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    Being Transparent: With Yourself, God, and Others
    by Susan M Sims
Friday
Nov042011

"Recalculating" Versus "We Don't Have Time For That"

Do you have one of those GPS systems in your car?  What does it say when you take a wrong turn or try to take a short cut to save five minutes?  It does not scream, "YOU IDIOT, can't you even follow basic directions."  No, it simply says, "recalculating," and patiently gives you new directions toward your destination.  Give it a try next time you are in your car.  In fact try making three or four wrong turns.  Every time it will patiently respond, "recalculating."  

The beautiful part of this is that you can now explore other routes to your destination more freely.  Why?  Because you know the destination is the same, but how you get there is more flexible.  There are now new opportunities for self-discovery.   I have found many locally owned coffee shops, independent bookstores, or even quiet roads to travel on a fall day, just by taking a wrong turn (even by choice) and later recalculating to my destination.  

Imagine if you will, a community-focused GPS box that could assist you in leading your small group to its desired destination.  How nice would that be?  How do you think that GPS assistant would react to the weekly distractions that plague you?  Would it say, "I'm sorry, but we don't have time for that just now” or "thank you for that interesting opinion, but now back to the original question."  Or, would it patiently respond with "recalculating.” 

Sometimes we approach our small groups with the question, "what do they need to learn?"  What we really mean is "what knowledge do I need to impart to them?"  We then build our lesson plan like it was a chapter from Wikipedia, packed full of information:  what does this word mean in Hebrew or Greek, what commentary source do I need to read to really understand the deeper meanings, what was going on culturally during the time of this passage of scripture.  And when someone then asks "a wrong question" that threatens to derail our perfect five-point lesson plan, we grab the steering wheel with both hands like we are trying to navigate a speeding car as it races down a highway plagued with icy patches.  

Try this little experiment:  during your next group session, when someone introduces a question that threatens to be a rabbit trail going far off course, just whisper to yourself, "recalculating - what is my real destination and how does this new information guide me to that point."  Chances are if one person is asking an unexpected question, others may be thinking similar questions.  And remember that learning happens in the moment - not when we are just learning new facts, but when those new facts are introduced in our present day situations.  

So, take that right turn and let the group go down an occasional rabbit trail.  It's not a sign of loosing control or throwing out the directions.  It just means your responsibility as a leader includes "recalculating."

Side note:  why do we call them rabbit trails and not rabbit to-no-where?  The answer:  because they do in fact lead somewhere.  All roads were once trails, and all trails were once unexplored brush that only a rabbit had the sense to explore.  

Follow the rabbit!

Monday
Oct032011

Sunday School and Saints

We need to bridge yesterday’s saints with our present day disciples.  Many of our present day disciples will never relate to Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome or even Saint Ambrose.  They can’t place a face with those names.  However, we do remember those with some saintly characteristics who have passed on in our lifetime.  The lessons from their lives can be guides and pathways to inspire our present churches and Sunday Schools.  Like saints of distant history, those passing on in recent years were not perfect but they, too, received grace and exemplified God’s glory.  God has not left our Sunday Schools without saints to emulate.     

Years ago, arriving at this church, I met a layperson by the name of George.  He, in many minds, was considered Mr. Sunday School and over time I came to agree with them. 

On numerous occasions, George would meet me for breakfast to go over his Sunday School enrollment sheet.  George would literally go over every name on his enrollment and give me a detailed update on their spiritual walk. He would then ask that we pray for each of them individually.   Eating breakfast with George would always take two to three hours because of his detail and concern for every person on his list.  

As you might have guessed, he was a great shepherd of his Sunday School flock. At his passing, believers and unbelievers, both young and old, spoke of the weekly contacts he made with them over the years.  

Today, it is my honor to remind our present day teachers and students of the saintly love that George had for his class.  What a special moment it is when one of our teachers hear the words of affirmation, “you remind me of George.”  Such a complement does not deify George, but reminds us all of how deity can infill any mortal with passionate love for a Sunday School class.     

Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop of the church in the fourth century, is considered to be the first true church historian.  He emphasized the importance of studying the apostles, martyrs, and church fathers who had preceded him.  While retracing their steps, Eusebius said, “we hear them, as it were, ‘raising their voices as a man holds up a torch from afar, calling to us from on high as from a distant watch-tower, and telling us how we must walk, and how to guide the course of our work without error or danger’” (Ecclesiastical History 1:1 by Eusebius of Caesarea).  

All of our churches have a history of individuals in which God developed saintly characteristics.  We need to remember their lives as benchmarks for what God can do through us.  

May Christians in our day not only aspire to be like Paul and Matthew but also like George.  After all, we have personally known George and, from one generation to another, “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NIV).  God is still making saints through our Sunday Schools. 

Monday
Oct032011

Characteristics of a Small Group Leader

Here are eight characteristics that successful small group leaders share.  The list is not exhaustive but is still challenging as we persistently maintain our focus.  The leader:   

1. Continually imagines what an affective small group would look like and envisions his/her group reaching that level of excellence.   

2. Not only prays for the group members daily, but asks God’s direction to develop each member’s spiritual gifts. 

3. Is presently making a list of potential people and gaining their commitments to begin the next group when the present one is completed.

4. Is presently training two people in the present group who will someday lead their own group. 

5. Prepares early in the week for the upcoming lesson.  This allows the Holy Spirit more time to develop ideas for lesson applications within the leader. Deep thoughts without specific personal applications are rarely effective.         

6. Is fellowship sensitive.  Fellowship may take the form of activities such as parties.  However, for groups that are not socially inclined, individual luncheons or activities may be necessary.  

7. Not only thoroughly prepares for upcoming lessons but maintains personal contact with group members.  Being close relationally to group members allows the leader to be more aggressive in challenging individuals spiritually.   

8. Realizes you can only hold people accountable for what they say they will do.  This is true, whether mentoring individuals or leading a group through its various stages of maturity.    

Whatever characteristics you would want to add to this list, feel free to do so.  More importantly, remember none of us will lead our groups forever.  Someone will take our place.  Years from now, what might others say about your leadership characteristics?  Someone once looked back and wrote:  

We that had loved him so, followed him, honored him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
“The Lost Leader” -- Robert Browning

Enjoy leading your group!

Monday
Oct032011

Some Characteristics of a Discipler

A discipler is someone who disciples someone else. A disciple is someone who is being discipled. We should all be disciplers as well as being discipled.  Here are some characteristics of a discipler:

1. A discipler makes an on-purpose effort to invest his/her life into someone else’s life.  The purpose of this effort is not limited to getting someone to attend church or getting him/her saved, but to train him/her to disciple someone else.

2. A discipler begins by praying and asking God who does He want them to disciple.    If Jesus took time to pray before he chose his special twelve, how much more should we pray and ask for wisdom.  Could it be true, most Christians have never earnestly prayed and asked God specifically on whom should they focus their energies.  Just a note:  when we do pray this prayer, we should not be surprised if God chooses someone outside our family members, present acquaintances, or comfort zones.

3. A discipler gets to know the disciple on a personal basis.  A relationship must be built in a setting other than when we casually see someone at church.

4. A discipler gives specific guidance to the one being discipled. He/she does not tell someone to read the Bible, they tell him/her where to begin.

5. A discipler is patient.  When people are being discipled, sometimes they may fall back into old habits or lifestyles.  They need to know they are loved even when they have failed.  Also, they need to know you still believe they can be a saint someday.  Salvation is instantaneous but true discipleship is a long process.

6. Early in the process, the discipler coaches the disciple to seek God for a name of someone else who needs to be discipled.  Discipling someone else will increase accountability, and the new disciple will mature quicker as he/she disciples someone else.  This maturity occurs because, when someone else is looking to him/her for strength and spiritual consistency, he/she relies more on God’s strength.  Also, when the one we are discipling comes to us for questions, we learn not only how to help ourselves but how to help others.  The most teachable person to disciple is someone who is being discipled and is also discipling someone else.   

Jesus admonished us to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19 NIV).  To the degree we do not see the importance of going and the importance of the discipler-discipling process, we do not understand the weakness of our humanity or the depth of the richness of the spiritual maturity to which Christ is calling us.  May all of us be His disciplers.

Tuesday
Jun142011

What are they thinking?

