Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 2 (Size and Power)

shepherd3Someone has probably sorted this all out scientifically. But here’s something else about group dynamics you need to know: people behave differently depending on the group size.

With a group of four or less, you can have an accountability group. In such a small group, even men will share their fears and frustrations, talk about their marriages and temptations, and otherwise bare their souls in ways that men normally do not do. But never in a larger group.

Why not five or six? Well, four people can sit around a table and talk in hushed tones. Four people can keep a secret. With four people, everyone will have time to talk, and trust can be built with everyone because they are all sharing. Not so with six. Besides, no man wants his business known by more than the dead minimum.

A group of eight can run a church ministry or program — and everyone will have a chance to talk and participate in the meeting — if it’s at least an hour long. If the chair works hard to make sure everyone participates, it can work up to 12. No more. 

Above 12 and two or three strong personalities will dominate the discussion. In a group of 15, some people may go four or five meetings and never say a word.

In short, numbers matter a lot regardless of the kind of group under consideration. For a small group, the size will determine the kinds of things you can do at the meeting. There won’t be much personal sharing in a group of 30, but you may have a great party.

Just so, the dynamics shift as the mix of people changes. If you want an evangelistic group, then don’t expect people to talk about their marriages if there’s any chance of a stranger coming. Won’t happen.

Gender matters, too. An accountability group needs to be single gender. Men feel more comfortable sharing about their wives with other men — and it would be a colossal mistake to encourage married men to form close, emotional ties to women not their wives. (Most affairs begin just this way.)

And food matters. A group that eats together or visits in one another’s homes will get far closer than a group that meets over chips and dip at the church building. When I invite you into my home, I’ve shared something of myself. I’ve let you invade my family and personal space. I’ve opened a bit of myself to you. And that changes our relationship.

So let’s consider some classic group dynamic blunders (and I think I’ve seen them all close up and in person) —

  1. The elders create a 27-member team to oversee the construction of a new church building. This is a disaster because only two or three really know anything about construction. The discussions are uncomfortable because no one wants to criticize foolish opinions in a such a large, public setting. It takes over an hour to discuss the most trivial question. (Solution: disband the group. Appoint a single person as chair. He appoints a three-person committee of highly involved volunteers to help.)
  2. A board of directors of 32 members is created to run the church’s XYZ ministry. It’s hopeless to get a quorum, and they have to meet in a classroom. Pretty quickly, most members resign and let the remaining people run it.
  3. The elders announce a small groups ministry that’s evangelistic and will involve sharing of intensely personal feelings. Each group is about 25 people. The literature is thrown away after one meeting. No one is willing to discuss personal materials in this setting. No one is invited to the evangelistic meetings because no one is comfortable with the material or the setting.
  4. The elders set up a ministries team of 75 people that meets monthly to oversee all church ministries. It’s such a disaster that the church restudies the issue and creates a 12-person Ministries Team, leading to a series of spiritual victories and church growth.

Why do elders (and others) keep making these mistakes? Due to the mistaken assumption that (a) someone will get his feeling hurt by being left off the committee (most people would rather be left off than included in such a large committee) and (b) broader representation is a good thing. But large committees actually create narrower representation because there won’t be time for everyone to talk. A committee of 27 will have maybe three people who talk. A committee of 8 may well have 8 who talk.

We see the same dynamic in classroom size — the larger the class, the fewer the people who participate. I mean, to participate in a room of 200 people requires someone who is extremely outgoing or else a little nuts. Most people would rather sit quietly in such a large class.

Ignoring these rules makes the elders look bad, and it’s rude and inconsiderate of your volunteers.

Don’t do it.

Power

We pretend not to care about power, but group dynamics have a huge influence on who has power — whether or not we care about who has power. It’s not really about whether someone has power. Someone will. The question is whether the right someone has power exercised the right way — and being naive about group dynamics opens the church up to abusive power by clever, manipulative people.

For example, the larger the committee, the more power is concentrated in the chair of the committee. If I chair a 20-person committee, I can likely get my way on everything because no one has the patience to actually discuss and make decisions at the meetings. If someone objects to my decisions, well, he’s just one of 20. He’s easily out-talked, out-waited, or out-voted.

If I chair a five-person committee, I’d better work with the other members because only three need to get together to outvote me. There’s plenty of time for discussion, and committees that size are used to acting as a group.

