By Allen White
Most leaders realize group life extends beyond well prepared and executed group meetings. While Bible study is an important aspect of a group, if everyone leaves thinking, “Boy, that was good. See you next week” without sharing what’s going on in their lives, something is definitely missing. Here’s how to help your group open up:
1. Set the Right Expectations.
When your group members joined the group, what were they expecting? Were they looking for a 60 minute inductive Bible study followed by brownies and coffee as thanks for surviving it? Were they looking for a free-flowing discussion of everything that popped into their heads? Did they know what to expect?
Managing expectations is crucial for a successful group. Rather than dictate what the group will be or won’t be, it’s best to start by discussing what kind of group the members actually want. A simple exercise like having everyone write their top three group expectations on a card, then tabulating the results will go a long way in getting buy-in from the group.
If the group skews toward Bible study, then gradually implement some aspects of care. Start with something simple like asking for prayer requests and closing the meeting with prayer. As the group continues to meet, begin to focus more on application questions rather than Bible exploration questions. Don’t get me wrong. The discussion should be based on God’s Word. But, you want to aim for where the rubber meets the road, not where the rubber meets the air.
2. Set the Example.
“Speed of the leader, speed of the team” is a common axiom from Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. The leader sets the pace. If you are open with your life, then others will be open with theirs. If you hold back, so will they.
A couple of years ago someone gave me an older car. It’s not perfect, but it’s transportation and a gift at that. One night I became frustrated with the dashboard lights. About a third of the lights wouldn’t work. Out of my arsenal of mechanical expertise, I pounded my fist of the dash. The change was both immediate and dramatic – I now had no dashboard lights.
Driving in the summer or during the day wasn’t a problem. But, anytime I had to drive early in the morning or at night, I had absolutely no idea how fast I was driving. I was embarrassed by my “repair.” While I confessed the problem to my wife, I never mentioned it to anyone else.
But, one day a circle of folks in the office were discussing their cars’ various ailments. I chose that moment in the safe circle of used car owners to confess my dashboard issue. A woman turned to me and said, “My husband has the same problem with his car. He uses his GPS to check his speed.” What a brilliant idea. I had a GPS. I no longer needed to fly blind at night.
I had dreaded the conversation with the first officer who ever pulled me over. “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?”
“No, officer. My dashboard lights aren’t working.” Somehow I imagined only a scenario with multiple traffic tickets involved. Now, I had the knowledge to detect my own speed and avoid a traffic violation.
I never would have learned that workaround if I had never admitted my problem. As Rick Warren says, “Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.” And, it has to start with the leader.
I shared this story when I spoke at a church a few months back. The next week, the Executive Pastor called to say that my message already was making an impact. A man confessed to his men’s group that his marriage was on the brink of divorce. He and his wife were separated, and he didn’t know what to do. Rather than judge this guy for his situation, his group members rallied around him to support him and his wife through their struggle. My illustration of automotive failure helped him open up about his marital failure.
Group leaders are no better than the group members they lead. You must be careful the leader title doesn’t block the way for your own vulnerability. If you’re group isn’t opening up, you need to check your own transparency in the group. Your honesty will encourage theirs.
3. Set the Meeting Agenda.
To balance the need for open sharing in the group and the need to meet group expectations, the group agreement is the ideal place to start. If you’ve never created a group agreement, you should soon (Read more here).
The ground rules for your group could include an option where the group can help a member process a life situation. Some issues involve more than a casual mention during prayer request time at the end. If a group member has faced a devastating turn of events like a job loss, marital blow up, issues with children or other bad news, the group should allow space to even put the Bible study aside and support their friend in need.
But, you don’t want your group to turn into the “crisis of the week.” While every group should offer support, there is a difference between a small group built on relationships formed around a Bible study and a true support group. If a group member needs dedicated support for marital problems, grief or a life controlling issue, then a specific support group may offer better help (Read more here).
There is no perfect way to organize every small group meeting. Your group can’t offer only Bible study at the expense of care. But, your group also can’t avoid Bible study and only focus on care. As Andy Stanley says, “This is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.”
If during the discussion, you notice a group member getting teary or tender, stop and ask if they want to talk about it. They might or might not. The last impression you want to leave is that the meeting agenda is more important than the group members in the meeting.
by Allen White
Q: Where are eating next? When are we going?
A: I gather groups of small group leaders once a month, typically around the middle of the month, for lunch or dinner. We meet for one hour and limit the meetings to five leaders. This gives us time to catch up on what’s going on with your groups, learn about what’s coming next, and encourage each other. If you haven’t attended a lunch this Fall, look for an email in the next few days.
Q: Why are there so many surveys???
A: I have found in the South that most people would rather “bless my heart” than tell me what they think. Now, there are some who are not shy with their opinions. I hear you. But, for many, they are just too polite to tell it to me straight. Surveys are a useful tool to hear from everybody and get the “straight stuff.” Ken Blanchard says, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” By responding to surveys, you are helping to make our small groups ministry even better.
Q: Why is it important to invite new people to the group?
A: I have answered this question in other places on this blog, so I will try not to repeat myself.
1. People need small group connection. While about two-thirds of Brookwood Church is connected to a small group, we’ve still got 30% without a group. If we don’t invite them, where will they go? We’ve also got a world full of lost people who need connection with caring people and with their Savior.
2. Groups tend to shrink over time. I look at my own group. I started with about twelve guys. Half of the group quit immediately. It wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. One moved out of state. One started his own group. One changed jobs and his new schedule conflicted with the group schedule. One didn’t care for the restaurants we chose to meet in. If my group hadn’t continued to invite new people, I would be down to one group member.
