Summary: The God-designed way for small groups and churches to coordinate themselves is through agreements. These develop accountability, unity and self-governing so that groups can be the all-leader systems they are designed to be.
Without a doubt, the first question that arises when I talk to people about how healthy small groups coordinate themselves in an all-leader fashion how the New Testament teaches is…doesn’t that just end up in chaos?
If you don’t have a few people making decisions about what the rules of engagement will be during a discussion, isn’t that asking for it?
Why yes, of course that could happen. And it probably will if you don’t implement what I’m going to talk about here. But that doesn’t mean the solution is to centralize power and make someone THE leader who decides for the group what is acceptable and not.
There is a better way. There is a God-designed way. That way is for groups to operate by agreements.
Everyone in the group agrees
Agreements are a group’s principles of engagement and they provide an interpersonal safety net for how a group operates together. They are like a constitution.
But the key to agreements is that they are not rules that an elite few derive and place on others to follow. Remember, humans weren’t made to have dominion over other humans.
Instead, they are principles or rules of engagement that everyone in a group agrees to. See the difference?
They’re aptly named agreements because they’re not rules imposed on people. They are conclusions that are developed, understood, and agreed upon by each member of a group.
Operating with one mind
As I mention in this post, it’s like a group of starlings that flies in flocks together that appear like they’re operating with one mind that guides the flock as it moves. But, this is not the case.
Those starlings have agreements in place. They are…
- stay as close to the middle as possible
- stay two to three body lengths away from your neighbor
- do not bump into any other starling
- if a hawk dives at you, get out of the way
This is how starlings self-govern themselves. It’s a part of their DNA. Healthy churches and small groups do the same thing.
When everyone is on the same page, so to speak, about what’s expected and acceptable behavior, there are now grounds for no one to be THE leader and for everyone to be A leader – and in this way allow The Leader (Christ) to lead in and through the group as each one does its part.
Does that language sound familiar? That’s because it’s one way the Apostle Paul describes a healthy church operating in his multiple letters he wrote to churches in the New Testament.
He’s communicating that a church self-governs itself by operating by agreements (the principles) that come from its spiritual DNA, which is the life of the Lord in it.
You want to find out if your small group or church is on the same page? Start by negotiating your agreements of interaction together. Talk about what’s OK to do in your discussions, what’s not and why.
Here’s what the authors of The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair say about this process…
Negotiating agreements is a strong indicator of the level of trust and confidence, or of tension and concern, that already exists in the social field. A group will learn about itself in this process, and sometimes much confusion will be cleared away. It’s not always comfortable.
As you might imagine, if you skip this step you’ll be in for some good old-fashioned conflict that will require you to jump back to this step anyway. So you might as well skip the confusion and get this covered before you’ve got a mess on your hands! Get those issues to come forward before they become issues ignited with emotion.
The power of having an agreement in place
In a previous post in this series, I talked about a technique that can be used to keep focused on the Lord that involves using the center of the group. One thing a group can be prone to if they don’t use this technique is falling into discussions where people are trying to be right. This is essentially never productive.
If an agreement about this type of behavior is not accepted by every participant at the outset, a group can easily find themselves in the middle of an argument. Then there’s a mess to clean up; or worse yet, lasting division.
In a discussion I was involved in with a small group, we were talking about Romans 14 where Paul addresses the topic of debatable matters. This was around the time of the Super Bowl when Jennifer Lopez was performing the halftime show.
During the show, the “elephant-in-the-room” so to speak was how scantily clothed she was. She wore almost nothing, showing every part of her body to the world; and danced extremely provocatively. I don’t remember how, but we ended up using this as an example.
The question was posed “Is it OK for a Christian to watch the show?” Better yet, “If J-Lo was a believer, would it be OK that she was dressed the way she was and dancing the way she was?” This led us to the more general topic of how women dress in general.
As you can imagine, there were some varying opinions thrown out among this group of Christians. People fell on a spectrum everywhere from “any true disciple of Christ would turn off the TV as soon as she started performing” to “God made a woman’s body and it’s not her fault if men look at her lustfully.“
After about 3 or 4 comments on the matter, you could feel some emotions rising. The group came to a crossroads where it was time to decide if we were going to make the purpose of the discussion being right, or we were going to stick to our agreement to explore issues together respectfully and “build our fire” in the center.
