I Hated My Church’s Small Groups. And Then I Returned.


heather caliri -small group return3

My small group started two weeks ago. I was surprised—really surprised—to feel excited about that.

When I joined the group at the beginning of last year, I didn’t expect to stay more than a few months. I had my arms crossed rather tightly across my chest during the first meeting. And the second meeting. And the tenth.

Even weirder is this: For years, I was a poster-child/small group leader/cheerleader for our church’s program.

Yeah, I’m getting whiplash, too. Apparently, I can’t make up my mind whether I like small groups or not.

My church started its small group ministry not long after I got married, fifteen years ago. I signed my husband and I up to host a group, and within a year, we had dozens of twenty-something adults gathering at our house for two “small” groups.

The sudden growth astonished me. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt like the hub of a movement. It felt really good, like I was Jack planting magic beans.

But remember how the beanstalk gets felled by an axe?

In my case, it was a few axes. The group outgrew our two-bedroom house. So, we split up, losing energy in the process. Also, twenty-something people transition a lot—within just a few years, most of our close friends had moved away or left for other reasons.

Then, I had a baby. It wasn’t fun to host a bunch of people at my house after 9pm when I knew I would get woken four times that night.

There was another thing eating away at my tether to the beanstalk: I’d experienced spiritual abuse at this church in high school because of a toxic youth leader. He and the other leaders responsible were gone, so I assumed I’d healed.

But I hadn’t. I didn’t realize it, but I was quite bitter under my cheerful participation.

Having that small group crumble to pieces around my feet hurt. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it felt personal. And my bitterness surfaced. Big time.

I did what I usually do when I’m limping, which is soldier on cheerfully, telling myself I wasn’t actually injured. I signed my husband and I up for other small groups. We put in time with lovely people we did not know, over and over and over, expecting another beanstalk to sprout.

Then I lowered my expectations, and hoped for a flower. Then just for a bit of greenery.

The ground stayed stubbornly bare.

It takes a lot of work for wounded introverts with small children to keep connecting to people who drift, like dust, through their lives. We invested, and we gave, and we stayed open, and it hurt both of us terribly.

My husband finally told me he’d had enough. I opened my mouth to convince him otherwise, and then closed it. I couldn’t really argue.

I was so weary of trying to connect. I was so tired of extroverts making assumptions about how c0mmunity works (put twelve strangers in a room with questions and kaBOOM!) I was so tired of the myth that fellow Christians would become my best buds because Jesus.

I was tired of myself, of my introversion, of my mysterious cynicism. I was tired of feeling alone in a room full of people. I was afraid my bad attitude meant God had abandoned me.

And then I realized, a few years later, that my cynicism had toxic but explicable roots. I started digging them up. I talked to our church leadership, and they responded well. A weight lifted.

Hesitantly, my husband and I decided to stay at our flawed but lovely church, and recommit ourselves to trying.

Which meant that when I heard about a new small group for women that worked for my schedule, I signed up. But I kept my arms crossed, daring someone to alienate me.

I showed up with zero expectations. I did not expect best buddies. I did not expect a beanstalk. I just wanted to see if I still felt alone in a room full of people.

Truth be told, I doubted I’d stay. I gave the ridiculous forced bonding a semester before I quit.

For fun, during discussions, I would say things I expected to raise eyebrows, like, “I don’t really like the book of John.” And “I’m not a big fan of evangelism.”

To my surprise, the women around me leaned forward and asked honest questions.

I started getting to know the other women—not just at small group, but at children’s choir and youth group. I saw my fellow members laying out communion on Sunday. I finally put a name and story to the face of a woman who had been at the church even longer than I had.

A year later, no magic beanstalk has sprouted. My small group is not made up of all my best friends, and we are not having brunch together after church (#mimosa #blessed). Instead, connection is a slow-growing vine.

Still, I’m starting to feel truly rooted at church for the first time since our old first small group died. It’s not magical. But it is a kind of miracle.

Looking back, I wish I had allowed myself more space to grieve when small groups didn’t work for me. I wish I had taken a break from trying sooner, rather than blaming myself.

I’m thankful it was possible to heal from my bitterness without having to leave a church I’ve attended for thirty years. I’m happy I returned to small groups, even if I’m still surprised I like it.

I’m terribly, ridiculously grateful that we all get second, and third, and fiftieth chances to try again.

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Her new devotional, Word Made Art: Lent, prompts you to cut, color, paste and glitter your way through an old Bible before Easter. She lives close to a library with her husband and two daughters.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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  • Anna Williams

    This is a really encouraging read. Thank you for sharing your experience. Although I have not been happy in church for a while I am settled in a church. I feel it is the right place to be. I also feel that I have reconnected with my faith. I too have lowered my expectations. I am learning that things take time. It is hard sometimes to not give up.

    • I’m sorry for your unhappiness. I hear you. Praying that blessings open up in that hard space. (And also, God was moving powerfully in my loneliness and searching, especially when I was able to stop blaming myself for it. It’s a sucky place to be…and yet it’s holy.)

  • So true that we learn things in community that are definitely not in the curriculum — but it seems as if God uses the space where people connect to show us our real selves and to invite us into healthful change. Thanks for sharing that it’s often hard and slow and has noting to do with hashtags or besties.

    • Yes: small groups have done that kind of pruning for my soul. And sometimes the absence and waiting and aloneness has done that too. Placing all of it into God’s hands with you.

  • I’ve moved for the 4th time in 6 years and boy oh boy have I been grumbling about starting all over again, all over again. Connection as a slow growing vine is SPEAKING to me and thank you for helping me place expectations correctly, and also to keep having hope for it.

    • Oh, moving makes everything so HARDER. yes: I moved a lot growing up and it’s just so isolating. Praying for soul-care and reasonable expectations, and tenacious perseverance at the right time.

  • Oh, I love this and love that you kept coming back. Here’s to community and giving small groups (however the look) a dozen new chances!

  • Kelly Christian

    nice. very honest work. thank you for that. i laughed when you said you would say things for “fun” to raise eyebrows. one thousand sighs because i get it. i’m in the middle of trying again, after years. but i’m sensing a fighter spirit about you and i like it. and it looks like it’s paying off. people are WEIRD. lol! but i’m part of the weird, so what’s a world of God’s people to do but keep healing and giving it a chance just in case there are surprises. just in case this time around something clicks and you’re not sorry you gave it one more go.

    • Yes: there are no guarantees–and knowing that is freeing. And also knowing that engaging when we have bandwidth and giving weird people a chance (including myself) pays crazy-good dividends. Fist bump, weird girl.

  • Laura LaSpalluto

    I have had the joy of being part of a few small groups that sustained me, challenged me and were “my people.” I didn’t realize, until now, how rare they were. My most recent small group disbanded, and I now find myself “shopping” for a new one. Perhaps it is my impatience — I want to have a fall-in-love-at-first-meeting experience — but none of them seem to be a good match. I am feeling rather unmoored. Like you, I am weary of trying connect, of
    trying to manufacture something that should be organic. Thank you for sharing your story. I will carry your vision of a slow growing vine vs. a magic beanstalk with me on the journey!

    • it’s so frustrating to be in-between and not quite fit. Praying for fellowship to grow for you in the right timing, and for patience and lack of shame while it does.