At the beginning of the church year it is always good to find out where your group members are in their minds.  What are they thinking?  To help assess this mystery, spiritual checkups are just as valuable as getting a physical checkup from the doctor.  Checkups are important because they can reveal to us if our small group members have been growing spiritually, if their concepts about the small group or even the church have changed in the last year, or other valuable information.  Also, checkups help us determine if our methods in teaching are effective, to what degree our students are maturing in their faith, and what specific subjects the teacher needs to address in the future.  

To help solve the mystery of what our students are really thinking, hand out a “what are you thinking?” response sheet before you plan next year’s teaching goals.  As you read the returned responses, the guide can be helpful to you and the pupils as they contemplate what they are thinking. 

Here are some specific areas in which the students can fill in the blank or complete the thought:

1.  I wish the Bible gave more specific information about...

2.  If Jesus lived in my circumstances, the first thing He would do is...

3.  One specific result of salvation taking place in a person’s life is...

4.  One thing the Holy Spirit revealed to me this past year was...

5.  I enjoy my small group because...

6.  I minister to others by...

7.  When the church, as a whole, brings up the subject of...I get excited. 

8.  One thing I believe God has told me is...

9.  People seem to notice I am used of God when I (do what?) ...

10. When I get to heaven, God might say, “you sacrificed for Me by...”

11.  When I think of my small group, the first thing I think about is...

12.  My group is important to me because... 

I have written twelve statements to which students can respond.  However, you may choose more or fewer statements for your students.  Because these are probing in nature, having fewer statements to respond to can give more time for thoroughness.      

Sometimes teachers have a tendency to believe their students have not changed during the last year.  In reality, they have.  Over time, both teachers and students tend to soften or harden in their belief systems.  The question is not have we changed, but how much or in what way?  A challenge of every teacher is to initiate thinking in the group so both the teacher and pupils will know where they are and where they need to go. 

D.H. Lawrence opens up thinking in his poem on ‘Thought’:

  • Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
  • Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience.
  • Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
  • Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
  • Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
  • Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

Sunday School and Small Groups are not only a place to fellowship and pray but to “think” and be continually reintroduced to ourselves.  In the Old Testament, the Psalmist had a new moment of self-realization when he wrote, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love” (Psalm 48:9, NIV).   In the New Testament, Jesus asked a probing question, “What do you think about the Christ?” (Matthew 22:42, NIV).

In your small group, what probing statements or questions will initiate thinking?  The Holy Spirit will help us as we solve the mystery -- “what are they thinking?”

Tuesday
Jun142011

Teaching and Remembering

Most teachers and preachers attempt to cover too much material in one session of teaching.  We can have a tendency to believe the more information we carry into a classroom, the better.  However, it is better to teach less material in a way the class will remember it than to throw out many impressive facts that will not be remembered in five minutes.  This kind of thinking is not a license to prepare less, but rather a reminder to truly teach so the students can remember what is taught.   

Teaching so students will remember what is being taught involves several facets: 

1.  Do in-depth study and research for the lesson you are going to teach.  You will find normally find more information than you will need.  

2.  Cut out everything your have studied except the absolute key ideas your class or group needs to be taught.  This is a critical stage.  Remember, it is not the number of thoughts you take into the class that matters, but rather the amount of ideas the students leave with.  

3.  Focus and focus again on these key thoughts you have chosen.  The earlier in the week you decide what these thoughts are, the more creative time your mind will have before you teach on Sunday.   

4.  Be sure these thoughts are listed in a simple way that can be easily taught and remembered.  If the thoughts are complicated and hard for you to remember, they will be close to impossible for the students to remember.     

5.  Arrive at your class or group realizing that curriculum only gives information.  Ultimately, curriculum does not communicate.  Communication is left in the hands of the teacher.  

6.  During your teaching time, use the five senses and other means for the new truths to take hold.  Help them to hear, taste, smell, see, and even feel with a touch what you are teaching.  

7. Do not simply give out information and go on to a final prayer to close your class.  Repeat and repeat again the simple truths they need to take with them.  If need be, play a game or take time for people to describe what something would feel like or smell like.  For example, tell your class the passage you will be teaching on next Sunday and ask them to come and share some details as to what they see in the story.  

