Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course 4, Lesson 7
How to Help Groups Develop Closeness
Copyright 2001 Dick Wulf
Note: Whenever "group" or "team" is used, it can mean "group", "team", or "family".
Closeness should exist in any meeting of Christians. However, the closeness of “family” that can eventually be accomplished in a small group meeting for Christian community will make the closeness of an administrative group or missions committee appear distant. Closeness, or openness, is a relative thing.
The degree of closeness in a small group is a factor of (1) trust, (2) the personal goals of group members, and (3) the leader’s beginning contract with the group.
TRUST AND CLOSENESS
Under the right conditions, closeness will develop as trust is progressively established.
If a person opens up and becomes vulnerable in a group that hasn’t proven its trustworthiness, a breach of confidentiality or a difficult confrontation might doom the whole group. On the other hand, the distrusting behavior of a group member in a group that has proven that it is trustworthy can easily lead to hostility, open or veiled, toward that group member.
Just how close should a group aim to be? It should become as close as it needs to be to accomplish the group purpose, but no closer than it can be trusted. Take for example the group that meets at my house to watch each and every Denver Broncos football game. This group began many years ago needing little trust and intimacy. It merely worked at becoming close enough to deal with the social atmosphere of fun on one hand and disappointment on the other. Closeness to enjoy one another in a non-problematic, party atmosphere is not too difficult to achieve. Trust for very little is required.
However, when it became necessary to minister to a member of the group who became extremely disappointed, our football group needed to grow in trust so that honest compassion could be delivered. Furthermore, the group would have to grow significantly in closeness and trust if a Christian member of the group were to act like an unbeliever and yell for opposing team members to be hurt. We would also need to develop greater trust and deeper closeness if we would have to help someone who acted like the outcome of the game was the basis of his personal happiness (exposing a personal idol). If these things appeared in the group, as some of them did, our group would need to be ready to confront (as we did). No matter how lovingly we would confront, he who was the target of our help would have to trust our intentions as well as be willing to stick it out because of the depth of our closeness and friendship.
Parenthetically, let me say that in the many years we have been watching football together, we have become a strong "church" even though we go to different organizational churches. We have dealt with more personal issues than any group I have participated in at any church. This includes years on the church board as an elder. As the group leader of the football crowd (it is my home and I am a natural leader), I have always seen this football group as the church, two or more believers meeting in Christ’s name. Therefore, over the years we have impacted each others’ lives such that our core group could go on a mission in a foreign country tomorrow if the Lord made the assignment.
This is to explain that even a group meeting to watch football can be led in such a way as to develop growing closeness and trust. Therefore, it is my belief that any and every group can grow in closeness and Christian community. However, there are exceptions. Any group whose purpose pretty much demands all of the available time for a purpose that does not “demand” interpersonal closeness to accomplish its task will not develop much closeness and Christian community. A Bible study group is an example. If all of the time people are together is used studying the Bible and eating dessert accompanied by small talk, community will not truly develop, only friendliness.
It probably seems that a Bible study should be a safe place. However, those things that have to happen to develop trust do not automatically happen in Bible study groups, church committees or leadership boards. I have never been on a board of elders where anything developed even remotely resembling the trust and closeness required by biblical community. Yet, in leadership groups closeness and community are most important. Many church leadership purposes, goals and tasks require elders (deacons, whatever leadership is called) to get to know one another personally if they are to take into account how the Lord is speaking through each person. Many arguments and church splits could be prevented if the closeness of Christian community developed before making difficult church decisions.
Closeness will not develop without trust. Trust usually develops out of necessity. Some group purposes do not require trust. Others do, but keep in mind that trust is not granted, as is forgiveness. Since trust must be earned (shown), trust will not be able to prove itself if it is not necessary. For example, if a person in church leadership were to reveal a doubt about some basic Christian doctrine, that person would not know if the group or its members would judge him or treat him kindly unless non-judgmental kindness had been shown before. Certainly, Bible study groups rarely deal with life significantly enough to prove that it is safe to mention how very badly a marriage is going. A Bible study does not have as its purpose the kind of Christian community that would include tasks that would eventually prove to a troubled couple that it would be safe to seek help. On the other hand, a Bible obedience group would.