I stepped in and reminded the group of our agreement to hold the center and how it related to our purpose of focus on the Lord. We reverted to talking about the principles laid out in the Scripture we were exploring, emotions leveled off, and our discussion was highly productive.
We were able to explore the topic and understand the approach to issues like these the author of the Scripture was actually teaching.
If we didn’t have the agreement in place and call people out on it, who knows where we would have ended up. My guess is most people would leave not feeling very great.
Agreements develop unity
Another example of the value of agreements played out in our church in an area where there were none and we had to clean up a tiny mess.
We use an app to communicate online called BAND that’s pretty much like a Facebook for small groups. It allows groups to plan and schedule events and share things with each other.
When we started using the app, we had about 10 families in our church and no one thought about having agreements in place for the apps purpose and proper use. This wasn’t a big deal at first as the group was small.
But then our church started growing. After we reproduced into 2 churches and about the time we hit 30 or 40 people, we started to notice something. Some people weren’t paying attention to the app anymore.
Why? Because newer people started using the app in ways other people didn’t care for. While some people thought it was a great place to ask for prayer almost every day for their sister’s friend’s mother’s husband who has the sniffles, other people thought that was overkill and the app should be used strictly for planning and urgent communications that can’t wait for a gathering. They didn’t want what they considered distractions from so many posts (remind you of Facebook?!?).
But instead of bringing this up, having a conversation and crafting agreements together; their reaction was to just stop using it.
The problem with this of course is that it takes what can be a useful tool and takes away its usefulness.
When we realized this, we went about the process of negotiating agreements. By doing this, we addressed an issue that had the potential to cause division and used it to develop unity around the purpose of the app so that it could become useful for everyone again.
We placed those agreements on the app for reference for each new person that uses it.
Where we failed here was that everyone simply assumed that everyone else thought the same way they did about the apps use. Assumption can work fine some of the time, but creates misunderstanding and social disaster when it doesn’t work.
Agreements provide accountability
Laying out agreements in small groups and churches are critical because they create a way for each member to hold both self and others accountable for the quality of interaction.
Without that, then yes, it’s kind of a free for all. And when it’s a free for all, people will do what they think individually. And when people do what they think individually without considering the collective group, there will be division.
Agreements should be revisited
Agreements should always be open to revisiting at any time, and should be revisited periodically. People should also feel completely comfortable challenging them.
It’s not that your agreements would change necessarily (they might). But it’s healthy for the group to be reminded of what they are so they can be memorized and honored. This is especially the case for those agreements that come straight from Scripture.
Also, if and when new people come in with new perspectives, it will be critical that they also have the opportunity to understand, and possibly challenge, the agreements of interaction in the group.
Their new perspective may supply the group with new ideas that may cause agreements to change. Maybe that BAND app SHOULD be used for something we haven’t thought of yet!
The authors of The Circle Way listed 4 generic agreements that offer a foundation for fulfilling the intention of a group. These are not specific on purpose because each group has its own specific purpose from which their agreements should emerge. But, this gives you an idea of the types of agreements that need to be in place to function as a healthy small group or church…
- Personal material shared in the group is confidential. It’s important that all participants share a definition of what is meant and expected of them regarding this issue.
- We listen to each other with curiosity and compassion, withholding judgment. Because the center creates a third point between people engaged in social interaction, we can lean in with curiosity about differences, ask questions, explore issues, discern what fits in the learning of the group – and suspend judgment, or at least notice our judgments and set that stream of thought aside so we can listen more fully. Our diverse voices become like spokes of a wheel attaching to the hub of our common purpose.
- We share responsibility and rotate leadership. This ensures full participation and provides grounds for addressing lack of effort and participation.
- From time to time, we pause to regather our thoughts or focus. Pauses allow a group to refocus on the group’s intention and the purpose of the conversation.
With agreements in place, a small group or church can order itself within a God-designed system in which everyone is set free to be A leader as The Leader leads.
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.