Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course 4, Lesson 2
Helping the Group Establish a Significant Purpose
Copyright 2001 Dick Wulf
Note: Whenever "group" or "team" is used, it can mean "group", "team", or "family".
Careful time must be taken at the start of a group to help the group adopt a purpose that is critically important to the group members. The group purpose provides direction to the whole group process (how the group operates) and content (what the group talks about and does). It spells out why the group will exist. Individual group members first commit to a significant purpose and then to the group and its members as a way to achieve that important purpose.
Apart from the two big mistakes the leader makes of not leading the group as a group and doing too much for the group, the majority of problems small groups face stem from the lack of a defined purpose or from an inadequate purpose statement. Poor attendance, dysfunctional member behavior during the group, low commitment, to name but a few, are all basically caused by no purpose, an inadequate purpose or an insignificant purpose that is not remembered.
Even poor relationships among members persist because of the absence of a purpose that is critically more important than petty differences. Destructive interpersonal relationships can also occur because the group purpose is one that does not need relationships to be loving and healthy. In this regard, consider that the purpose of studying the Bible does not call for people to work out, or at least ignore, their differences as does the purpose of meeting together to study the Bible to help one another become more and more like Jesus Christ.
Inadequate purposes also destroy a group leader’s motivation and excitement, destroy a Sunday school teacher’s commitment to continue teaching, and destroy a pastor’s enthusiasm for meeting with the church board. The purpose must not only hold the group members’ interest and commitment, it must also hold the leader’s interest and commitment. Most of us, for example, would soon wither helping the group nitpick the church bulletin in order to improve it. But to be the group leader helping a group reach people for Christ – ah, that is luxurious!
Great purposes call people, both group members and group leaders, up to higher callings, producing far greater levels of both group and group member functionality. Something really worth doing (a significant purpose) grabs the attention, makes us want to make it top priority, and urges us to mobilize strengths and get over shortcomings. Something really important that can only be done by the group makes us want to overcome our prejudices and judgmental behavior in order to work together to achieve the greatly desired purpose.
Therefore, the successful small group leader first points out the importance of having a critical group purpose and then goes on to help the group establish, define and commit to a purpose that all members really want to achieve. This group purpose sets the stage for success. Without such a purpose there is no focus, no direction, no destination.
And that is why group purposes should not be activities. Bible study, for example, is an activity and should not be the group purpose. But studying the Bible to live for God’s glory is an acceptable purpose that provides a destination. Such a change can greatly prolong commitment to the group. Merely studying the Bible for the sake of study will not hold people’s commitment. But to study to live for God’s glory will hold people to the Bible study much longer. Now there is a purpose to studying and studying and studying.
At this point it might be helpful to define a group. I will use the definition of the late Dr. William Schwartz under whom I studied at the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City from 1965 to 1967. He defined a group as “a collection of two or more people who need each other to accomplish a common purpose.” I offer this definition that you might understand the importance of a group purpose statement that includes interdependence (“who need each other”). Look for interdependence in the following purpose statements.
Here are some examples of adequate, challenging and quite important purpose statements. For a church board a significant purpose might be “to work together and help one another run the church so that it glorifies the Lord by doing what He asks in Scripture the church to do.” For a Sunday school class on the Psalms a significant purpose might be “to help one another study the Psalms in order to be able to praise God more excellently.” For a youth group a significant group purpose might be “to help one another to enjoy each other in fellowship and to follow Jesus.” For a cell church group a significant purpose might be “to meet together and help one another reach out to others and bring them to the group where loving concern is shown and the Bible is studied to learn about God.” A long-term care group, called by many different names, might adopt a significant purpose statement such as “to enjoy the help and happiness of Christian community and be obedient to all that the Lord wants his people to be when they get together.”
All of these purpose statements could be improved or formulated entirely differently. The key is that they are not merely stated in the form of activity. If the purpose doesn’t answer the question, “What for?” it will neither draw people to sufficient commitment or give adequate direction.