Just so, if a large committee has a weak chair, then the strongest personality at the table likely gets his or her way on nearly everything. I mean, no one wants to listen to 20 opinions on any topic, and so if a strong personality makes a halfway reasonable suggestion, the group goes with it.

Another example. The preacher pushes for an administrative team made up of the preacher and two elders. He insists that the elders rotate annually “to be fair to all the elders.” Whether he means to or not, the preacher has just gained control of the church. By the time the two elders learn the ropes, understand the dynamics, and see what the preacher is really doing, their terms will have expired, and the preacher gets a new pair of elders with no experience and likely no background in administration.

While the first two elders may have been men gifted and experienced in management, the next two are likely to be pastoral personalities who have no interest in administration. (Most elderships are made up predominantly of pastoral types.) They figure the first two elders let the preacher make most of the decisions, and so they do the same (as they perceive it). After all, they can’t stand stand discussions about budgets and organizational charts. They rubber stamp the preacher’s decisions.

This is not necessarily a disaster — if you have a preacher of high integrity and administrative skill. It may be exactly what the church needs. Or it could be an unspeakable disaster. Either way, if you understand group dynamics at all, the outcome is entirely predictable — even inevitable. Vote accordingly.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 2 (Size and Power)

  1. Mark says:

    “The question is whether the right someone has power exercised the right way.”

    Church leadership positions and/or committee appointments are often used just like in the secular political world as payback for loyalty or to gain influence over/dilute the power of someone on a committee while appearing to be neutral. This is all strategies and tactics. Some people do not realize that they are merely being used. Others just feel left out when they have far more expertise than the committee members.

    All this still reminds ordinary members about the in-crowd, to which they do not belong. If there are committees to be filled, I would ask who has not served on one this year and put them on one about which they have an interest without asking or worrying about their secular political leanings and opinions of Calvinism.

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    An interesting thing is that in InterVarsity small group theory/organization, the maximum size of any group is 8-12 members. Beyond 12 members, the group needs to divide into two new groups for the group(s) to be effective.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Bob,

    I have a post on small groups coming soon. The 8 to 12 rule is designed to create an “open” group that has room to add someone and so be evangelistically effective. It’s been disproved by experience. People don’t like to split their groups, and it’s not helpful unless the group gets too big to meet in someone’s house. I think it’s nearly always better to split (multiply) than to move the group to a classroom at the church or to some restaurant or coffee shop. But the multiplying rule has been rejected by Saddleback — and they have 120% of their members in groups.

    I don’t think groups in fact become socially closed at 12. They just get too big for everyone to talk during the lesson. But your teaching isn’t what draws the visitors. It’s the friends and fellowship. And plenty of people would rather join a group of 20 than 12. More likely to find someone they can befriend. Less conspicuous. Don’t have to talk in the class if they don’t want to. More casserole choices.

    There are people who might prefer a smaller group, too — but it’s the sum total of the experience that drives growth, not just the body count. In fact, if you multiply a group that doesn’t have a second leader ready to lead the new group or a couple willing to host it regularly, you’ve killed it — and I’ve seen that happen many times. Often it’s the hard work and personality of the leader that makes the group work. And that doesn’t easily reproduce.

    The key is that the group has to be willing to talk and visit with the new guy or new couple. And most groups do this naturally — although I’ve seen groups unwittingly cut a visitor out of all conversation. But that’s the exception and easily discussed and avoided.

    The point is that those who try to manage small groups with a rulebook will fail. You have to manage them like you raise children — you love them all and love them all differently. They all have their own personalities and needs, and cookie cutter management kills them.

  4. Monty says:

    A group of 20, not spread out all over the house? Someone has some serious denage.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Monty,

    “Denage”??

    In a mixed group of any size, men and women tend to separate themselves. You know: women in kitchen and men in the backyard or around the TV. A group of 8 becomes two groups of four. Worse yet, most weeks, someone’s sick or traveling, so a group of 8 becomes two groups of 3.

    A group of 20 become becomes two groups of 10 — which is really 7 or 8 most weeks.

    It’s crowded during class time (if the group does class), but we sit on the floor and pull up stools behind the couches. It works. Very casual and ad hoc.

    I know of “small” groups of 30 or 40 that do well, but someone in the group has a house designed to entertain, with a “great room” or large basement space or porch.

    Personally, I feel most comfortable in smaller group of 12 to 16. 8 is too small because you have no room for someone to be out sick or on vacation. And most people struggle to find motivation to teach a group of 6. And it spreads the food prep and baby sitting burdens very thinly.

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