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Sexuality and Small Group Membership

Recently I had a great question from a reader who wanted some feedback on establishing a policy on a very sensitive matter.  I’ve edited to provide some clarity, but here’s the question:

We discovered that we have some unmarried couples (who live together) in couples’ groups and at least one lesbian couple attending a women’s group.  While we truly believe that small groups are the optimum environment for life change, we don’t want to give the impression that we are condoning these lifestyle choices.

I’d like to establish a guideline that while everyone is welcome in groups, unmarried couples (gay or straight) cannot be in the same Life Group (our structure consists of married couples groups, men’s groups and women’s groups).

If you have advice to share or can direct me to resources dealing with this issue, I would greatly appreciate it.

My Response

My initial response was to ask, “What is the purpose of these particular groups and groups in general in your small group ministry?  The purpose of the group determines who it is designed for, who would be eligible to attend, and who would be encouraged to find another group.”

One pattern for small group ministries is to establish specific groups for married couples (coed), and separate groups for men and women.  It’s probably more common for ministries to also have catch-all groups that are a true mix of couples and singles, men and women, but the pattern chosen by the church in question isn’t unique to that church.

I’ve mentioned many times that there are no problem-free solutions.  Every solution to a ministry issue comes with a set of problems attached.  Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.

You can see in the reader’s question an interest in establishing a policy that is marital status specific, with an asterisk to cover the possibility of a gay or lesbian marriage (at least, that’s how it will appear).

Here’s my advice:

  1. You may want to consider adding a type of group that is more inclusive.  Remember, the well-worn path never leads to a new destination and it may take a new thing to connect people you’re not connecting now.  Groups for couples and singles may provide the kind of first step that allows everyone to feel accepted, loved and cared for as they are while being encouraged to become like Jesus (for more on this, see John Burke’s No Perfect People Allowed).
  2. Whether you add a coed type of group or not, you need to develop an FAQ that covers why you offer groups for married couples (marital status) and separate groups for men and women (gender specific).  A clear purpose for each will be a requirement and you’d be wise to test your premise on some very crowd sensitive people.  It’s amazing how reasonable things appear to insiders and how obviously out-of-touch and insensitive they can appear to the very people we hope to reach.
  3. In addition to an FAQ, it will be essential to develop a clear, winsome way of promoting the kinds of groups that you offer.  Whether you’re promoting grouplife in a bulletin, on the web, in a newsletter or verbally, you’ll need to use language that clearly defines the purpose of the group (i.e., “If you’re looking for a way to improve your marriage, sign up today for the Couples Small Group Connection on January 30th.”). By the way, carefully thinking through the degree of difficulty in promoting a kind of group that is gender specific with a sexual partner asterisk may force you back to the drawing board.

I really think this is an important conversation.  I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for a look at how Gateway Church in Austin looks at the issue of sexuality and small groups.  If you’re not signed up to get my updates, you can do that right here.

What do you think? What would you add or what would you say different? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Mark Howell serves as Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. He founded SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services to help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries. He spent four years on the consulting staff at Lifetogether and often contributes to ministry periodicals such as the Pastor's Ministry Toolbox and ChurchCentral.com.