By Brian Daniel
When it comes to group leadership I’ve often heard that the number one reason why so many of us don’t volunteer is a fear of not knowing the answer (or all the answers). This moment in any group can bring a cringe to even the most seasoned of group leaders. Whether it’s a tricky cultural topic, a question that requires a high degree of theological acumen, or an obscure biblical account, it’s hard to put away the weight of feeling like we have to have the answers to every question. And this is true even though we know in the back of our minds we’re not expected to have all the answers. Even so, responding to an unexpected question with a blank stare or an unintelligible answer in front of a group of people remains high on most of our “Things I Would Rather Not Happen” lists.
The good news is that having all the answers isn’t a prerequisite to being an effective and competent group leader. (Not only this, but many group members might say that having all the answers is the last thing they need from a group leader!) And so it’s in the spirit that I want to provide a few tips for managing those moments when you just don’t have an answer or response you feel good about.
Pause. Two options come to mind here. First, when there’s a subject or a question that you’re not sure about, you can be direct and tell the group that you’re not sure. After all, honesty is always appreciated and this adds the extra ingredient of humility. In these instances I let the group know that I will devote time during the week to the specific prompt, do my own research on the subject through commentaries or by consulting experts, and report my findings back to the group during the next meeting. Another tactic here is committing to circling back as time allows. This allows the group discussion to continue along a more-expected course.
Open It Up. Like most of us, I’m familiar with the “shared ignorance” phenomenon and, yes, we do have to be mindful not to create an environment in which we invite guesswork when we have God’s written and revealed Word. As long as we are careful here, however, it can be effective to open the question up to the group with something like, “So how would any of you answer this question?” In the groups I have led there have usually been scholarly types as well as others with a high degree of biblical literacy and theological acumen.
Pass. In much the same way I have coached my publishing team to avoid distractions as they curate Bible study content, I do the same in small group discussions. Sometimes the tough-to-answer question doesn’t need to be answered (or even asked) in the first place. If this is the case, you have the right to point out how the question really doesn’t apply to the discussion or the objective and move the group on in the discussion. Not only is this a tip for when you get stuck but also in those situations when the group stalls out in discussion and is having trouble advancing the conversation.
Redirect. As a leader you should know your group and where everyone is on their trajectory as a disciple of Jesus. If this is the case, you likely know the areas where your group members are most biblically competent. Moreover, the guy that has a special interest in eschatological concerns and the woman that might be extra-devoted to the Pauline epistles and ecclesiology probably appreciates being given a chance to share his or her passion. If you have the opportunity, redirect the question or defer to the group member with a special interest.
Of course, serious and prayerful preparation goes a long way in avoiding this circumstance. Drawing from different sources, using the leader guides, and reviewing the material ahead of time for awareness, dramatically contributes to the most positive experience. Eventually, however, you’re going to find yourself in an uncomfortable situation whether it’s topical, a tough question, some kind of culturally inspired “what if?”, or foreign theological ground. Pause, open it up, pass, and redirect all represent ways for moving the group along and serving them well. And when the hard question comes, remember that your role is to point group members to the Bible as the ultimate source of truth.