Today I read “Walking the Small Group Tightrope” for a summer class that I have coming up next week. Here’s my review:
In Walking the Small Group Tightrope by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson there were many applicable principles shared without the material being presented too technically or too cliche. Leading small groups for purposes of doing ministry, service, or fellowship in the church is a unique task because of the need for balance in many different areas. In this review I will discuss the six areas that Donahue and Robinson identified needing balance: spiritual transformation, intentional shepherding, authentic relationships, healthy conflict, serving together, and inclusive community.
First, spiritual transformation in a small group is doing the balancing act of Truth and Life. An emphasis in Truth is all about Bible study, memorization, and knowledge. The emphasis on Life comes from an orientation of wanting to spend large parts of the small group wanting to talk about personal experiences, problems, or testimony and getting the group’s input. Donahue and Robinson emphasized that spiritual transformation is where truth meets life. “It is about truth that engages life and produces spiritual growth in the community of Christ followers” (32). I like this because it helps people to avoid knowledge without application.
Second, intentional shepherding within the context of a small group is understanding the difference between care and discipleship. Care and discipleship both require active listening but care focuses on the needs, whereas discipleship focuses on the spiritual disciplines and learning aspects. While, there should be a balance there are groups that I have experienced that had truth and discipleship portions but had a large emphasis on sharing life and being cared for. One such group that I participated in was Grief Share. Each week we met, we would share briefly how we were doing, watch a video that gave biblical concepts and thoughts about the grieving process, and then pray for one another. It was enjoyable because it wasn’t too heavy on facts or information, but what it did say was helpful for the group to process and respond to because of our group leaders who authentically cared for us.
Third, authentic relationships that provides friendship and accountability can be very difficult because of the need to be friendly, yet have the ability to speak truthfully and compassionately into others’ lives. This is an experience that is common in my own ministry to youth because students want to be friends, but I also have to be an adult figure in their life that approaches them in my relationship with them to hold them accountable to the biblical standards of loving God and loving people. Donahue and Robinson suggest that mutual support is important, and that the leader of the group be the model of this approach so that others will feel safe and willing to share what they struggle with. The story of the drill sergeant was eye-opening because it reminded me that God doesn’t want us to be harsh with people, but he does want us to remind, exhort, and rebuke in a necessary time and way that will help the person respond to the correction through the guise of relationship.
Fourth, and very related to authentic relationship, is the aspect of healthy conflict. Healthy conflict is the combined balance of kindness and confrontation. In my experience, not very many people enjoy conflict. I only embrace confrontation when I feel like I have been adequately informed, preparing, and acting out of a humble heart. I like what Donahue and Robinson wrote in response to Dr. Jean Varnier’s comments on forgiveness through the power of the Holy Spirit in us: “The result is a courageous venture into healthy conflict- conflict that honors God and produces transformation” (113). The result of the transformation will bring us closer to display the love unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17:23, and that the Trinity has experienced for all of eternity.
Fifth, serving together proves a challenge for the task of the small group and the people of the small group. The tasks that need to get done can often result in difficulty for people to develop more meaningful community or the other way around- the community and socializing can get in the way of the task. Some suggestions that Donahue and Robinson gave were to have a meal together and to choose to do one major project together outside of your regular meeting times. Doing a meal will provide for more community and socializing, while doing a community project will help get people active in service. Trying to force service or community is a far-fetched scheme and all leaders must realize that it takes time to bring both of those aspects into balance. Praying and focusing on the goals of the group through the meetings and developed tasks can help nurture people’s spiritual lives through acts of worship that might otherwise go unnoticed or unmet in a regular discipleship or worship service model.
Sixth, having an inclusive community where membership is open, leaders model openness, intimacy can be developed safely, and growth is measured by multiplication seem to be the challenge that Donahue and Robinson presented for their last principle. They write, “Our purpose in life-given to us by God in Christ- is to enjoy community and extend to others an invitation to participate in the dreams of redemption” (156). This is our legacy. Leaders need to focus on the big picture and share that at the beginning in order to be clear that the growth of the group is not numerical or spiritual, but it is produced when there is a multiplication that the group experiences, in short, birth pains that lead to new groups and discipleship opportunities. I really enjoyed the emphasis on that so that groups don’t get too large, but don’t become cliques either.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson’s book Walking the Small Group Tightrope because of the six areas of balance that were identified, the advice given within those areas, and the tools that were given for leader use at the end. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to or is in the process of small group leadership- with youth or adults. I know that it will be helpful for me because I have not always enjoyed leading or participating in small groups, but this book has given me a boost of energy and confidence in trying to do a better job as a leader and participant.