A significant aspect of our healing journey is the decision to “‘pay it forward.” We take the healing and change that God has so graciously brought into our lives and look for opportunities to help others in the same way. This often leads men and women to sign themselves up for the task of leading or co-leading another group.
But leadership is tough! Often, our only training has come through our recovery. We feel challenged by how to help others well. In working with groups and listening to leaders for the last 7 years, here are seven common mistakes I have observed. If you can work to avoid these mistakes, you will be well on your way to effective group leadership.
When we have experienced healing and freedom, we desperately want others to have the same experience. As they share their story, habits, and challenges, we can see clearly what needs to be done. Because of this, we can make the mistake of caring more than they do, and then start to over-function as a group leader. If you ever feel that you are carrying the burden for someone else’s change more than they are (for example: you make all the phone calls, suggest all their boundaries, help with their homework), you need to take a step back and wait for them to engage more fully.
This mistake happens most often because we care. We know they are in a tough spot, so we begin to overlook a group member’s unfinished homework, tardiness or absence from group, and lack of phone calls. As hard as it may be, if someone perpetually has excuses for not following the Group Guidelines and Covenant to Contend, you need to graciously point this out to them and ask for change. If they are unwilling to address these behaviors, they will need to take a break from the group until they are ready.
It seems to happen in every group. One group member hijacks the group time. They always need to tell a story “just for some background,” explain a situation in more depth, or give abundant details they didn’t write down. The rest of the group sits restlessly and waits for them to end so that others will have a chance to share. When Hijack Harry (or Heather) gets going, you need to kindly step in and ask, “Did you write all that down? Please just share what you have written.” Not only will the rest of the group silently bless you under their breath, but Hijack Harry will also learn to be more focused in his homework answers, knowing in advance that he only gets to share what he has written.
A related mistake to Hijack Harry is that groups labor to finish a lesson each week. In Pure Desire materials, some lessons will take two weeks, but this is definitely the exception and not the rule. If your group routinely struggles to get through a lesson in one week, the most common causes are too many rabbit trails, the group is too large, or not sticking to the weekly group agenda. As a leader, make it a priority to get the lesson done each week. This honors the work that group members have done during the week and keeps them in the rhythm of doing a new lesson each week.
When listening to a group member’s homework answers, group check-ins, or the FASTER Scale, you will find a question pop into your mind—a hole in their story, an obvious omission, or an area that seems intentionally vague. You may feel that it’s ”kind” to just move on and not make a point of asking any further questions. This, however, will stunt growth as group members learn it’s okay to be vague about anything hard or particularly messy. We must learn to tell the whole truth and walk in vulnerability. So, as a leader, take a deep breath and ask the question that needs asking, trusting God to work through your boldness.
As men and women process their healing, they will have questions. Some you can answer out of your personal experience or knowledge gained along the way. However, other questions are truly outside your scope of expertise. That’s okay! A traditional Bible Study or small group often sets up the leader as the expert. This is not the case in a Pure Desire group. Since your equipping comes from your experience, it is okay to say, “I don’t know, but let me see if I can find out.” Then, touch base with a Regional Group Leader or a licensed Pure Desire counselor for help answering questions.
When tough stuff is shared in group, we may find ourselves wanting to jump into investigation mode (why did this happen?) or problem-solving mode (did you try this?). While those questions may have a place, you need to set the tone as a leader. Every time someone shares their story, confesses to relapse, or opens up about a secret, your response needs to be some version of, “Thank you so much for sharing that. I am so glad you are in this group. We love having you here.” When we reaffirm grace and acceptance, we create a relational bridge strong enough to carry the weight of truth and challenge. When you have said it a thousand times, the phrase may begin to feel trite; but for the person opening up their heart, those words give them the courage to stay and keep fighting.
I am constantly amazed at how God uses us to help others when we simply make ourselves available. Trust that your own story of change and willingness are all that it takes to make you a qualified leader. As you avoid these seven common mistakes, your group—just as you have—can experience hope and freedom.
Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.