I was interested in reading Making Small Groups Work by Henry Cloud and John Townsend because I had read Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries and some of their companion books. Cloud and Townsend are insightful when it comes to relational and group dynamics, and that is exactly what I was looking for in this book that is specifically designed for small groups. For the most part, this book delivered. The authors’ clinical background contributes to understanding the many group and interpersonal dynamics within all small groups. Inevitably, small groups will experience times of discomfort and even hostility. This book provides insight into those dynamics and strategies for managing them in healthy ways.
Making Small Groups Work is broken into six parts and more than fifty chapters. The six parts cover a range of topics, from exploring how people grow, to the responsibilities of the groups and participants, and handling problems. While this does make the book feel too long and slightly repetitive in places, the short and focused chapters aid the reader in quickly referencing specific topics. The authors’ objective is clearly about fostering the healthiest group dynamics that will serve small groups to produce growing disciples of Jesus Christ.
The most beneficial aspect of Making Small Groups Work is as a reference for addressing the messy situations that are inevitably part of small groups. Reading this book from beginning to end (as I did) can be a bit laborious. However, because the chapters are so short, they can easily be read on an as-needed basis. Within the chapters, the authors include samples that can serve as starters for small-group leaders to think through how they will offer feedback to the group as a whole or to individuals, one-on-one. Two examples should suffice: “Joe, I would like to make you aware of something. It seems that every time you share, it is about how great you are doing or how wonderful things are for you. I am afraid that might be making others feel less likely to share struggles” (274). When having to deal with group dynamics at large, “What’s going on right now? It seems the tone of the group just changed. Does anyone have any idea why?” (267).
One of the strengths of the book is in dealing with the routine level of interpersonal dynamics with regard to group feedback. While at times the authors’ discussion about this seems more clinical than many small groups that I have experienced, they still offer sage advice. Getting small groups to the point where feedback and “truth” are heard not as a personal attack is a challenge. Yet getting small groups to a place of honesty and openness is a must if growth in discipleship is to occur. Cloud and Townsend advocate for establishing a culture from the beginning of the group to prepare participants regarding group expectations. “Good group members see the life-giving value of hearing the truth about ourselves from others” (134). The authors are also realistic that this will take time. They realize that not every group will reach this level of truth and intimacy.
This book is great for those on the messy, front lines of facilitating small groups who are looking to improve the group dynamics of their small group and their abilities to facilitate growth. Building on concepts found in Boundaries, the authors urge small-group leaders to guard the process of guiding the group forward and not take full credit for the success of the group or feel that they have to solve all the problems that arise within the group. It is not surprising that the authors also remind small-group leaders that some issues and dynamics are beyond a leader’s capabilities and that group leaders should refer to pastors and professionals in such circumstances. “There are times when a person’s wounds need more structure, safety, intensity, or experience than the group can provide” (99).
The authors also are helpful at guiding leaders to think through whether to address a person within the group or outside the group setting. (Hint: know the culture of your group!) Cloud and Townsend offer sound, practical tips for handling silence, which is a needed skill for facilitators. They provide tips when preparing for confrontation that are “soft on the person, hard on the issue” (168).
The authors are helpful both at the overall and nitty-gritty levels of managing a healthy small group. For the higher-level group dynamics, they observe the need for structure, while acknowledging adult small groups will vary in their need of it. They write, “The more mature, high-functioning, and experienced the group members are, the fewer rules they need” (138). The nitty-gritty level involves how to raise thorny relational dynamics that inevitably arise within small groups. Every group will be different and should be facilitated as such.
In discussing the important role of group facilitators, Cloud and Townsend use the image of a gardener. This is a helpful image as it ultimately reminds facilitators that they nurture the environment much more than they control the small-group setting. They also advocate (if the group has been prepared and equipped) for the facilitator to help the group take some of the responsibility for the group’s success. They write, “If a group cannot get through a lesson without getting derailed, make that a topic of discussion” (121).
Cloud and Townsend come from a more theologically conservative bent than do the majority of United Methodists, but I have never found too much that I trip over in their books. For example, they may seem a little dogmatic in their chapter on choosing study materials. Additionally, a more Wesleyan approach to discipleship (especially sanctification) would add some needed theological depth to this book, but I’m biased. In the end, the authors’ knowledge and advice are beneficial for growing and maintaining healthy groups. While healthy group dynamics can foster growth, unfavorable dynamics are painful, and they keep church members from participating in this vital means of formation.