THE PERSONAL GOALS OF GROUP MEMBERS AND CLOSENESS
Significant closeness cannot develop without proven confidentiality that produces trust. Whether or not group members will pay the high cost of confidentiality depends, among other things, upon the strength of their desire to be in the group because it will provide for one of their most important personal needs.
Many will have no trouble keeping confidences because they are very self-controlled and private. But most people do have trouble keeping confidences. Most people like to tell information that will get them attention or status. Therefore, people need something more than just an understanding of the necessity of keeping confidences. They need to know (1) that the group will hold them accountable for agreements made about confidentiality, and (2) that they cannot stay in the group if they cannot convince the other group members that they can keep confidences. The power of both of these considerations is proportional to the desirability of being in the group. And the desirability of being in the group is proportional to the potential of the group for meeting really critical personal needs. As an absurd example to make this point, if being in a group yielded $1,000 a week, no one would break confidentiality and risk being kicked out of the group.
This is why groups with purposes that will not meet deeper needs adequately, such as most Bible studies, should not even try to acquire closeness or encourage vulnerable openness. Such groups are, in fact, too risky for personal disclosure. In such groups there is too little motivation for honoring confidentiality. There are no consequences “with teeth”. Nothing critical will be lost if a person spreads rumors or gossips. People can always go to another Bible study, so they can speak carelessly outside of the group without the fear of losing something valuable (the critical help of the group) or of being held accountable and confronted.
This is the reason so many people get hurt in church. They hope to find in the larger fellowship a safe haven. Eventually they say something a bit too honest and find that what they have said has gone to other people in the form of a prayer request or gossip or has been criticized. Church becomes dangerous and interactions necessarily become superficial and merely congenial. The larger fellowship is rarely a safe place to share truly personal information except for the boldest and most secure of persons. Only in the small group with a very important purpose not easily available elsewhere can the issue of trust and the necessity of confidentiality be adequately dwelt with to form a safe environment for honesty.
Churches that resist forming small groups for deeper purposes than Bible study give their members no safe place to talk, except maybe to the pastor. Thus members are robbed of most of the resources of the whole church. Some of these churches, resistant to small groups, encourage people to “open up” in the larger fellowships or even in the small group Bible studies where adequate agreements for confidentiality are not made. This just puts people in danger.
Almost all of the commands to the church that require honesty imply the existence of small groups -- with Christian community rather than knowledge as their purpose. This was the state of the church for the first 300 years of its existence. Contemporary church life, on the other hand, is just plain dangerous for Christians to open up because they will likely be hurt by gossip or other behaviors of members where no adequate accountability systems are established. And they are dangerous for Christians who are wise enough not to open up, because then those individuals do not get the help of the church to be able to more and more please the Lord. It is a tough predicament. Do you open up and get criticized or do you keep silent and displease the Lord by behavior that would have changed with Christian counsel and compassion?
HOW A GROUP IS BEGUN IS WHAT LAYS THE GROUNDWORK FOR CLOSENESS
The groundwork for closeness, honesty and intimacy in a group is laid during the initial process of starting the group. The knowledgeable small group leader will start the group off carefully to make sure that the group and its members address those things that lead to trust, openness and a host of other critical considerations. A contract or set of agreements are made about the purpose of the group, the role of the leader and many other things before the group actually gets going. These agreements make closeness easier.
Before the group ever exists, when the group leader first identifies the kind of group he or she wants to pull together and lead, he or she identifies a possible purpose for the group. Then the group leader thinks deeply (tunes in) about the needs of those people who will be attracted to this kind of a group purpose.
