Showing items filed under “Small Group Leadership”

Deepening the Relationships you have with the People you Lead

It takes more than listening well and asking good questions to make a great small-group leader. Great small-group leaders seek to understand their group members. They want to know what makes each person tick. They are fully aware that discipleship requires a deeper level of connection than average relationships. In discipleship relationships, we need more than the CliffsNotes on our group members—we need a deep understanding of who they are. Instead, we must think of every person in our group as people with full stories, and we can approach getting to know them like getting to know a good book.

Just like a story, each of us is a mix of important factors. They interact to give depth and development to our lives. If you're like me, you learned the five elements of a story in middle school: setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. These are fantastic lenses through which we can understand the members of our group.

Think through the following five story elements for each person in your group and consider: What can I learn about him or her? How can I better lead them and serve him or her?


Where has this person lived? What is his or her heritage?

My first time volunteering in the church was to help lead a small group of middle-school boys. The director, knowing I was brand-new, paired me with the ministry's most experienced leader. I got to tag along and learn. Over time, this leader asked me to contribute, but it didn't always go smoothly. This first time I was asked to pray at the end of one of our sessions, I said, "Dear God, thank you for this conversation, and help us to do your will as a result. Goodbye."

Goodbye? Who says that at the end of a prayer? All the boys giggled. I laughed it off, but I wondered what they and the more experienced leader thought of my mistake. It's dangerously easy to make some assumptions in those moments, especially when we don't know the person's background.

If they had known my story they would know the church setting in which I grew up. I was very experienced in prayer, but they were memorized or read out loud. I had never been in a situation where I needed to pray out loud, coming up with the words on my own. Without seeing my prayer through the lens of my history, it could have been seen as a lack of a personal prayer life.

Do you fully understand the pasts of your group members? Do you know where they come from, their heritage, and their family life growing up? These are important factors in understanding them today.


Who has influenced this person's life? Who matters to him or her?

There are no great stories without great characters. Stories center on people because people matter to us. They are a major influence on our lives and can often be turning points in a story.

How tiresome would it be to have Abbott without Costello? Without Jack and Rose, The Titanic would shift from being a love story to a survival movie. If The Office focused only on Jim and never introduced the other characters it would be a show about selling paper. Stories without characters become incredibly dry, or vanish altogether.

The same is true if you look at an individual's life through the lens of story. Consider the narrative of Jacob's life in the book of Genesis. The writer spends an entire chapter just on Jacob's preparation to reunite with Esau. If you didn't know the history of these two brothers this would be confusing. Knowing their relationship, it becomes quite clear what Jacob means in his prayer in Genesis 32:11: "Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children."

Do you have a sense of the people who played major roles in your group members' lives? As the old adage says, "A person is known by the company he (or she!) keeps."


What main events have occurred that have shaped this person? What are the major high points and low points of his or her life?

My favorite tool to kick off small-group meetings is an exercise called, Peaks and Valleys. Group members draw a horizontal timeline across a piece of paper. On the left is the year of their birth. On the right is the present year. Each person then draws a line from left to right that fluctuates above and below the timeline like an EKG report. Anything above the line is something good or positive, and anything below is something painful or negatively impactful. The farther up or down the line is drawn, the more impactful the event was. If you got married in a certain year, for instance, your line might go quite a bit higher than your baseline. If a relative passed away, your line would undoubtedly drop bit at that year.

What you end up with is a graphical representation of the plot of each group member's life. Amazing revelations undoubtedly occur as you learn how major events have shaped each person in the room.

A close friend of mine recently described a struggle he and his wife were having. They found it difficult to understand why God appears to be silent at times, even in the midst of tragedy or great need. During our conversation, he revealed that his wife was diagnosed with cancer 6 years ago when she was in her 20's. They almost didn't have kids as a result. I asked him a number of follow-up questions, because I realized experiences that happened during that trial were directly linked to the challenge they were encountering today. Without knowing that critically important plot point in their story, I would only have been able to minister at a superficial level. Instead, we were able to talk about his walk with God in light of it and make some real progress.

Do you know your group members' peaks and valleys? Do they know yours?


What major problems has this person encountered? What big challenges is he or she facing right now?

Imagine you're on a sailboat in Lake Michigan, just off the coast of Chicago. The skyline is in view as you enjoy the brisk spring air. Suddenly, you notice something in your periphery. There's someone in the water! You adjust your course and head for the person in need. The person is shouting, "Help! I'm drowning!"

