Small Groups are messy. It seems to me there are three major types of messes that we face when leading people. Categories can be a bit limiting because they always break down, but I think they can also provide some helpful language and distinctions for thinking intentionally and strategically about appropriate ways to respond to the specific mess we are facing.
Sin messes happen between an individual and God, but they enter into your group experience because people are sinful. You discover someone in your group is having an affair. Or engaged in unethical business practices. Your small group becomes a safe place for people to confess addictions or habits that are destructive.
Several years ago I led a small group that I was convinced was the most perfect group God ever put together. I couldn’t believe it—it was full of young, smart, likable, energetic, and attractive twenty-somethings who seemed eager and hungry to grow in their relationship with God. We had great discussions about the Bible and great community life throughout the week. I was convinced that God could change the world through us. Until I got a phone call from my co-leader. He prefaced the conversation with this: “Are you sitting down?” He proceeded to tell me that two single individuals in the group—one of whom we were raising up as a potential leader—were sleeping together. In fact, they had been living together without our knowing. That was just the beginning. We discovered other mess in the lives of our group members and a lot of it was this very type— sin mess.
The second type of mess is the kind we encounter most often in group life. It’s relational mess. The kind that happens in the group between two individuals. Or three. Or four. Or between your whole group. It includes the talking messes—you know, like the long talkers, no talkers, off-topic talkers, narcissistic talkers, extra grace required talkers, theologically divisive talkers, weird talkers, trash talkers. It’s the mess of conflict or disagreement or personality clashes. It’s the mess of agreeing to agree on doctrine and agree to disagree over opinion only to learn that you disagree over what’s doctrine and what’s opinion. It’s the mess that predictably and inevitably happens whenever you put more than one person in a room together.
It’s the kind of mess that happened to me not too long ago when some individuals in my group really began to open up and share hurts, fears, and disappointments. One individual confessed to the group that they only prayer she had been able to muster recently was, “God, what the hell are you doing?” I was proud to lead a group that created such a safe place for someone to be that vulnerable. Until another person in the group spoke up to condemn the language that had just been used. Relational messes– the friction that occurs between people– is the one we face most often in groups.
Then there is life mess. This is the kind of mess that happens to individuals in your group that is totally unrelated to their group experienced but completely affects your group experience. Think of sudden deaths, divorce, cancer, a job loss. It’s the kind of mess that happens because we live in a broken world, and, in healthy groups, when one member suffers, the whole group suffers.
It’s the kind of mess that happens in our groups here on Capitol Hill every two or four years. Lost elections– which result in lost jobs. Sometimes, a group contains those on the left side of the political aisle and those on the right side of the political aisle, and the election cycle can mean significant change for those people. Some lose jobs while others get promoted. It’s a challenge for a leader to rejoice with those whose lives are changing for the good and to simultaneously mourn with those who face loss.
Often, these messes are interrelated. Relational messes lead to sin messes. And life messes lead to relational messes. We’ll talk next about some ways to address mess when it happens in group.