Circle Up

By Susan Lawrence

“Then Jesus told his followers to have the people sit in groups on the green grass. So they sat in groups of fifty or a hundred. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and, looking up to heaven, he thanked God for the food. He divided the bread and gave it to his followers for them to give to the people. Then he divided the two fish among them all. All the people ate and were satisfied” (Mark 6:39-42, New Century Version).

04_Lawrence_JNI don’t know if the groups of 50 and 100 sat in circles or not, but I doubt they sat in neat and tidy rows.

For church folks who like everything to fit into a chart with columns and rows, circles are difficult to cope with—especially when those circles involve people. Straight lines that create boxes are easier to manage. You can sort them, straighten them, and add them. You can reposition multiple sections by choosing a key line to move. Lines are easy.

Circles create fuzzy lines. Sometimes it’s hard to see where one circle ends and another begins. If you tuned in to this year’s Golden Globe Awards telecast, you saw how finding a path among people seated in circles creates confusion and adds time to the journey. The path isn’t as clear when you’re surrounded by circles, because the shortest line between two points isn’t possible without a jet pack. If you walk among people, the path is littered with obstacles and options.

Such is church life—messy, chaotic, confusing, and time-consuming. When you have your eyes on a ministry goal, you want to achieve it—you want to walk directly toward it with your steps as clear as 1-2-3. More often, however, ministry progress resembles a complicated set of dance steps marked by confusing footprints scattered across your path.

For some of us—Type A personalities, control freaks, managers—the journey becomes a quagmire on the way to the goal. We know the purpose, we see the possible result, but we get frustrated by the process. It requires more energy, time, effort, and attention than we think is necessary.

For others—coordinators, party planners, friend collectors—the journey is the focus. Getting to the result seems premature, because the process is the goal.

When we marry the two perspectives, we traverse the circles as opportunity toward something. When our ministries are focused on God, we’re moving toward him, and leading others closer to him, while honoring him through the relationships along the way. People take precedence over programs, and we learn among the circles.


Circles create familiarity.

Imagine sitting in a row at church. The worship leader tells you it’s time to shake hands with people around you. Unless someone new has positioned himself in “your” section, you’ll likely shake hands with the same people you shook hands with last week and the many weeks before that. In essence, you’ve created familiarity with a few people around you, but it’s landlocked familiarity.

How many more people would you notice and get to know if you drew a large circle around yourself? How many sets of eyes would you be able to look into? How many people would get to know you, too, looking into your eyes on a regular basis?

It’s one thing to shake hands with someone while asking, “How was your week?” with a short window and little expectation for response. It’s something altogether different to look someone in the eye and ask, “How was your week?” with a familiarity of “I’ve been sharing life with you and we share what we know. I want to know how you really are.”

Even the quiet people within a circle are welcomed into the fold of familiarity. When we see each other regularly, we get familiar with more than a face. We get to know the expressions of those faces, reflecting the needs of the hearts. And since God is concerned with the heart, I’m confident we should be, too.


Circles invite accountability.

When we get to know those in the circle, we notice who is missing. We recognize needs, sharing some with words but showing up to meet the unspoken ones, too. Circles foster responsibility. We don’t look as much for someone outside the circle to come in and care for us. We get the best care from those who know us best, and we give them our best care, too. We don’t wait for an “expert” staff member to fix our issues or meet our needs. We take responsibility for seeking God’s guidance and the challenge to move from spiritual milk to solid foods.

Since we’re learning and living out God’s Word together, we notice the gaps between what God says and what we do. We sharpen each other because we know God and use his Word as the plumb line. We don’t need to worry about offending each other. We’re more concerned about offending God. We know any relationship issues we have while following God’s way will be addressed, because he pays attention to the details. He doesn’t just fit into our timing preferences.


Circles allow for overlap.

When a group of circles coexist in close proximity, they ebb and flow into each other. It looks chaotic as you work through the crowd; lines are indiscernibly blurred. Widen your vantage point. From a bird’s-eye view, you’ll notice a rhythm to the relationships. As the circles overlap, tighten, and expand—over and over—there’s a constancy of connectedness. It’s cohesiveness of community.

Water is cohesive, too. It sticks to itself. It stays together in the ocean even as the waves rise and fall. It stays together in the stream even as it twists through the winding boundaries of dirt, rocks, and debris. Circles move, and they’re alive because they don’t stand still. Over time, they transfer, grow, release, and absorb.

None of this is a news flash to most of us in ministry. (Not everything has to be.) But try not to look at it as old news. Instead, let it serve as a reminder . . . or a challenge. Avoid compartmentalizing the benefits of circles to how you approach small groups at your church. Consider how you do church overall.

• How can you circle up during worship services? (Think beyond room arrangement.)

• How can you circle up to serve?

• How can you circle up volunteers?

• Get personal. How can you circle up
in every single facet of ministry? Consider your weekly routine and every program, responsibility, and opportunity you have.

Consider how you do life. You can rationalize you don’t have time to invest. You can (try to) avoid the mess of relationships. You can ignore people around you. You can try to fit everyone—and ministry—in columns and rows, but in the end, when you try to use a formula, you’ll find nothing quite adds up the way you expect. You can try to put ministry in a box, but people won’t fit until you’re willing to let the lines blur and bulge.


Susan Lawrence facilitates ministry team retreats to encourage healthy growth. She’s a speaker and author of Pure Purpose, Pure Emotion, Pure Growth, and Pure Faith Bible studies. She regularly blogs at and has coordinated women’s ministries, small groups ministry, and Christian education at Taylorville (Illinois) Christian Church.

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