Excerpt from Leading Healthy Groups By Allen White Copyright (c) 2018.
I suppose if you’re going to lead a healthy small group, it would be a good idea to know what a healthy one looks like. Plenty of examples come to mind of unhealthy groups — groups where one member dominates the discussion; groups that have great Bible studies, but don’t live out what they’ve learned; groups that become unto themselves and never attempt to reach others; and groups that just hang out, but really don’t ever move in any direction. But, our focus is on health, not the opposite.
Healthy groups fully accept every member.
Every person matters to God and should matter to your group. Some group members might be a little rough around the edges or challenging to meet with, but none are less important or more important than anyone else. God has a reason for putting them in your group. Groups have to accept people where they are, because they can’t accept them anywhere else, can they? Acceptance is communicated through listening and giving equal time. Acceptance is expressed through intentionally getting to know those who are different from you instead of instantly gravitating toward those you are fonder of. Jesus directed groups this way, when he said, “Love one another” (John 13:34) and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus modeled this in who he associated with: tax collectors like Matthew; sinners like adulterers and bad hand washers; Samaritans who were racially different; and many others who the religious establishment looked down upon. Acceptance is one of the most precious gifts any person can give another. Healthy groups accept others.
Healthy groups center themselves on God’s Word, the Bible.
One of the key purposes of a healthy group is to become more like Christ. Every group has three powerful resources at their disposal to grow in Christlikeness: the Bible, the Spirit, and the group. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This transformation takes place through each person’s willingness to surrender, the direction of Scripture, the power of the Spirit, and the support of the group. These ideas will be more thoroughly explained in Chapter 5. Regardless of the type of group you lead, these elements are essential for healthy groups to make disciples.
Healthy groups are serious about helping their members grow.
(and group members are open to receiving help). This could involve encouragement and support to start a good habit or break a bad one. This can also involve confronting sin in the lives of their members. For most people, encouragement is much more appealing that confrontation. While the group should accept people as they are, the group should also love them enough not to leave them there. As the group grows in their relationship with others and their relationship with God, the group cannot shy away from hard things. Healthy groups are serious about help.
Healthy groups live like Jesus was serious about what he said.
When Jesus told his disciples that out of 633 laws in Scripture only two rose above the rest: love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39), he intended for his followers to love God and love others above all else. Jesus wants his followers today to treat “the least of these – the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, and others who lack basic needs” as if they were serving Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). While taking all of Scripture into account, Jesus wants his disciples to surrender themselves to God and live life in a selfless way. He wants his followers to “go and make disciples,” baptize them, and teach them to obey all Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). What if these weren’t just suggestions for better living? What if these weren’t merely nice platitudes where you could hit a mental “like” button? What if Jesus was serious about what he said? What if he expects his followers to actually do it? Obeying Jesus is a sign of group health.
Healthy groups are on mission.
The group is not just about itself. Groups members should constantly seek out people they and the group can serve. Who is the next person to invite? What neighbor needs help? Where can the group serve together locally or globally? Sometimes the greatest coping strategy for dealing with life’s woes is to focus on someone other than you. When groups align their mission with Jesus’ mission, they benefit from walking in obedience to Jesus’ commands. They benefit those who they serve. But, most of all, they benefit themselves with not only the blessing of obedience, but with a new depth of understanding God’s teaching through their experiences.
Healthy groups multiply.
This is not a popular topic among small groups in North American culture where groups want to stay together forever. I both understand and respect that desire. It’s natural to form a bond and “keep the family together.” But, it’s supernatural to think of others and the groups they will need. I don’t mean to sound spooky, but our connection to God is supernatural. His guidance through prayer and the Bible is supernatural. This makes identifying and developing new leaders possible. This causes hearts to change in favor of every disciple making disciples. To reach the world, and especially the next generation, this sort of selflessness is required. Every group should seek God about its direction and its future.
Your group may find other values in addition to these that you desire to integrate into your group life. You can certainly add these to your Group Agreement. But, don’t replace any of the priorities mentioned here.
That’s a lot to think about. These are things to focus on and strive toward. The accomplishment of all of these things will take a lifetime. But, on the other hand, nothing will ever be accomplished if you don’t start today. Today is both the culmination of what your life has become and the first step toward what you life will be. Your group is a big part of that.
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By Allen White
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.
The only thing harder is not having one.
