Their families played together, served together, did life together. The group of 12 moms had grown to 18. They were a great small group. Fun. Brilliant. Centered. Or, were they self-centered?
Was it wrong for this small group to start saying, “no” to growing bigger than anyone’s living room could handle? They had invested time forging relationships. Why couldn’t others do the same? Why was joining this group the only way for other moms to feel included?
The outed women, now seated in my office, came in search of answers. “What kind of church would sanction cliques?” they wanted to know. I felt the sting of their exclusion. And yet, I thought, we do it all the time. When we say “12-session course,” we’re saying sorry to those who didn’t get on board at the outset. Or, when we announce that we’re holding a “grief group,” our intention is exclusivity; this group isn’t for singles seeking friends, it’s for those in the throes of grief. And, an “AA Group” is for alcoholics (not over-eaters). And “youth group” is for high schoolers (not for middle-aged adults). Boundaries create safe places for individuals to grow in community.
So, when is it okay for a group to be closed? And when is it not okay?
Being responsible for the care of our church’s small groups, I asked for an invitation to the next moms’ gathering. And, once there, asked them to tell me how they felt about their reputation as a church small group clique.
They felt awful. Really awful.
So, I proposed a once-popular (and still frequently promoted) “missional” solution: divide the group. "Yes," I said with conviction, "Divide and multiply! Divide once, maybe even two or three times – so that there will be a place for everyone!” (Yes, I really said that.)
The thinking behind this division model is that that’s how you make disciples; forgetting of course that Jesus kept his “closed” group of disciples together (undivided) for three years of intense discipling. Only then were they impelled to move out in unforeseen directions, changing the world forever.
My division-proposal was met with a tirade of disbelief, "You're asking us to break up our friendship?!" The moms couldn’t believe that creating a community for others would mean fracturing their community. They insisted, “There must be a better way!”
In spite of the fact that I had offered them the finest wisdom in small group management, I said, “I’m open.” Within days, the moms were in my office with a truly brilliant solution! They would make it part of their mission to host parties, create a fun atmosphere, and spend time talking with others about forming friendship groups with a mission.
Like Jesus' disciples, the Mom’s group was “closed” but not “closed-in.” They had repeatedly stretched themselves to serve in new ways, at church and out in the community. Now they would go one step further. Setting aside their own community for a few months, they would not only host welcome-parties, but they choose to attend the first few gatherings of each new group to ensure they launched well.
So, how do you know if your small group is a small group clique or a called-out-ministry?
A clique exists primarily for themselves; primarily for the friendship and the ways they support one another. Whereas, a brilliant “called-out” group strengthens its members so they can serve the world; that “light in the darkness” thing.
If you’re wondering where your group falls on the trajectory between inward-clique and outward-focused-ministry, raise the topic at your next gathering.
- Ask your group to share stories about what it’s taken to forge the relationships they now share.
- Ask members to be honest about the work it takes to help others acclimate newcomers.
- Talk about the difference between being a “closed-in group" and "called-out” group.
- Ask whether your group is symptomatic. Small group cliques start to feel indifferent to those who are excluded. Spend some time talking about how Jesus approached the “religious-cliques” of his day.
What concrete actions could your group take to foster a place of belonging for others? Jesus and his disciples are missional models. Let's go for brilliant.
Interested in learning more about how to handle common issues in your small group? Check out our free video series that covers the five biggest questions from small group leaders.