In short, none of us have prepared enough, unless we have prepared a way in which people will remember our teachings.  This is how Jesus taught.  In learning, people still want to experience truths rather than be told the truths exist.  Many times Jesus taught by telling a story.  He only gave a few truths at a time in His stories, but the impact was so powerful some of his followers remembered enough to write a gospel.  Others were so impacted they ultimately crucified Him. 

A prayer for all of us is, “Dear God, not only help me to prepare but, when I am finished, help them to remember what was taught.”

Monday
Mar212011

Shaping the Church's Future Through A New Discipleship Group

When we begin a new Discipleship Group, with shaping the future of the church in mind, there are several key factors for every leader to remember.  Such key factors must never be abandoned as long as the group continues.  These factors include: 

1. Remember you are training each group participant to think theologically.  Also, you are leading them individually to courageously explore their personal past and rethink how they arrive at theological answers. 

2.  Remember, in most cases, you are learning to relate to future leaders of the church.  Class discussions and problem solving moments are only rehearsals that are preparing us to work together in the future.

3.  Remember, you are training them to fulfill the Vision Statement of the Church.  No where else can this be taught so easily, as personal mentoring becomes part of the process.

4.  Remember, as new people come into the church, the personal identity of the church is always being affected.  Just as individuals have a personality, so do churches.  When the need exists, Discipleship is a great place for the present personal identity of the congregation to be better tweaked.           

5.  Remember to choose people for Discipleship who are teachable and willing to be trained in their ideology and philosophy of what the life of the church is all about.  

6.  Remember to look for future doors of change the church’s congregation needs to go through and allow these, if suitable, to be part of the Discipleship’s discussion.  These can become part of the group’s problem solving exercises when discussing faith, commitment and discerning God’s will.

To sum it up: 

The writer of Proverbs reminds us all that iron sharpens iron. In the Amplified Version, Proverbs 27:17 reads, “Iron sharpens iron: so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend [to show rage or worthy purpose].”  Shaping the church’s future sounds like a long hard tedious task when we think of pieces of cold iron.  Teachers of groups shape groups and groups shape their teachers.  Both are continually agents of the Holy Spirit as the future of the church is shaped by Discipleship.  If there is any friction around you, make the most of it. Iron does sharpen iron and he who has begun a good work in you will complete it.  Real Discipleship always shapes the church’s future.   

Happy Discipling!!

Tuesday
Feb152011

Taming the Talker to Listen in a Small Group

We are in the process of starting another group at our church. This is a level three Discipleship Group which means, among other things, we are seriously trying to mentor others and each person in the group will be by invitation only.  Even with choosing who will be in the group, one question comes to mind, “Will we have a talker to be tamed?”  You know, the kind of person who is good for the group but does not allow others to give the input they need to give.  Talkers are valuable people when you need to get the discussion started but they quickly become a liability for the group discussion when they do not allow others to participate.  

Over the years it seems to me there are some ways that group leaders can reduce the problems a continuous talker can bring.  

1. Before the discussion time begins, explain to the group you would like to have as many people as possible join in the discussion.  This is a subtle hint to the talker to let others  discuss and a hint to everyone else you want their input.  

2. When you ask the talker a question, preface the question by saying “in only a couple of sentences could you describe...?” 

3. As you ask questions, call out people’s names.  For example: “Paul, could you share your thoughts about...?” This lets the talker know that someone else is being asked the question.

4. Be willing to interrupt the talker.  They have to breathe sometime.  You may interrupt by saying, “that is interesting,” then call out another group member’s name and ask them what is their response.  Remember, you will lose respect as a leader and probably lose other people in the group if you are not willing to maintain order so everyone can participate.  

5. When the talker shares too long and you are in a group circle, shift your body away from them and turn your head toward others to send a signal that you are ready for someone else to share. 

6. If the talker is qualified in other areas, train the talker to be a future leader.  During this time you can teach him/her the best small group leader facilitates and listens.  In some discussion times a small group leader is like an orchestra conductor making sure that each instrument is heard and every person maintains mutual respect for others. When emotions are high, a leader is more like a traffic cop directing the flow of thoughts and emotions so hearts that are opened widely will feel safe to share at the nest discussion. 

