Effective Small Group Leadership
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lunch for small group leaders. We meet about once a month for training, check-in, and ministry updates. This time the focus was on hearing updates from each leader. As we heard what was working well in each group, we learned how to be more effective leaders.
An effective small group leader ministers to others by promoting easier access to God. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.
An effective small group leader is …
A welcoming environment sets the stage for effective small group ministry. We as leaders play an important role in establishing and promoting this foundation. By being aware of and willing to assimilate new members, we contribute to a welcoming environment.
You may want to have your group brainstorm ways you can help everyone feel welcome and included. Again, as a leader, you can model an attitude of openness that fosters inclusion.
We’re accessible when we model transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. When we do this, we follow the example of Jesus as He served His disciples and all of us.1 We can be open with what we share and how we respond during discussions. When we practice accessibility, we not only invite members into our group; we also invite them into our lives. Specifically, we can include group members in discussion by referring back to comments they have made.
When we interact with group members’ comments, we show we hear and care about them as individuals. Reuben Welch said it this way:
An effective leader communicates love and care through words and actions to everyone in the group.
This genuine care will show itself as we acknowledge group members as individuals. Your group might celebrate special days together, such as members’ birthdays. You may choose to guide a discussion about what the group wants to do for special occasions, which might include holidays. These celebrations don’t need to be formal; it’s more important that they serve as a vehicle for group members to care for one another.
Effective small group leaders take advantage of the many options for helping group members stay connected. Some small groups include a place on a group roster for members to indicate their preferred method of contact.
For example, as a parent, I communicate with my children using whatever method they’re focused on at the time. At one point, we called each other on the phone. Then for a while, we used email. They had a brief fascination with social media (Facebook). Once we all had access to text messages, we used that. Now we use any and all methods to stay connected. With your group, you may wish to find one way that works best for everyone.
We find examples of this level of connection in the life of Jesus as He walked among the people, not restricting His ministry to the synagogue on the Sabbath. The apostle Paul is another example as he worked and approached people in ways he believed they could relate to, for the purpose of sharing the good news about Jesus. He said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.”3
Staying connected keeps members engaged between group sessions. This is especially important when anyone misses a meeting.
One of the small group leaders participating in the lunch said she emails highlights of the next week’s content to her group ahead of time. She includes questions she plans to cover during the upcoming discussion time to help each person prepare. When I get an email like this, it helps me feel connected to the conversation before I arrive, and it also helps me connect more deeply with the topic of discussion.
Effective small group leaders equip those in their group. They come alongside members, providing tools that equip them in their personal growth. The greatest way we can equip and assist our group members is to point them to the Answer: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”4 As we offer Scripture in context, we encourage those in our group to read and discover the truth in God’s Word for themselves.
When we actively listen as people share during group conversations, we equip them to engage with everyone, not just the group leader. We promote effective discussion when we encourage the group to ask and answer questions. Effective questioning strategies include asking open-ended questions and questions that help participants clarify their understanding of the discussion topic.
One question that often comes up in small group ministry is, what should I do if one member dominates the conversation? Some leaders have members take turns answering questions. One tip from the education community is that a random approach keeps people more engaged, since they don’t know when they might be called on to contribute. To keep participation random, you could have members pass a “baton” to another person for the next question or discussion point.
On the other hand, some group members may have quieter personalities. A sensitive leader considers their comfort level and encourages them to participate as they want to. Many people are willing to share once invited if they feel they’ll be heard. Others may feel uncomfortable sharing aloud but may be active listeners, encouraging other members through eye contact and other positive body language.
Effective small group leaders understand the value of “wait time.” Ideally, this pause lasts at least three seconds.5 Wait time allows participants to think about their responses. Since some people need more time to process than others, wait time gives everyone equal opportunity to interact with the content, even if only a few verbally respond.
A small but tangible way you can show sensitivity to group members is in your approach to group sharing or prayer time. During our last small group meeting, the leader said that no one needed to feel pressured to share or pray aloud. I believe a visible reminder of this guideline will be helpful. Next month I plan to take a small object for group members to use as a token when they wish to “pass.” As it’s passed around the group, it will serve as an outward expression of their desire to not speak, allowing other members to keep track of who will speak next.
We support our group members when we maintain an environment that facilitates discussion. You could divide the group to maximize participation. At first people may not want to split the group, thinking that cliques will form or some people will feel left out. An effective leader will explain the benefits of different approaches to group discussion. You can reassure members that smaller groups will help everyone get to know one another better. You could also remind people that group dynamics change with each combination of individuals, even as attendance changes from week to week.
Another way to support individuals is to pace the discussion to allow everyone time to speak. In a small group I attend, everyone is committed to participating, which presents its own challenge: having enough time for everyone to share. At our last meeting, we used a timer so that each person has an equal amount of time to share. This worked well and supported everyone by balancing the amount of feedback and input each person gave and received.
It’s exciting to participate with God in His business of loving people and drawing them closer to Him. Our effectiveness as small group leaders begins with this truth we can claim before interacting with anyone from our group: the access God gives each of us to Himself.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.… He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”6
Any doubts or fears we have as small group leaders are calmed by the peace God gives. As we look to Him, He enables us to effectively lead our small groups and guide them to access God as we are