It would be totally inappropriate to shout back: "It's okay! I'm a fantastic swimming instructor! I'll teach you to swim right now so you can swim to shore!"

Some of the members of our group could be in this situation. They may have a failing marriage that is failing, have recently experienced a job loss, or are dealing with a scary health diagnosis. As leaders, we must be sensitive to these conflicts and challenges. God wants to meet his children in their distress and need, and we can be his hands and feet. Knowing the conflicts (past and present) of your group members is an opportunity to minister to them more effectively.

What major conflicts have your group members dealt with? What are they currently dealing with?


What major lessons or principles has this person lived by or discovered?

Few people walk around being able to identify the major themes of their life. It is only after much reflection and prayer that we are able to recognize major themes than run through our experiences. Part of that is because we seldom stop to speak into one another in this important way.

Not long ago, I was asked to officiate a funeral for my friend's father. He was the oldest male in the family, and I was blown away by what was said about him. Every child and grandchild that came forward mentioned the same thing: He served his family in love. Surely, he had many other traits—good and bad—but this one thing is what he would be remembered for.

I love helping my group members consider the themes of their lives. Conversations about theme are intimate, however, and require a high level of trust. After your group has covered some ground, and is comfortable sharing vulnerably, ask these important questions about theme:

  • What is the one lesson God keeps reminding you of?
  • What is the legacy you want to leave behind?
  • What one value do you want to pass on to your children?
  • If you could finish one thing by the end of your life, what would it be?

These are future-oriented questions, but the answers only make sense in light of the past. Bryan Loritts once said, "Often our greatest passion is birthed out of our greatest pain." If something is strong enough to be a theme of your life in your future then there is already evidence of it being a theme in your present.


—Jon Noto is a community life pastor and licensed clinical counselor at Willow Creek Community Church's North Shore campus.

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What Student Small Groups Can Teach us about Leading Adults

If you're reading this, chances are good that you're a dedicated group leader. But whether you're brand new to this role, or you've been doing it for years, there's one important thing you need to remember—your role as group leader goes beyond the time you spend together in group. Small-group ministry happens even when the group isn't actually together.

Student Small Group leaders play a vital role in the lives of teenagers. They are the people on the front lines interacting with them each week and the work they do, while incredibly challenging, is priceless.

Leading a student Small Group mirrors what happens in an adult group in many ways. Two of the most important elements of connecting with teens are also vital in being an effective adult Small Group leader. Let's take a look at these two important traits:

Be Personal

How well do you know the people in your small group? How well do they know you?  Being personal means building individual connections with group members. We often talk about drive-thru and sit-down relational experiences. Sometimes life is busy, and all you have time for is a quick trip through the drive-thru. It isn't the best meal in the world, but it will sustain you for the short-term. Strive to make weekly personal drive-thru connections with your group members—quick little reminders to let them know they matter to you. This might be a quick text, stopping by their house, or just having a short conversation between services on a Sunday morning. These simple reminders help sustain your personal connection.

We can't, however, live on drive-thru all the time. We need to have actual sit-down meals when we take a little longer in order to have a more beneficial experience. Go to a student's soccer game, band concert, or play. Plan a get together over coffee or dinner with your families. What if you had a sit-down experience with every member of your group at least once a semester? How about once a month? This type of personal connection requires a bit of planning, but the result is well worth the investment of time.

You Matter

Small-group leader, you probably don't hear it enough, but you matter. A lot. The work you do is incredible. The ministry you are part of needs you more than you realize. 

I know that there is more to your life than the people in your small group. I know that it may seem impossible to find open space in your calendar to invest in them more than during your weekly meetings. But let me ask you this: Why did you want to lead a small group?

Seriously, why did you get into this role? I'm guessing it had something to do with wanting to help people navigate the crazy world we're living in, and helping them find and follow Jesus Christ. Isn't the kingdom of God worth our time and attention? I want to challenge you to see the potential your role offers, to dig just a little bit deeper and try something new. To those of you who not only lead an adult Small Group, but a student Small Group as well, thank you for investing in the lives of our students.

This article is excerpted from the training tool Effective Small Groups.

—Ryan Schaible is the Youth Ministries Director at Hosanna Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Illinois; copyright 2015 by Christianity Today.

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Biblical Principals for Care in Small Groups

Sarah was facing her biggest nightmare. She had resisted leading a small group for years because she lacked confidence in her ability to give wise counsel to the problems of others. Her pastor had finally convinced her that she did not need to worry. "It rarely happens", he told her. She has been an excellent leader, and her group has grown closer. Lately, however, group members have become more open and are turning to her to solve their problems. She has spent hours on the phone with several members of the group. After one late night "crisis" conversation, she slept through her alarm, missed an important meeting, and was reprimanded at work. 

