This is going to be a tricky post to write. Much of what I say here is what I'm wrestling with at the moment, so I'm not claiming any authority on this issue.
I've been a part of two types of small groups during my life - those that have an end date and those that are indefinite. The first type is obviously much easier to leave. If you are unhappy in your group, but not sure how to leave well, then it can just be a matter of hanging on until the end of the year or whenever the group has agreed to stop meeting.
The group that keeps on meeting together year after year is obviously much harder to leave. This will require a deliberate action of leaving on your behalf. Unless it's something obvious (like you're moving away), it can be hard to explain to the rest of the group why you're leaving. Even if they know you've been unhappy or they've been treating you badly, there can be a sense of indignation from group members.
I've mentioned before in this series why small groups have been so beneficial to me in my Christian walk. But like anything good they can be distorted and corrupted by sin. There is the potential for Christians to be built up and (sadly) torn down by their small groups.
When mulling over whether to leave your small group, you need to ask the question, "Why should a Christian small group exist?" I believe the purpose of small groups are:
To build each other up to love Christ and each other more through the study of Scripture, prayer, and being involved in each another's lives.
The reason I joined groups before I was a Christian and shortly after I became one was primarily to understand God's Word more so I would know how to follow Him in this world. As my Christian walk progressed, my reason for being a part of groups changed slightly. It was still to learn from the Scriptures, but I was now in a stage where I wasn't just a learner; I could also be a teacher. God was molding and making me into the person He wanted me to be, and so I wanted to meet with others who were in the middle of this sanctification process - to spur each other on to love and good deeds. For me, small groups were a way to get to know people much better than I could in a church context of 50-100 people. After all, how can you love, care and pray for someone if you know nothing about them?
Having said all this, the next bit is the difficult bit. If you have an idea of what small groups should be for, then how do you deal with meeting with fellow fallen, but also redeemed people? When things get tough, do you quit or stick it out?
Here are some of the reasons I've been wrestling with as I've gone through the process of actively leaving a small group:
If there is not actually any spiritual learning going on
When I join a small group, I'm wanting much more than social chit chat. I can get plenty of shallow-level conversations at church and other places. I think Christian small groups should be deeper than that. Some groups call themselves 'Bible study groups' yet there is no actual Bible study taking place. One group I'm a part of do not even bring Bibles to the group and, if they do, they don't open them. I don't mean that I want to study the Bible like an academic textbook either. I want to really look at the Scriptures with others, discuss, wrestle and pray about what we've been learning and what it means for our lives today. I don't want to watch DVDs of sermons and then have everyone discuss the weather. That's lazy. And I don't want to be in a group which thinks we need to rely on 'experts' to teach us. I'm not saying the group necessarily needs to write their own studies, but we need to stop seeing the Bible as a book that is beyond our understanding. Everyone I've been in a group with can read and is able to understand. In this situation, I think all you can do is encourage the group to study the Bible and offer to lead some studies. If they don't want to do this and people aren't being encouraged/challenged in their faith, then it's probably time to leave.
When there is a negative 'group culture'
I've had some shocking experiences in small groups. Mostly these have been in all-women groups where I've been belittled by other group members. Looking back, I don't think I handled it very well. I should have confronted some people privately, but often it was the majority of the group who were being unkind. In typical fashion, I thought of witty comebacks hours afterwards when I'd already gone home crying. That's why I'm very against groups full of women of the same age or in the same stage of life where I've felt like the odd bod. (I also better add that I have had the privilege of being part of a couple of fantastic women's groups as well.)
A negative group culture can also mean where there is blatant sin going on and everybody is discussing it like it's one big joke. Statements like: "I drove 120km/hr to get here and didn't see any cops." (everyone in the group chortles) or "My friend bought this sermon series and I burnt some illegal copies of it." (everyone chortles again). This can be so discouraging when the very people who are meant to encourage each other to 'swim against the tide' (God's way rather than the world's way) are being anything but encouraging, and accuse you of being judgemental if you dare speak up.
A decision to leave a small group should not be taken lightly. These people are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all sinners and live in a fallen world. No group will ever be perfect and if you leave a group after the slightest of problems, then you'll never find a group to commit to. I'm also dead set against joining a church or group and only thinking of what you can get out of it. Therefore, make every effort to at least try to discuss the issues you're having with someone in the group - either with the group leader or the person in the group who hurt you (I find this so, so hard!). If they are unresponsive, then at least you can say you tried.
But there comes a time when you have to look after your own spiritual health. If you're coming home from your small group every week feeling belittled, downcast and discouraged in your walk with Christ, that's not good. When that's the case and you've tried to address the problem, it's probably time to move on. Your departure may be the kick up the pants the group needs.
Some people will probably disagree with my reflections and that's fine. I'd love to hear from anyone who felt they should leave their small group and how they went about it.