3. Groups tend to get way too comfortable. Now, small group is the place to connect with other people at a deeper level and to develop life-giving relationships. But, over time we become too understanding of each other. The group can lose its edge. Instead of speaking the truth in love, we just love. We understand each other. We understand why group members do what they do. But, we’re comfortable. Who wants to make things uncomfortable? Adding a new member or a few tends to shake things up a bit, and that’s not always a bad thing.
4. New members bring new life to the group. New members tend to upset things just enough to keep the group fresh. The last thing we want is for our group to become a cul-de-sac (or the Dead Sea to be spiritual). Every group needs an outlet for ministry. Attracting new members is a big part of the group’s ministry.
Who do you invite? Ask God, and then pay attention to who crosses your path.
By Allen White
This is a good question. The right study can certainly make or break your group meetings.
1. Start with Your Group. What is your group interested in studying? Do they want to explore a specific topic or a book of the Bible? What does the group feel like they need at this point? Felt needs are a good place to start. If the group is interested in the topic, then you’re already on your way to a great study.
2. Check the DVD Library. Small Groups at Brookwood Church have access to a library of DVDs by a wide variety of teachers including Rick Warren, Chip Ingram, Beth Moore, Andy Stanley, John Ortberg, Bill Hybels, Priscilla Shirer, Francis Chan and many others. As a group leader, you can check out the DVD, and then order the books you need from the Brookwood Bookstore. The Small Group DVD library is located in the bookstore.
3. Use the Message Discussion Guide. Application questions for the Sunday message are available for small groups and individuals. The guide will take the group a step deeper in applying what they’ve heard on Sunday. The preparation is simply to attend the Sunday service or watch it online, then discuss the questions in your group. The discussion guide is available on Sunday afternoon at brookwoodchurch.org/discussionguide
4. Get recommendations from your coach. Your coach is a great resource for you and your group. Not only does your coach lead a group, but they are also up-to-date on what other groups have used. Your coach will also help in evaluating new curriculum and resources.
5. Check small group websites. Many great small group websites are available such as smallgroups.com, smallgrouptrader.com, bluefish.tv, saddlebackresources.com, and others. It will be easy to get overwhelmed, so don’t look at everything. Many sites offer samples of curriculum to view online.
If your group is new, they won’t have much of an opinion of what to study next. If your group has been around for a while, they will have plenty to say. As the leader, it’s up to you to land on something after the group has given input. Don’t take too long in making a decision. Your group could falter in the process.
Sometimes groups get into studies that just don’t work for their group. Some studies require homework. Some studies use a DVD. Some studies just follow verse by verse from the Bible. If your group gets into a study that just isn’t working, I would encourage you to drop that one and try something else. There is no requirement in the world that says "Thou Shalt" complete every study you start. Some studies just don’t work.
Small group leaders may be the only people who might ask that question. Professional athletes acknowledge their need for a coach. Many high powered business executives have a coach. But, why do small group leaders need a coach?
Well, let’s take a look at this the other way: what happens if small group leaders don’t have a coach? The first time we set out to form small groups at our church out West, we selected the best and brightest from our congregation. With these mature believers, we started ten new small groups. All of the groups were going strong, or so we thought, until they reached the end of the year. They all quit. When we asked why, the response was unanimous: “We loved our small groups, but felt like lone rangers out there.” I don’t blame them for quitting.
Leading a small group can be lonely at times. Every leader needs not only a coach but also a team of other small group leaders for encouragement and support. Sometimes in small group ministry we assume that the small group is the team. The truth is that the small group is our ministry. The team is made up of the coach and his/her circle of leaders. Together we can be encouraged. Together we can learn from others’ experiences. Together we can grow as leaders.
Your coach is available to help you. As leaders sometimes we feel that we should be able to handle every problem that crops up in our groups. That’s not true. While we would never want to exclude anyone from our groups, we certainly can’t care for every need in the group. When you feel overwhelmed by issues surrounding a group member, your coach is a great resource.
Let’s say that you have a group member who always talks about himself. And, that’s all they talk about. Most groups cannot tolerate a narcissistic person. For many groups, this is the beginning of the end. Your coach can help guide you in setting the proper boundaries for this group member. They can even help you refer the member to other help and resources at church.
You may be asking at this point: why can’t I just call the pastor of small groups? The answer is that you could. But, if hundreds of group leaders are calling the pastor, how long will that pastor last? In Exodus 18, Moses is confronted by his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses’ family had left him to live with Jethro. Moses didn’t have time for them. Moses’ days were consumed with solving the problems of all of the Israelites. Moses had very good reasons, he thought, for handling all of the matters himself. First, he was the only one who could do it. Secondly, the people liked coming to Moses. (I think maybe Moses liked it too).
Jethro pointed out to Moses that this system was no good. Moses was worn out. New leaders weren’t being developed. The people were frustrated. And, Moses’ family was living with Jethro.
So, Jethro offered a solution. Put the people into groups of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. If the leader of ten didn’t have the answer, then he would turn to the leader over him. The issue would travel up the chain until a solution was reached. Only the most crucial issues should get all of the way to Moses. The people would be happy. Moses would be less stressed. Moses’ family could return home. And, Jethro could live in peace. It worked.
This system was not only good for the Israelites, it’s also good for small groups and even business. Now, once upon a time, I thought that I could handle it all. What I discovered was that I could handle it all as long as “all” remained under 30 percent of our congregation. Anything above that created a debilitating, life-squelching bottleneck. That’s no way to treat a growing church body. Once a solid coaching structure was embraced, we reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in small groups. Leaders were better cared for. I was less stressed. My family moved back home (okay, they never left, but you get the point).
Everyone needs encouragement. Everyone needs a person in their corner that they can count on for support. No leader should stand alone. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who is your coach? What questions do you have for him or her? Take a little time to connect. Soon.