Feeling inadequate and overwhelmed? Many Small Group leaders feel exactly the same way when faced the reality of being the person that others in the group are turning to for help and support. Here some tips to help leaders be prepared to meet the basic care needs of their group members.

  • Your role is to bear burdens…not to carry loads.

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you may also be tempted. Carry each other's burdens (baros) and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself without comparing himself to somebody else. For each one should carry his own load (phortion)." Galatians 6:1-5

If we understand the "law of Christ" referring to our call to

"love one another as I (Christ) have loved you", then we need to see the distinction between the Greek word for "burden" (baros) and "load" (phortion) used in the New International Version.

This passage tells us that we are to bear one another's burdens (sufferings). That is, we should come alongside and support a person emotionally. We can do this by listening to, encouraging, and praying with people who are experiencing pain or testing.

However, this same passage indicates that each person is responsible for carrying his or her own load of problems. When we take responsibility for another's problems, we do it at the expense of their self-respect, their self-esteem, and their sense of self-responsibility.

  • Understand the limitations of the Small Group care system.

A Small Group is designed to:

  • Love one another (John 13:34)
  • Be devoted to and honor each other (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)
  • Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
  • Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21)
  • Bear with and forgive each other (Colossians 3:13)

A Small Group is not designed  for:

  • Making people happy
  • Fixing people's problems
  • The way a person responds or behaves

When care becomes more than what the system was intended to do, it places a strain on the leader and ultimately the group. Know the limitation of the system and when it is breaking down.

  • Know when to ask for help

Some issues go beyond what is expected of a leader and their abilities to provide care in a small group. People dealing with these issues should be referred to the care of a specialist or to one of our pastors. Contacting Tennyson Smith, our Pastor of Prayer & Care is a great place to start if you are feeling like you have a situation that is bigger than what you can handle.

Meeting basic care needs and bearing the burdens of others are what Small Groups are designed and best suited to do. When leaders understand and are able to set limits and supply care at a level in which they and the group feel comfortable and capable of providing, our group will be the centers of care that they were designed to be.

- adapted from an article on small on July 12, 2006 entitled "Biblical Principles for Pastoral Care in Small Groups" by Brian Pierce 

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First Night Survival Guide: Preparing for and leading your first meeting

So you agree to lead a small group. And right now, you're really questioning why you said yes. You've had some training, found a study, talked with your pastor or director, and even had a few people say they're coming. But now it's just two days before your first meeting, and you're not feeling very prepared. You find yourself panicking, wondering what you'll do if no one talks, or if your entire group is made up of weird people.

Leading a small group isn't rocket science, but it can be a bit intimidating, especially the first time around. Here are a few tips to make your first group meeting go smoothly—a survival guide, if you will.


It's true: Failing to plan is planning to fail. So consider these four things while preparing for your first meeting.


A day or two before the group meeting, get in touch with the folks who have expressed interest in your group. You can use the phone, a text, social media, e-mail, or whatever works best for your context and demographic.

Be sure to remind everyone when and where the group is meeting and give them your phone number in case someone gets lost. On that note, be sure your phone is turned on and the ringer is turned up before the group starts. You don't want anyone to miss the meeting because they couldn't get in touch with you at the last minute.

You may also want to ask people to confirm whether or not they're coming so that you can be prepared. It can be tough both mentally and logistically if you expect 15 and get 5 (or vice versa).


Nothing creates conversation like cuisine. I don't know if you've ever noticed, but strangers sitting around a table full of food are much more relaxed and talkative. Food breaks the ice and opens people up. My agenda for the first group meeting is often just dinner and conversation. I want people to start getting to know one another before we dive into a study.

If you don't think you're up for tackling dinner (and I'll be honest, cooking a whole meal for a group of people can add stress to the evening) be sure to have snacks. I recommend the three Cs: chips, cookies, and caffeine. In other words: something salty, something sweet, and something good to drink.


Create a welcoming environment. People are less likely to stick around if they're uncomfortable. Make sure you have enough chairs. Turn on the lights. Burn a candle to get rid of that funky odor. Put a fresh hand towel in the bathroom.

As a side note: There are some folks with the gift of hospitality reading this who have no idea why this section's here. For those of us without the gift of hospitality, or for those who are perhaps new to having a place to host (ahem, 23-year-old guys just out of college), these tips aren't always second-nature.