Just as a plant needs a number of specific elements in its environment in order to grow, Christians need at least 7 vital factors or influences to grow spiritually. Each of these plays a significant part in helping people mature in your small group. Be sure you know your place as a leader with these factors (for instance, you are not the agent of life change!).
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Agent: The Holy Spirit
“God the Father chose you long ago, and the Spirit has made you holy. As a result, you have obeyed Jesus Christ and are cleansed by his blood” (1 Peter 1:2).
“But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23).
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care …” (1 Peter 5:2).
Environment: Authentic Biblical Community
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
Means: By the renewing of our minds
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
“For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13).
Instrument: Application of Scripture
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Time Frame: Lifetime Process
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
Question: How have you seen these factors at work in how people are growing spiritually in your group? Please scroll down and click to comment.
I wrote Small Group Leader Toolbox to provide small group leaders with the resources they need to help them and their groups be effective, grow spiritually, and live out God’s mission for them. This 54-page eBook provides scores of ideas, tips, checklists, how-to’s, assessments, planning templates, and, well … pretty much everything a leader needs to lead a dynamic small group or class.
By Allen White
As a new group leader, there are a few things to think about as you go into your first meeting. In fact, there may be too many things to think about. Focus on the basics and you will have a great first meeting.
As the leader of this group, you don’t have to be the expert. If you’re using video-based curriculum, there’s your expert, so let the video teaching lead the way. Otherwise, just follow along with the instructions in your study guide. But, before the meeting it’s a good idea to review the video and the discussion questions yourself. The videos are only 7-8 minutes long, then just read through the questions.
If you find your group doesn’t have time to complete the entire discussion guide, that’s ok. Prioritize the questions for the time you have available. As you get to know the group, choose questions that are appropriate for the group. If your group has been together for a while, or if your group members are well beyond the basics of parenting, then maybe skip the first question, and go for the second question which is maybe more of an accountability question regarding what they committed to do in the previous meeting.
Pray for Your Group.
If you feel anxious about leading the group or even inadequate, that is perfectly normally, especially if you are leading for the first time. The Bible says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV). So how often should you pray? Pray every time you feel anxious. God will give you peace.
The video and discussion guide are pretty easy to use. It’s practically a no brainer. But, just because the curriculum is easy to use, doesn’t mean you should go into the meeting “cold” spiritually. Commit the meeting to God. Invite His presence into your meeting, then watch Him work.
Guiding the Discussion – Not a teacher, more of a referee.
While everyone should have a chance to share their thoughts and experiences, as the leader your job is to facilitate a discussion, not to teach a class. You want to make sure everyone gets their word in. You also want to make sure no one dominates the discussion. If someone tends to jump in on every question, politely say, “Now, on this next question let’s hear from a few of you who haven’t had a chance to share.” If the person dominating the meeting continues to do this, then you might need to talk to them outside of the group meeting.
Since you as the leader prepared ahead of time for the lesson, don’t count on all of the group members preparing ahead for this meeting. Remember, they are assigned two extensive lessons in the workbook each week. When you ask the discussion questions, it may take the group members a couple of seconds to put their thoughts together. That’s ok. Don’t feel you that as the leader you need to fill the silence. Let them think a minute.
Praying Together as a Group.
Habits are hard to break and sometimes hard to start. Changing attitudes and behaviors requires more than just will power. It requires God’s power. At the end of every meeting subgroup into groups of 3-4 people, so everyone can talk about their needs, and then pray together. In a large group, some people won’t share, and it will take a much longer time, so subgrouping is necessary.
Also, limit the prayer requests to what is personally affecting the group member. Now, they may be concerned about Aunt Gertrude’s big toe or something they read about on the internet, but this really isn’t the place to discuss that. As much as you can keep the focus of the prayer time on the changes group members need to make related to their parenting style.
Ask for Volunteers.
Don’t lead the group alone. Just because you are the designated leader, you do not need to do everything for the group. In fact, delegate as much as you possibly can: the refreshments, the home you meet in, and even leading the discussion. If you do this right, you might only need to lead for the first session, then others will lead for the rest.
As group members become more involved in the leadership, they will feel a stronger sense of ownership in the group. Pretty soon the group will go from being “your group” to being “our group.”
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By Allen White
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.
As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.
So, what if Robin Williams was in your group?
1. We would have a lot of fun.
If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.
The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.
If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time.
2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.
Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself.
3. We would learn to be more generous.
Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.
I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further.
4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.
The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.
But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.
If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.
Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.
If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability.
5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.
Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.
There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.
If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.
We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.