Initially, I had to point out when people were saying things that would indicate a connection between group members. However, once those connections were established, the group members moved rather rapidly towards directly relating with one another.
Another result of the group meetings is that the group members initially appeared very focused on the past. Small groups tend to do postmortems of old failures, archaeologizing (digging in the past for explanations of present behavior), and pathologizing (focusing more on problems than potentials). It was important for group members to discuss the past, but, what was interesting was that the other members of the group did a good job of reminding each other that the past is in the past. However, while finding it easy to state that the past was in the past, it was oftentimes difficult for group members to take the next step and begin discussion of the present and future.
The development of confrontation skills over the life of the group was another very interesting area. Initially, most group members were absolutely unwilling to confront one another. Even when someone was engaging in behavior that seemed clearly self-destructive to most members of the group, few people were willing to call them on it. Moreover, when confrontations did occur, they were not necessarily constructive. However, the group rapidly learned the growth formula, which is that caring plus confrontation produces growth. The New Testament describes such loving confrontation as "speaking the truth in love."
A confrontation without caring triggers only defensiveness, which I witnessed early on in the group process. In fact, I would go further than the traditional growth formula and state that a confrontation where the person being confronted does not perceive caring will only trigger defensiveness as well, regardless of the motives of the person doing the confronting.
Another result of the group meetings was that group slowly assumed responsibility for leadership. Initially, I fulfilled most of the leadership functions. However, by the time the groups reached the growth-work stage, the members began to participate in all major leader-facilitator functions. The growth-work stage groups were remarkable for their high levels of trust and mutual confrontation. Moreover, at the beginning stages of the group, the leader had to take no responsibility for facilitating growth in the group. By the growth-work stage of the group, the members and the designated leaders shared functions aimed at facilitating growth.
Being the leader of a small-group Bible study is much more difficult than it seems like it would be. Many times, especially in a pastoral setting, leaders are imbued with an air of authority that may or may not be deserved. Obviously, a clergyman is going to have greater knowledge of the Bible than the average lay person and may have a greater understanding of Biblical history and study. However, it is critical to keep in mind that the Bible is meant to be accessible to any person, so that it is error for clergy to claim some type of monopoly on insight into the Bible. These Bible study groups helped me remember that, while I may possess more technical knowledge about the Bible and about my faith than other members of my faith that does not mean that I am more faithful or more religious than they are. As a result, I feel like leading these groups helped develop my interest in servant leadership, because I understood that a true leader does not separate himself from the group that he leads.
One of the elements that are repeatedly emphasized in literature about servant leadership is that servant leaders show empathy for their fellow human beings. A successful small group leader not only demonstrates the ability to empathize, but also attempts to guide the group towards empathy. He does this by sharing his own feelings and responding to the feelings of others, rather than allowing the group to stay in the comfortable area of superficial socializing. He listens, not as an expert to a needy client, but as one hurting, hoping human being to another. He knows that every individual cries out for affirmation as a unique person. He encourages listening that affirms -- listening to a person's words and to feelings that are too painful or precious to trust to words -- by listening and responding on this level himself. This is what Paul Tillich calls "loving listening," and it refers to listening with a purpose and with meaning.
One of the most important lessons that I learned from teaching the groups is that it is very critical for a group leader to avoid playing "expert answer-man" or the usual teacher or leader roles, from the very beginning of the group sessions. Rather than telling the group what he expects, a leader should enter into a group setting with an open mind about what kind of experience the group is seeking. After all, a person who enters into a group with specific expectations about what the group will or will not do for him, only to have the group fail to meet those expectations, is not only likely to drop the group, but also more likely to seek another congregation. Therefore, finding out what types of expectations the group members have will help a leader identify the direction that a group wants to take. It also places the responsibility for the group where it belongs- on the group. The reality is that the group leader is there to fulfill expectations, not define them. Moreover, showing a group that he is willing to allow them to define the group's direction is a way for a leader to show that he trusts the group and its individual members to define an appropriate direction.
Moreover, while I did not encounter this scenario in the groups that I led, I think that allowing the group to define their expectations is a powerful tool for a leader whose goal is to help people. For example, if a session is specifically linked to being a better spouse and someone in attendance begins early discussions indicating that there might be domestic violence in the home, that gives the leader the ability to gather resources and information that may be outside of the general scope of the group meetings. That is not to suggest that more serious topics should be forbidden in group discussions; the whole purpose of the group is to discuss how Biblical teachings apply to daily life. There are specific Biblical passages that seem to suggest that a person should stay with an abusive spouse or would be incorrect to report a spouse for a crime. Knowing how I would interpret those passages and still respect the basic human right to safety and decent treatment would be essential in the above scenario.
However, it is important to realize that some people and/or issues are not ideally suited for group scenarios. Groups can contain silent members or member that tries to monopolize group conversations. Rather than the leader dealing with those issues on his own, it is important to involve the group in decisions about how to deal with problematic group members. Furthermore, if a group member does not respond to the group efforts, it may be that the group has to take action to suggest a different venue for the individual.
One of the other things that I learned is that group encounters are going to fail occasionally. Dealing with that failure is a real challenge as a leader. On the one hand, while struggling to try to facilitate a meaningful group encounter, it can seem defeatist to pronounce it a failure. However, what I noticed is that admitting failure actually can help facilitate trust. One of the goals of the group setting is to get a clergy member outside of the expert status, and failure pretty quickly reduces one's expert standing. To acknowledge that a group has gone flat and does not seem to be interacting on the desired level present the problem and asks the group to provide potential solutions to the problem.
One of the bigger challenges in leading a small group is helping place the past in proper perspective. Without knowing individual history, all the group members initially found it difficult to relate to one another. Therefore, a discussion of the past was important to help people place themselves and other group members' actions in context. However, it became very tempting for some group members to become overly invested in the past. In fact, the amount of self-doubt and recriminations about past behavior was surprising, especially when I realized how much of that behavior was coming from me. This part of group leadership presented the most challenges for me as I strove to be a servant-leader, because there were times when I wanted to take a more authoritarian and didactic position and actually prohibit further discussion of the past. However, doing so…