The better job done in identifying the thoughts, feelings and realities of those soon to join the group, the more sensitive to those needs the leader will be. No one is going to drop his or her guard if the group leader is not seen as someone who understands. And it is the job of the group leader to see that the group soon understands the needs of its members.
After the group leader has decided on the general purpose of the kind of group he or she wants to lead, and after tuning in to those likely to join the group, he or she contacts individuals and proposes the group and its purpose. At that initial contact with individuals there will be some unconscious understanding about the probable level of trust and closeness necessary to accomplish the group purpose.
Once enough people have shown interest in the group, the leader schedules the first meeting of the group and leads a discussion of the proposed group purpose. The degree of closeness that must develop in a group is dictated by this purpose.
Some group purposes require members to develop more closeness than others. A high degree of closeness is not necessary in every small group. There are many group purposes that can be accomplished without closeness. Bible study groups and Sunday school classes are among those that require less closeness. Some Bible studies involve interaction that requires a little intimacy and trust. But most are more like college classes which do not require much, if any, closeness.
On the other hand, Christian community requires the maximum in closeness. For true, biblical community to occur, members need a high degree of intimacy. If group members are going to do such biblically commanded things such as examine one anothers’ faith, closeness will be absolutely necessary. The group purpose of Christian community with its ever more complicated tasks requires closeness to be ever increasing. Hopefully, by the time a group has to deal with something really difficult, such as the unfaithfulness of a spouse or the failure of a parent, people in the group are close enough to do whatever is necessary.
Once a group purpose is adopted by people, a group actually comes into being. At that point the purpose has a great deal of significance to group members, and they really want to accomplish the purpose. If the group purpose promises to meet their stronger felt needs, as it should, they will be quite motivated. So, when the group leader goes to the next steps in the contracting process, issues very critical to the development of closeness will acquire serious attention.
First would come a discussion of goals and action steps to accomplish the newly adopted, very critical purpose. Once the group has decided on specific action steps, the group leader should ask the group to identify those things, including individual and group behaviors, that will be necessary to accomplish the goals and action steps. It is in this discussion that things critical to closeness should be brought up by group members, necessary things like the degree of closeness, openness and honesty, confidentiality, and other appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
This discussion might take considerable time, but in the end it will be worth every minute. The group leader who wants openness, closeness and trust to develop in the group does not hurry the group to begin work on its purpose (Bible study, Christian community, etc.). There must be adequate discussion of problems that may become barriers to any group member’s honest participation. For example, in discussing appropriate and inappropriate behavior for accomplishment of the group’s purpose, the group will identify judgmental criticism as harmful to the group’s process and check each member’s perception of their ability to listen and respond without judgment. Similarly, the group will address the need for and each person’s commitment to confidentiality.
Groups can be fairly accurate in identifying just how capable members are in keeping things shared in the group confidential outside of the group. The group and its members will notice when a person in the group tells information about others that is not neccessary or appropriate. The skillful group leader will help the group point out to that person his or her tendency to lack discretion and help that person develop new values and behavior. But the group purpose must be critically important and necessary to the person to pay the price of this kind of helpful confrontation about confidentiality. This is because it is implied in the group’s help that the person must leave the group if she or she cannot reach the level of confidentiality necessary for the group to achieve its purpose.
In a group where confidentiality, lack of judgment and helpfulness are sure things, trust and closeness will develop. There are not many safe environments, so when people find such a place, most will open up for the help they can find there.
But there will always be those who hesitate to open up or will not ever really expose themselves for help. What does a successful group do about these people?
The group should ask why a person does not want to tell more personal things when excellent help from the group is available. If the group listens closely, it will be able to decide if the person can be helped over whatever barrier exists. If this is not possible, the group will probably need to ask the person to leave the group, because he or she will not be as vulnerable as other group members, something that tends more to assure confidentiality. Because a person’s inability or unwillingness to be more vulnerable makes others feel it is dangerous to be open, it is best for the person to leave the group for one with a purpose that does not require such a level of openness.