Imagine that you want to lead a neighborhood Bible study to reach out to your non-Christian friends. After careful tuning-in (identifying the needs of your neighbors), you go around and offer this group experience: “I am getting a group of the neighbors together to help each other find those things in the Bible that can help us meet the challenges of daily life. We would like you to come and help us do this. How about it?” Note that it is the result that will draw your neighbor. To ask if a neighbor would like to meet to study the Bible is far less compelling. In fact, if your neighbor comes, it will probably be to get to know the other neighbors better.
Let’s illustrate this further by the small group of a husband and wife. A purpose statement for a marriage might be “to enjoy one another.” But asking, “What for?” points out the inadequacy of such a purpose statement. Besides, someone else could come along who is more enjoyable and commitment is shattered. How about a marital purpose statement “to live together as each other’s helper in life that each of us might walk with God obediently and be all that we can be.” This has more substance. Our family’s purpose statement was simply “to help one another become all that the Lord wanted us to be.”
Purposes that are stated in terms of results give direction to the group’s effort. From such a purpose goals can be set and action steps taken. Church boards I have been on have been full of activity and empty of true accomplishments in line with the church’s mission. They have had the purpose of “being the church board” or “running the church”. “What for?” Without the reason for the activity, not much concentrated focus of effort took place. Efforts were scattered toward the various crises of the church and not much was done that would cut off the need for such “crisis management”. The purposes were all too often to “do church” (activity) rather than “be” the church (result).
A solid group purpose can help a group identify inappropriate or dysfunctional behavior of its members. If behavior moves the group toward its purpose, it is appropriate. If it does not move toward accomplishment of the group purpose, it is dysfunctional. The group can determine in light of its purpose what is and what is not appropriate. It might not be appropriate to bring up a deep marital hurt in a cell outreach group with visitors, but seeking such help in a care group is a “must”. The group evaluates member behavior based on the purpose of the group.
Purposes that are defined in terms of results rather than activity also help the group deal with dysfunctional behavior. The overly forceful group member who knows all of the answers can be told by the group that having a strong opinion on everything does not move the group ahead toward its purpose of “helping one another to live for Christ successfully” because it makes people too defensive and causes group absenteeism. Because there is a purpose that is an end result, it is clear when behavior is dysfunctional.
Let me clarify that the purpose statement should fit in with the mission of the sponsoring organization, in our case the specific local church. And the purpose must also be something that the group leader wants to help a group do. If the purpose does not fit into the larger picture of the church mission statement or purpose, then the small group may go off and do its own thing, even possibly becoming divisive. If the purpose does not fit with what the small group leader wants to do or thinks should be done, there will be conflict between the group and the leader in the future.
The group’s purpose must stay on the group leader’s mind constantly from the moment it is adopted by the group. Then the group leader helps the group to constantly remember the purpose and work toward its implementation. Each group member should be able to state the group purpose fairly accurately. Think of a basketball team. The purpose would not be to play basketball, for that is merely an activity. The purpose would most likely be to win games. What if the coach (small group leader) forgot that the team existed to win games? What if the players forgot? What if the players placed the purpose to win games below some other purpose such as “to play basketball to get great exercise.” Disaster! The small group leader, the group as a whole and each group member must remember the purpose and let it guide their behavior.
To keep the group purpose in the minds of everyone, it is helpful to repeat the purpose statement regularly, especially during the first six meetings. For example, at the start of the second meeting the group leader can easily say, “Well, here you are again, ready to pursue helping one another study the Bible to become more like Jesus!” And when the group tells a new member what the group is all about (note that the small group leader should never ever do this), various group members should state their understanding of the group’s purpose ("We meet together to help one another study the Bible to become more like Jesus.")
The successful group leader always remembers that his or her purpose is to help the group be successful (work toward the group purpose). Thus the group leader never thinks that his or her purpose is what is the purpose of the group, i.e. to study the Bible to become more like Jesus.
