Every small group has the student that I affectionately refer to as “The Interrupter.” Now let’s be clear here. If you lead middle school guys like I do, they’re all interrupters. But then there’s the Interrupter—the main one. The one who really holds the power. There’s a big difference between your basic, run-of-the-mill interrupter and the Interrupter. You know the kid I’m talking about.

The Interrupter interrupts small group at a level no other student does. They tell jokes, share gossip, make off-topic comments, and may or may not shout “Potatoes!” at random times during group.

The obvious problem with the Interrupter is that he or she prevents the rest of the group from having meaningful conversation. What’s worse, by sharing gossip or making off-topic comments, the Interrupter is communicating to the rest of the group, ‘This isn’t a safe place. This isn’t a place for real conversation.’

The solution to the problem isn’t to ask your student pastor to move the Interrupter to a different small group. Now, I know it sounds like a good plan when you’re in the middle of a particularly frustrating situation with said student. But in the long run, that isn’t solving the problem. It’s just making it someone else’s problem.

The real solution lies in getting the Interrupter on your side.

Before I share what’s worked for me, it’s important to realize what the Interrupter wants: attention. And trying to take their attention away by shushing them doesn’t usually work. The more you try to “shush” them, the louder they seem to get. Try imagining that shushes are like Interrupter food. You want to avoid feeding the beast at all costs.

In my experience, the best solution isn’t to take attention away from them. It’s to give them more responsibility during small group.

Before small group starts, pull the Interrupter aside and explain to them that the rest of the group is watching them. Tell him or her that you really want the group to have a good conversation this week, and that you can’t do it alone. Ask the Interrupter, “Will you help me this week keep the group on track?” Then give him or her a question or two to ask the group to get the conversation started. Or give him or her a job to do that won’t just keep them occupied but will also serve the group.

By giving the Interrupter more responsibility, you’re not taking away the attention they’re desperately trying to attract; you’re focusing their desire for attention in a more productive direction by teaching them how to lead.

Chances are the Interrupter is not being taught how to lead in other areas of their life. Chances are they’re being shushed a lot at school and maybe even at home. Your small group might be the only place where they learn how to control their desire for attention and put it to good use.

When it’s you versus the Interrupter, your whole small group loses. Your group is no longer a safe place, and everyone misses out on meaningful conversation. When it’s you plus the Interrupter, everyone wins. You don’t have to fight for control in the group, The Interrupter learns how to lead, and everyone gets better conversation.

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CJ Palmer

CJ is the Managing Editor for XP3 High School at Orange and one of the hosts and producers of Rethinking Youth Ministry, a podcast raising the bar for student leaders everywhere. CJ has been leading small groups for middle school students at North Point Community Church since 2007, which means he's probably spent more time talking to middle schoolers than adults in his life. He also placed 5th in his 8th grade class field day fun run. CJ and his wife, Teri, live in Alpharetta, Georgia, with their robot vacuum named Barbara.

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