Sometimes the resistant group member will not open up because of the presence of his or her spouse in the group. The group will notice more openness when the spouse is absent as a clue to this cause of superficiality. The distrust is not of the group, but of the marital partner. Perhaps the husband or wife uses what the other says in the group to win arguments or exert power in the relationship. A mature group can deal with this. But a new group might want to just let the person be rather closed in the group and have a group member or two explore what is going on in a conversation apart from the group meeting.
Then there are people who are afraid to admit anything that might be seen as a shortcoming, mistake, or (gasp!) sin. The group will recognize the need to explore if this person truly understands Christ’s death for sin. Within that discussion the group can make clear that the Bible says that one of the biggest sins is to claim to be without sin and, therefore, without the need of a Savior. The biggest danger in a group meeting for the purpose of true, biblical community is that the person who needs to appear “perfect” raises the anxiety level of all the other group members. Everyone is uncomfortable about admitting their shortcomings. Closeness and openness require getting over the lesson life has mistakenly taught most of us that it is dangerous to appear weak or wrong. Unfortunately, this rule may in fact be true for all groups other than very obedient Christian small groups. It may, in fact, be dangerous to expose weaknesses and mistakes to family, friends, Bible study group, or in the workplace. Yet, it is not supposed to be dangerous to expose these things to the Lord or to the people of the Lord’s Kingdom. The group leader may have to take considerable time to teach this truth. But, as earlier said, it might be best for the group where confessing shortcomings and sins is necessary for the group's purpose, that people unable to confess be asked by the group to leave. And, being asked to leave will emphasize the dysfunction of not being able to admit mistakes and sins.
In some cases, the person’s culture or family norms (unspoken rules) will be dictating personal silence and superficiality. This is difficult to overcome. These people will have to have the group’s help in seeing that the Kingdom of God has different rules. Some people still firmly believe that it is wrong to share “dirty laundry” with others outside of the family circle. This is sad in that it negates the helpfulness of the Kingdom society and prevents emotional and spiritual growth.
However, the group can usually help most group members over the barrier to personal openness. Some people are afraid of betrayal and being hurt. They will need more reassurance and possibly more time in the group for members to prove their trustworthiness. But, then they will most likely open up.
So, you can see that the purpose of the group sanctions discussion of group member behavior with respect to openness. The alert group leader knows that one of the biggest barriers to any group purpose is lack of trust.
HOW TRUST AND CLOSENESS DEVELOP AFTER INITIAL AGREEMENTS ARE MADE ABOUT THEIR IMPORTANCE
Trust is built and closeness results as incremental risks prove to bring no real harm. To see that this happens requires the group and the group leader to be very alert. Since group members are usually too close to the situation, this task is one that illustrates the wisdom of the group leader not being a group member. (Neither was Jesus a member of the group of disciples he led.)
The successful small group leader will be careful with this issue of trust, openness and closeness. He or she will watch what comes up in the group, ever watchful for something said that is more personal than the level of trust that has been proven by past group behavior. When it seems a group member is bringing up particularly sensitive material that requires deeper trust and more confidentiality than the group has so far proven, and if the group doesn’t intervene to assure the person’s safety, the group leader will interrupt. In keeping with allowing the group to do as much of its own work as possible, the group leader will merely ask the group if what is coming out is safe or does it require more trust and confidentiality than the group has proven capable of. The first time this is done might surprise the group, but group members should readily understand.
Before continuing, the group should solve any barriers to safety for the person who is revealing deep personal things. If those barriers cannot be adequately addressed, the group leader should help the group advise the person to not yet tell what he or she started to relate. Then the group should work hard, with the leader’s help, to become a group that has proven it can handle more sensitive things so that the person can get the help he or she needs. Also, the group might appoint a few more trustworthy members to meet with the person outside of the group to see if help can be administered.
As successive incidents of personal vulnerability are dwelt with carefully, more and more trust will grow and closeness develop.
Next, learn what to do about absenteeism from the group.
Copyright 2013 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA