connection side, we want to have real, transparent, healthy relationships, but on the content side, we're in this thing to grow our faith. We should have studies in our group that encourage our growth, right? We should plan for this and be strategic. Here's the tension: Which area is the priority? Well, like most tensions, it's not an either or, but it's a focus. Honestly, this one is normal for all groups because the focus is seasonal. This tension arises and you navigate it as the different seasons of group come and go.

If you already have a trusting community of people where everybody is real with one another and they feel like they belong, you'll see more progress in their growth. God has created us to grow within the context of authentic relationships. That's how he's designed us. So, if community has gotten a little shaky in your group, or if people are not showing up or aren't joining in the conversation, a fair amount of your focus in this season should be creating that type of community. Always remember, spiritual growth in community is built on the foundation of authentic relationships. Consider that as you weigh the tension of whether to focus on content or connection.

Now, for the fifth and last tension. As I've met with leaders over the past five or six years, this could be the most common tension that arises. It comes when leaders are asking what the group should study next. For the sake of your group, what you're deciding between is whether you should be reactive or proactive? Am I going to proactively guide my group in a journey of spiritual growth, or am I going to react to a specific felt need that has arisen?

Both are great options. That's why it's a tension that everybody faces. Maybe the group would benefit most from sticking to a curriculum plan that is specifically, strategically designed to take the group on a journey that encourages their spiritual growth. What a great way to be proactive. We should have a proactive plan, thinking strategically about topics and conversations, but on the other hand, maybe something has surfaced that would cause you to be reactive and consider a shift in that plan. Maybe there's a sermon series that's going on right now that's relevant to you and your group and you guys want to change the plan and follow along. That's reactive. A topic may have surfaced in your group and you feel it would lead the group to more growth if you pursued it, like money or marriage or friendships and relationships. Maybe you've discovered recently that someone in your group is new to Christianity and you want to focus on some Christian basics. Any of those things would lead you to be reactive in that moment, even if you had a proactive plan.

Remember, leaders are guides for the group's journey. We should always be listening to the conversations, the interactions, and the responses. We should listen to what they mention and the stories they're telling us. Even in the relational time at the beginning of the group. What is heightened in their life in that time? Do their conversations and struggles always revolve around their children? God loves to use parenting to grow us, so maybe we should reactively move in that direction.

Don't forget, though. We always want to be realistic about the capacity of the group. Even if you choose a topic, you want to consider 'should this group do a book because they love to read and they love to be challenged more with homework, or should we just continue with videos? Their capacity might be to simply show up and engage. Should there be homework between the weeks or just activities that should be done in the group? That's how you and how we best manage this tension. As you lead, you'll grow in your ability to navigate this tension in a way that creates fertile soil for the growth to take place.

Always remember, you don't make people grow and that should be an encouragement to you as a leader. I hope that's a relief to you as a responsibility. You're a guide and an encourager of the spiritual growth of your group members and the group as a whole. As you try to lead and guide well, and as you manage the tensions that come your way, God will grow you in the process.