Five years ago, Brittany and I had dinner with Pastor Sid and his wife Debbie at Eddie Papa’s in Pleasanton to discuss starting a comGroup1 together. I think I had chicken and waffles, which is not relevant to the story, but they were delicious. At the time, I was volunteering at iNVERSION, VCC’s evening service, and I had already managed to run one comGroup into the ground and leave another. We weren’t super keen on starting another, but Sid can be persuasive and there really was no category at iNVERSION for not being in a comGroup.
We started a group that summer with a good ol’ fashioned BBQ (for the record, the burgers I cooked were not delicious). Sixteen people showed up! And they all came back the next week, plus a couple more. Then fall came and through a truly strange cocktail of circumstances, our number shrunk back down to four: Brittany, Sid, Debbie, and myself. It was discouraging.
After debriefing, we did something a little unprecedented: we started meeting in the backroom of Café Main seeking to bless the employees there. It was slow. I distinctly remember one especially awkward night that was just Brittany, Nicole, and myself. Poor thing. People came and people went, but then Casey, Connor, and Sarah Finn joined the comGroup around the same time. Within weeks of them showing up, the floodgates opened and suddenly we were trying to squeeze twenty-two people into that backroom, pushing together almost every table in the place. We were having conversations with strangers and getting to know the staff. It was stressful. It was fun. It felt like mission!
From there we moved to Corner Bakery and then started to rotate homes, finally settling in Brittany and I’s apartment in Livermore once we had Levi (our “comBaby.” He still gets excited for “com-oop” night). On the rare nights we didn’t have group, we had neighbors ask where everyone was and ask what we were doing. And in time, we truly became a family. Sid became a spiritual father to me. Sarah Uhler met Jesus and Travis, who became her husband. Jake crushed on Jill, which we all thought was cute, but apparently she thought he was cute too and now they’re married. Cam and Nicole got married, Connor and Rachel got married, and we were there dancing. I got to watch Devin grow up. People grew spiritually, people left, things got rocky, I made mistakes (primarily talking too much). There were times Brittany and I didn’t want to host because we just had an argument or just because we are introverts, but it was always healing, always worth it. We laughed a lot, mostly thanks to Debbie, and we argued about movies and TV shows (Interstellar still sucks, Jake). Casey, Sarah, Connor, and Sharla broke our hearts as they left to go save the world in their own unique ways. We sent them and others out with prayers of blessing and tears of joy.
Finally, a few weeks ago, it was time to move on. Two babies were being born (days apart!), members were moving away or heading back for college, the Lemmers were off to start their own group with Devin and Amanda, and at the end of the day I had to admit that we had too many dang pastors for one group. Though we will always be a family, it was time for a new season.
I’m not sure why I’m sharing all of this other than that I need to. Brittany and I love each of them uniquely, even the ones that left without an explanation, and I do think they know it. This comGroup was the one that taught me virtually everything that is now in our comGroup Leader training. I doubt I would even be a pastor without them. But what that training will never reflect is the sheer, unplanned, beautiful, normal-ness of it all.
I want to share a burden that God has given me through leading this group. And it’s this: comGroup leading is no more than the normal Christian life, “the Jesus life.” Ultimately, all Brittany and I did for the last five years was set apart at least one night of the week to open up our life. The (my) flesh wants locked doors, Netflix, homemade popcorn, and an IPA—wonderful things in themselves. But the spirit needs community. Without community, life loses its flavor.
Imagine with me. What if Christians ate out with the intention not to be served but to serve? What if every Christian home was an open home? What if the chairs in Christians’ homes were more frequently oriented toward one another and the ratty Bible on the coffee table than toward the TV on the wall? What if every Christian’s mind was open to learn from their neighbors who came through their door, their hearts open to pray for all people, their hands open to share generously with those in need or to receive in their own time of lack? I believe that’s the normal Christian life in the Tri-Valley in 2017, and that official “comGroup leading” is only one structured way to lean into it. comGroup leading is a way to train for the unreserved openness of heaven in a world that teaches us to close the shutters and hide from it all. The job of pastors is merely to model this openness and equip others for it. And all a good leader wants for his or her group is for everyone to become even more “open” than they themselves are. The Jesus life is openness to the Spirit, to the Stranger. It’s not complicated. Open up. Wait. That’s it. Seriously, that’s it.
Please, meditate on that. If you are an official comGroup leader, is your group still open? If not, do you have the courage to move on—to let a good season die so that a new one may come to life? If you aren’t leading, what does that next faithful step toward openness look like? A comGroup doesn’t have to start with twenty-two people. Our comGroup started with Sid and Debbie at Eddie Papa’s. A new creation can bloom wherever two or more are gathered.
In closing, I’d like to share a brief reflection that stems from this burden. It’s not to spare you trouble, because Trouble will always be your best pastor. But it is what feels like the most important thing I’ve learned over five years with these beloved humans. It’s the wisdom I wish I had began with. And it’s in two words that might sound cliché to you, so bear with me:
Father Richard Rohr famously said that all great spirituality is about letting go. It is true. To paraphrase something my friend Brenda said recently, sometimes you must unclench your fists in order to pray.
By all means, have an agenda for your comGroup. You need a vision; you need a plan for each time you meet. But then learn to let it go. God wants something wilder and better and more beautifully ordinary for your comGroup than you do, and you’ll miss it if you don’t unclench your fists. He has a healing agenda for you and for each member of your group (and those not in your group!), and you’ll totally miss the joy of participating in his work if you hold too tightly to your own agenda. Not only that, but his healing agenda for them extends far beyond their time in your group. So let them go without resentment when the time comes. Lay your hands on them as a group and pray God’s blessing over their journey. Let go. And when most everyone in your group is comfortable and more than mature enough to lead their own? Let them go.
How do we learn to let go? Where do we start? My favorite quote for the last year has been this: “Leadership begins with listening.”2 As a leader, everything begins with letting go of the need to fill the silence. “Silence is God’s first language.”3. It’s a mystery to be sure, but God is an expert at letting go. I have much to learn in this regard, but I’ve recently experienced its truth. It is only when we have first listened that our words carry any weight at all. I’ve witnessed in myself that leadership without listening is still about managing and controlling no matter how Christian-y it might sound. Until we’ve listened, leadership flows naturally from the ego rather than the Spirit. A big comGroup will make us complacent, a deteriorating one will crush us; but God isn’t playing the numbers game. To be sure, he will still use our muddled or mutinous motives for good, but he has so much more in store for us. He really does prefer to work with us rather than in spite of us.
So wherever you are, dear friend, begin there. After all, that’s where God begins with us. “It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his word but lends us his ear.”4 Open up this week. Lend someone your ear. Wait. See what God does. And I hope I’ll be getting a blog submission from you in about five years!