10 Commandments of Leading Discussions

Allow Time For Humor And Rabbit Trails

When I was a youth pastor, the students used to call me the king of rabbit trails. They knew that whenever I taught, there was a chance I would end up "off-topic" following some rabbit trail that had come up. I would just say to them, "remember, every trail leads somewhere."

One of the greatest fears many small group leaders have is that their group will regularly be derailed by "rabbit trails" and they'll never accomplish their goals. While leaders should be careful to not get needlessly sidetracked too often, I'd like to suggest that some value can be found in rabbit trails. Rabbit trails can be a great way for a group to develop its own identity, as well as for group members to vocalize what is really happening in their life in that moment. One of the surest signs your group is engaged in healthy rabbit trails, is emotion, loud and raucous humor or sometimes painful and intense tears.

In fact, I'm going to offer three reasons why every group should allow itself to get sidetracked from time to time.

1. Group Trumps Me.

Just because I think something is important, doesn't necessarily mean the rest of the group shares my opinion. In fact, what is important to me might be completely insignificant to the rest of my group. When I am leading a discussion, and find myself continuously pulled in another direction by the group's contributions; it might mean that I've mis-diagnosed what is important to the group. When my group is naturally drifting in one direction, I need to be willing to allow the group's direction to take priority over mine.

2. Life Trumps Agenda.

Along the same lines, when I set an agenda for a group meeting, I do without having complete knowledge of the life situations of each member of the group. God may very well have an agenda for our time together that is revealed in the celebrations, contemplations, or lamentations brought on by the group members lives. When a family finds themselves on the verge of relational or financial breakdown, my agenda to talk about the lapsarian debate needs to take a back-seat. Often a rabbit trail may be a sign to me that my agenda is out of touch with the group's life.

3. Community Trumps Organization.

I may have big plans to develop community through the use of some organized activities. But when a group is actively racing down different rabbit trails together, this is a wonderful sign that community has developed and is developing. My organized outline is a useful tool, but will not be nearly effective as allowing a group's sense and feel of community to evolve on it's own. It is always more important that group members develop relationships and grow spiritually with each other than for the group as a whole to accomplish organizational goals.

Having said all that, if a group is on a different rabbit trail every week, and never accomplishes anything as a result, you need to reign in the rabbits and take a little control. As in most of life, finding a healthy balance is the key. As you strive to have a healthy group environment which allows for humor and rabbit trails, here are some ideas to utilize in trying to capitalize on the rabbit trails your group takes:
  • Listen for and affirm wisdom whenever it is spoken by group members
  • Try to discern what life circumstances have brought about this rabbit trail, and seek to bring good counsel to that situation
  • Avoid one person dominating with their own agenda
  • Without being awkward, find a way to tie the rabbit trail back to the meeting's stated purpose
  • Ask if people have any Scripture that might be applicable to the discussion (provide some yourself as well)
  • If appropriate, stop mid-rabbit trail for prayer
  • Use your time at the end to suggest a few lessons which can be learned
Ultimately, the key is for you to know your group. Know how far your rabbit trails should go and how often you should take them. Seek a balance between your agenda and your group's life!