Prayer is the easiest thing to overlook during the frantic preparation process, but it's also one of the most vital. This isn't just a social gathering or a team meeting. Your goal as a small-group leader is not only to create community but also to make disciples, to help people become more like Jesus. And if you're going to do that well, you'll need his help to do it.

In the days leading up to the first meeting, pray for your group. Pray that God would send the right people and that those who come would connect well and find community. Pray for wisdom and discernment for yourself as the group leader. Above all, pray that God would be glorified through your group.

—Will Johnston is the Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C.; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.

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Myth: Our Small Groups Should Take a Summer Break

by Steve Gladen. Taken from

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:41-43

I am often asked if Saddleback’s small groups continue meeting during the summer. Let me answer that question by asking a more fundamental question—“What are you trying to get from your small groups?”  Small groups are the center of our discipleship, the structure of our ministry, the launch pad of our evangelism, the enrichment of our worship, and the network of our fellowship. 

Whenever you tell small groups when to meet (the day of the week or time) and when to take a break (seasonal times), you are lowering your expectations for all groups. Your groups will never rise above your expectations. If you tell groups to stop meeting during the summer, they will stop—whether that is good for them or not. Instead, we manage groups for health (macro) and let groups figure out frequency (micro). 

The only ones off for summer are kids, unless they are in a year-round schedule. Adults generally only have two or three week vacations. So, why would you want to tell all of your groups to take a break during the summer? Most couples groups with kids get better traction in summer than the school year. Why? Because the kids have no homework and sport schedules slow down. My small group loves meeting during the summer because the kids’ schedules are easy. If we stopped during summer, that would kill our sweetest time of group life. 

Do you take the summer off from your kids? How about your spouse? What about your close friends? I don’t. My friends are part of my small group. I wouldn’t want to miss hanging with them. If your small group isn’t full of people you want to do life with, you need to change that and get together with your friends. 

Summer is also a great time to make new memories whether your group is new or has been together awhile. Use activities (some ideas are listed at the close of this article) to help bond your group. This will take fellowship to a new level and encourage transparency so discipleship and accountability can deepen. Summer is also a great time to develop ministry and missions. 

So, why miss the perfect time to develop your small groups to a new level? 

With that in mind–summer is here! Schedules are changing, vacations are planned, and summer activities may have to be arranged. While summer can be a time for some “vacation” from school and other activities, friendship and community can grow deeper. Here are some suggestions to help encourage consistency, provide new memories, and help breathe some new life into your small groups. Pass them along to all of your small groups.

Stay consistent: continue to meet when you regularly meet.

If one family, couple, or member cannot make it because of vacation plans or other things, don’t take it personally and get together with whoever is available. If it turns out that only a few can meet, still meet. This gives you an opportunity to fellowship in a more intimate group, and it’s amazing how you may grow closer just meeting with the few who can attend. 

Uplift someone or a group in your area.

“Missions Trips” don’t have to be far away. You don’t just have to think globally, you can look locally! Look for ways that your small group can uplift someone in your community. What about a Senior Home to visit? Maybe there is a widow on your block that needs comfort? Do you know an elderly person that may just need a few things done to his/her yard? Your group can also volunteer at a local orphanage, school, church summer camp, or prison. 

Modify group meetings.

Have a Barbeque, Date Night, or Girls Night/Boys’ Night out. Maybe someone has a pool, trampoline, or basketball hoop in their backyard for some fun and games. Have small group at the beach, the park, or by the lake! Our small group has had swim parties, and barbeques with our children, as well as couples only nights for the adults to get to know one another better. 

Explore Rotating leadership and homes.

Commit to have a meeting even if it’s just two or three people. Hosts/leaders, if you’re going to be out of town, ask someone to have the group meeting at their house. This is a great way to start sharing leadership, if you aren’t already.

Involve everyone in an overnight retreat together.

Find a campground, plan an overnight or two-day outing, meet up around a campfire at night, and eat, sing, and have a devotional. Oh yeah! One overnight retreat is worth 26 weeks of small group meetings.

Minister together, do a serve project!

What a great time to help out at church, fix up a group member’s home, do some yard work for someone who is not doing well, or serve one Sunday morning in a way to help your church. See your church for a list of ways to serve as a group.

Experience a night of worship.

Ask each person to bring two of their favorite worship songs. Play them all and share why the songs they brought have meaning to them. If your church polity allows, have communion at the end.

Check out this verse. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more, as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25

So, keep going and have a fun S-U-M-M-E-R-T-I-M-E. Together

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