To Sum It Up:  

Sometimes the talker misses the point when it comes to discussion times.  It is true we come to the discussion to talk but, just as importantly, we come to learn to listen.   

We must learn to listen if we are to grow as a community of believers.  We must learn to listen for the meaning beneath the words of others.  We must learn to listen because in a community of believers the conscience of another may speak to us rather than our own.  If the voice of a donkey was used in Scripture to quicken one’s heart, how much more valuable are the life experiences of those around us. In every group let’s pray, “Speak Lord for your servant listens.” 


Wednesday
Feb022011

Want to start a new small group?

There are different types of small groups.  The type of group your church starts will have different kinds of expectations for the participants, and your church will experience different results.  Before beginning a small group, determine the needs of your congregation.

Although there are several types of small groups, below are three to consider:

1. Task-Oriented and Service-Oriented Groups

These types of group are important for the ongoing ministries of the church; however, they offer the least opportunity for biblical training.  Examples of these groups would be:  preparing food for the sick, gathering weekly to clean the church, choir practice, etc.  When these groups meet scripture may be read, prayer offered, testimonies given, but there is not sufficient time to explore principles for spiritual growth.  The key purpose of these groups is to perform a specific task, not to emphasize learning.  

Churches need these types of groups, and they are critical for various needs of the church.    However, it must be remembered that individuals involved in these groups also need to be involved in a group that will challenge them more as they mature spiritually.

2. Bible Study and Book Study Groups

When it comes to Christian Education, Bible study and Book study groups make up the majority of the groups within most churches.  For most churches these groups include Sunday School classes that meet long enough to be counted for Sunday School attendance.  These classes and groups have proven to be essential over the years, and we need to continually begin new classes in this category.

Some weaknesses can develop within these groups that can hinder the educational and discipleship process.  For example, if the attitude prevails to “come if you can” or “it really does not matter if you miss,” then the learning process will be greatly impaired.  The class purpose, that should include learning, experiencing, and sharing our faith, will then degenerate and discipleship will suffer.

Churches need to have more Bible study and Book study groups.  One of the responsibilities of the Pastor and/or SDMI workers is to notice those who are more intense and have a great hunger to be spiritual leaders.  When that happens, the church needs to provide a higher level of spiritual training.  This higher level of training will produce our church leaders in the future.

3. Discipleship Groups

Discipleship groups meet once a week for approximately one year.  The main reason for this is that groups almost never become a community in less than eight months.   After the class has met for a few weeks no one else is permitted to join the class.  

It needs to be noted that the people in Discipleship groups should be chosen by the Pastor or Small Group leader.  These groups may contain two or three people or as many as fifteen.  Whether they meet at home or at church, these individuals meet with a hunger to grow spiritually.  In other types of groups, participants may attend wanting to be affirmed.  In Discipleship groups, participants attend wanting to be changed.

Just like a new exercise class, because of life’s distractions and changes, some will not finish the course.  For those who do, they will never forget the time spent together.  

Overall, Discipleship groups are the most rewarding level of small groups!

TO RAP IT UP --  

Discipleship through Small Groups is absolutely necessary.  Everyone being discipled should be led into a group or, as John Wesley called them “little churches.”  It is here our learning takes on a broader dimension. 

John Wesley was right when he taught us that if we do not have spiritual companions on the way to the New Jerusalem, we must take them -- for no one can travel that journey alone.

Sunday
Oct172010

Upcoming Webinar on Learning Challenges within Groups

Just wanted to let everyone know that next Tuesday, October 19, I will be speaking on the subject, "Learning Challenges within Groups."  This webinar is free and open to anyone.  If you would like to be apart of this webinar, please visit the the homepage for The Discipleship Place and sign up.  You can find them at www.discipleshipplace.org.  

During the 60 minute webinar, we will be talking about:
1.  How do adults in a group have the tendency to avoid learning?
2.  How does a group leader manage painful topics and introduce new thought in a group environment?
3.  And we will explore the answer of "the pain of learning" both of individuals and for a group.  

If you cannot make it Tuesday night, The Discipleship Place will host the recording of the webinar on their site later in the month.  We will link to it later when it is posted.  Hope you all can make it.