the shape of leadership

Life Together

Seven best practices for small group leaders

Heather Zempel on June 17, 2020

When Jesus showed up on the stage of human history, He did not call a press conference, organize a world tour, or advertise five nights of revival in Rome.

Instead, Jesus gathered 12 men around Him and did life with them. He said, “Follow me.”

Jesus led a small group. That was His strategy for changing the world, and it’s still the strategy for advancing Jesus’ kingdom, making disciples and passing faith to the next generation.

There are as many kinds of small groups as there are churches, group models and leaders. Some are sermon-aligned, while others are Bible or book studies. Some are interest-based or demographic-based. Many meet in homes, some meet in churches, and a few meet online.

Regardless of the kind you lead, great small groups are built on great leaders. That doesn’t mean you have to be the smartest person in the room — or even the most spiritual. It does mean taking personally Jesus’ command to “make disciples.”

While small group discipleship may not look the same in every setting, here are seven best practices:

1. Show up. While it may seem elementary, showing up each week establishes a culture of expectation, predictability and safety. Show up mentally and authentically to the group. And show up in the lives of your group members throughout the week.

2. Establish an agreement. Have everyone share their expectations for the group, and then write up an agreement of shared values (punctuality or flexibility, doing homework or just showing up, etc.) and shared expectations (meeting time and place, ending time, who is responsible for snacks, etc.).

3. Share stories. Community begins by simply learning about one another. Here are a few icebreakers to try:

  • Talk about a hero, highlight or hardship from your childhood.
  • If you could go to any concert in the history of the world, what would it be?
  • What accomplishment, before the sixth grade, are you most proud of?
  • What three people have been most influential in your life?
  • What three to five words would your friends use to describe you?
  • What are your family’s holiday traditions?
  • What was your favorite family vacation, and why?
  • What was the most unique job you ever had?
  • What is a personal rule you refuse to break?
People feel most connected when they have a relationship and a responsibility.

4. Enforce rules of engagement. Every group consists of a number of communication challenges — long talkers, no talkers, off-topic talkers, complainers, gossipers and conversation hijackers. Establish some conversation guidelines, such as these:

  • What members say in the group stays in the group.
  • Everyone participates.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Validate the experiences and opinions of others.
  • Lean in to listen.
  • Don’t interrupt, ramble or gossip.
  • Disagree freely, but love regardless. The goal is to establish a shared approach to conversation.

5. Delegate roles. Good small group leaders can do everything, but great small group leaders give away as much as possible. People feel most connected when they have a relationship and a responsibility.

Ensure members move from being consumers to contributors by giving each person ownership in the group and a role to play. Roles could include snack/hospitality coordinator, celebration planner, prayer leader, worship leader, communication director, icebreaker leader, email writer, and care leader. Find out what people love to do and are good at doing, and let them do it.

6. Go shoulder-to-shoulder. Community building happens not only face-to-face, but also shoulder-to-shoulder. Take on a community service project together. Find a way to serve the church together. Embark on a missions trip together.

Find excuses to celebrate — such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, new jobs, new babies and empty nests. Find opportunities to play. Go to the park, attend a sporting event, paint pottery or brave a ropes course together.

When we are face-to-face, we can share stories. When we engage shoulder-to-shoulder, we create shared stories.

7. Brave the mess. Community is messy because it involves people dumping their brokenness and baggage in the midst of your living room. Don’t be alarmed. Messes can be incubators for miracles.

When your group gets messy, it probably means you have created a safe place for people to be authentic and for God to surface the stuff He wants to deal with in their lives.

Great small group leaders don’t try to fix the mess. They simply keep showing up, pointing to God, and communicating that we will get through it because we are better together.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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