Few groups will commit to hard work for achieving a purpose they perceive is the group leader’s purpose. The purpose must be theirs. They must own it to strive to accomplish it.
For example, there is a big difference in the basketball team’s goal to win games and the coach’s goal to train them to win games. In a way, small group members begin as players and as the group matures one-by-one members become player/coaches as each begins also to help the group succeed. The small group leader is most successful if he or she is not a player/coach but simply a coach. Again think of basketball. If the coach becomes a player/coach, his or her attention changes and there is no one standing back to see what on earth is going on when the team is winning or losing.
We need to discuss how to come up with meaningful and powerful group purpose statements. They are usually designed from tuning-in to the reality of the potential group members and trying to accurately identify their thoughts and feelings about life. This tuning-in process is invaluable and might also be termed “accurate empathy”. Thorough tuning-in leads to the design of purpose proposals that grab attention and spur deep commitment. Hasty tuning-in leads to inadequate purpose statements.
Consider a group of kids in 1966 just starting sixth grade at a school in the South Bronx. They had maimed four teachers for life by the time they finished fifth grade. They were not a gang, but they had many times worked together to wreak havoc. As my second year field assignment for my Masters Degree, it was my job to reach these boys and get them to come to a therapy group twice a week after school. I had to go to the school and offer them a group purpose that would get them to try it out. And their attention spans were not more than fifteen seconds, so it had to be a quick and simple group purpose. I thought for hours about what their lives must be like in the housing project of 30 buildings and 16,000 residents. I brainstormed what they might think and feel about their lives, their families, their futures and being in school. In the end I came up with a proposed group purpose. When the time came, I said to them, “How would you like to come to my office twice a week and help each other make school more fun?” (It was successful and my work with this group was presented to all of the group workers in New York City as well as written up in a textbook on group work (professional title for small group leadership.)
A right-on-target group purpose can pull people in. I once saw a life-and-death situation and had to come up with a group purpose for a single meeting. One day in the housing projects I looked out and saw two African-American gangs chasing and shooting at each other -- and the playground was full. I said to myself, “You know, these guys are going to shoot a kid!” So I started to think about my skills. In tuning in, I knew that they weren't interested in not shooting each other. But I knew that there was a chance they might not want to kill their children. I called them up and asked if they would allow me to meet with them and negotiate an agreement where they would not kill their own children. They took me up on the offer and met with me at midnight in an obscure place, each gang sitting across from the other using three long tables lined up in a big empty room. Each person had his gun on the table pointed at the person across from him, and in that hostile atmosphere I helped them adopt the group purpose and carry it out (make the agreement to not shoot at each other where children were around).
If you take the time to tune-in, it is possible to reach all kinds of groups. A group of atheists could be invited to a group for the purpose of arguing with you about the existence of God. I once led a group in the military prison at Leavenworth, Kansas of the most hostile prison inmates. They were of a different race and would only agree to a group purpose of hating me. Starting where they were in their minds and maturity, I agreed to help them get together once a week to hate me. Within eight meetings half of them were Christians.
In tuning-in and then creating a group purpose with which you would like to help as group leader, it is important to consider carefully what God would have you do and who He would have you reach. If you are a youth worker, the question is, “What does God want done with these kids and how can I join what God wants for them with what the kids want so that they will adopt a significant group purpose?" If the kids are largely from broken homes and they are latch-key children, then you bridge what God has for them with what they might think and feel they need. You then put it into an offer of opportunity, an invitation to join a group with a specific purpose. In this case, you might ask them to come to a meeting. Then, at the meeting you would ask them if they want to form a group to see what God has for kids who have complicated family situations and a lot of time on their hands . This just might be a deal they cannot refuse.
Every so often the successful group evaluates how it is progressing in its purpose. If it is not accomplishing its purpose or making strides in the right direction, the group should determine what it needs to do differently.
Next, learn more about focusing your attention on the group as a whole.
Copyright 2013 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA