As school starts back up, so will plenty of church-sponsored and church-related small groups. Some will study the Bible. Others will read a Christian book together. Almost all will have a designated leader or leaders. While knowing your Bible and having Christlike character are the more important factors, there are also a number of skills which go a long way in leading an effective small group.

1. Communicate early and often, and then follow through.

A good leader is always leading. If you wait until the meeting to lead, it may be too late. In this era of easy communication, there is no reason leaders can’t remind the group of upcoming dates and assignments. Make sure everyone knows what is expected. Conclude every meeting by highlighting what’s next–what should be read? when is the group meeting? where are they meeting? who will be leading the discussion? Then before the next meeting send out a reminder email (or call or text or tweet or Facebook post). People forget. People are lazy. People get busy. People need lots of friendly reminders to stay on task–especially students.

As for the meeting itself, respect people’s time. Get things started promptly and end at the agreed upon time. Sure, emergencies come up. There are exceptions to almost every rule. But people need to know that they can count on you to get the meeting started and ended on time.

Whenever possible, keep things consistent. Changing dates and times almost always leads to dwindling numbers.

Ask people for specific commitments. Don’t do everything yourself. Get someone to bring a snack, another person to organize the upcoming barbecue, and someone else to open in prayer next week. This not only builds up others, it will encourage greater participation. Asking for commitments is better than making a general invitation.

2. Think through your questions ahead of time.

If your group consists of nothing but very mature Christians who have known each other for years you may be able to get away with little preparation. But that’s not the make up of most groups (and if so, it’s probably time to mix things up a little for the sake of newcomers and those just starting out as followers of Christ). Make sure your questions are crisp and clear. If you aren’t sure what you are asking, you can be sure no one else will either.

If the selection you are studying (in the Bible or in a book) is hard to understand, you may need a number of knowledge questions. Don’t make them so obscure that only seminary trained Christians would know the answer. But don’t make them so painfully obvious (e.g., fill in the blank questions) that everyone is embarrassed to venture forth an answer.

Don’t stay at the level of knowledge only. Ask questions which call for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Prepare final questions which get at the heart.

Be creative in how you phrase your questions. Don’t just say “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this?” or even “How can we apply this to our lives?” Ask questions like:

  • What is one thing you want to see change in your life as a result of this study?
  • What new promise can you take with you into the week?
  • What did you learn about God?
  • Where have you seen these things lived out well?
  • How does this relate to the cross?
  • How does this resemble our church for good or for bad?
  • Where is this a struggle for you in your marriage?
  • What do you have a hard time believing in God’s word?

You get the picture. There are hundreds of good questions you can ask on any given week. Few of them will come to you on the spot without any preparation.

3. Be mindful of group dynamics.

Being a leader is much more than opening and closing in prayer. You should do whatever you can to foster a warm, welcoming environment in your group. This means being especially mindful of new people. The 30 minutes of hang out time before the study may be a sheer delight for the old-timers, but for new people it’s bound to feel anxious and awkward. As a leader, you should do whatever you can to make them feel at ease. Ask them questions. Get the group to introduce itself. Have an exercise ready to encourage group sharing. The less people know each other the more structure is needed.

Keep in mind that newcomers may not know your history, your humor, or your theology. I made the mistake once of teasing one of our longtime small group members about not yet being convinced of paedobaptism. It was playful banter between me and these friends, but for the new folks visiting it sent them the (wrong) signal that credobaptists weren’t welcome here. I later apologized and explained that I was only joking with my friends and that we’d love to have them (the new couple) in our group. My bad.

One of the hardest and most important things a leader must do is try to include as many people as possible in group discussion. Obviously, the aim is not to make quiet members feel embarrassed, but often the quiet members simply need to be asked. A good leader won’t allow every discussion to be dominated by the same two or three people. He will specifically call on those who haven’t said much. He may need to gently add from time to time,  “Let me see if anyone else has something to add before I come back to you.”

A good leader will be sensitive to the mood of the group, discerning whether there is hurt, confusion, sadness, or frustration that needs to be addressed. Don’t just play traffic cop. Be a shepherd.

4. Know how to handle conflict.

The worst fear of most small group leaders is that they will be called upon to quell some raging inferno of disagreement. Thankfully, most Christian groups (in my experience) play pretty nice (almost to a fault). Angry conflict is rare, but it does happen. Depending on the circumstances, here are some of the things you may want to say in the midst of disagreement:

  • Sam, it sounds like you are trying to say XYZ. Am I hearing you correctly?
  • Amanda has offered a different interpretation. What do the rest of you think? How should we interpret this verse?
  • I know it’s hard to talk about such a controversial or painful topic, but I don’t think we should we run away from constructive conflict. I’d love to hear what everyone else is thinking.
  • This is an important discussion, but it’s not really involving the whole group. It would be great if the two of you could get together and continue the conversation at a different time.
  • It sounds like I may have done something to upset you. Why don’t we talk about it after the meeting is done?
  • Guys, I’m happy for us have disagreement in this group. But that sounded personal. Let’s try to be gentle even when we are passionate.

There may be times where the leader needs to be even more direct. You may have to shut down the conversation, explicitly correct a wrong interpretation, or reprove someone for speaking in a harsh and unedifying way. While we don’t want hot-headed leaders who make conflict worse, neither can we afford passive “leaders” who put their own people-pleasing and fear of man above the good of the whole group.

5. Plan for prayer.

If you expect prayer to just happen it will only barely happen. There is nothing wrong with 60 seconds of prayer to begin and end a meeting, if that’s your plan. Just to know that without preparation, that’s what will almost always happen. Effective times of prayer–whether short or long–take intentional planning. Are you going to ask for prayer requests? If so, how will ensure your “prayer” time is not all sharing with almost no praying? What are prayer requests from previous weeks that need follow up? How long do you want the prayer to be? How many people are you hoping will pray?

Leading in prayer requires clear direction. Don’t be afraid to call on certain individuals to pray (usually not newcomers). Remind people that their prayers can be short (in fact, you may want to encourage them to be short). Guide people through different topics (family, church, nation, world, etc.). If your prayer time is generally brief, consider setting aside a meeting every few months for nothing but prayer. We’ve often done this in our group, usually separating men and women for these most extended times of sharing and prayer.

The biggest difference between a small group that is spiritually, relationally, and biblically edifying and one that feels like an awkward waste of time is leadership. Good leaders do not always get good followers. But it almost never happens that you get good small groups without faithful, wise, skilled men and women to lead them.

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34 thoughts on “Five Tips for Leading Your Small Group”

  1. 8thday says:

    That’s an interesting picture you choose to go with your post – three men, leaning in, talking only to each other, totally excluding the women who are left to talk among themselves. Small group leadership? I don’t think so. Unless, of course, your goal is misogynist exclusion.

  2. Cj says:

    ^ 8thday is cracking me up! What a jokester!

  3. Matt says:

    Absolutely great tips. Thankyou!

  4. Steve Smith says:

    Yes, those poor women are clearly being forced to smile and sit back while the men have a laugh at their expense. If only they could speak up for themselves.
    Thank you for these helpful tips, Kevin.

  5. journeyman says:

    8thday = The sound of an axe grinding.

    BTW – Good article.

  6. Andy says:

    Just don’t let this happen to your small group:

  7. T says:

    Leadership well also require careful preparation in the true exegesis of your Bible study passage. We’re really inviting postmodern takeovers when we gather to open our Bibles and just share what it means to us individually. Yes there are different ways God speaks to different group members, but there is such a thing as the true meaning of the passage, and the leader is the one who needs to be able to bring everyone to understand it together. Bible studies can devolve into a kind of group-based Lectio Divina – instead, be sure you learn together how to properly interpret the scriptures.

  8. 8thday says:

    Say what you will, but the photo accompanying this post depicts a small group fail – one group excluding another group, two conversations happening at the same time, and it is obvious from the picture that the speaker is speaking without having everyone’s attention. I doubt this is what Kevin is advocating for.

  9. John says:

    The article is great. However I think 8thday’s point is very valid. A good reminder to be careful the whole group is involved in the same discussion. T, you make an important point. The leader should be well prepared. However he shouldn’t dictate the “correct interpretation”. He can guide the group into understanding the correct interpretation through a series of well-placed, thoughtful questions.

  10. Phillip Nash says:

    How sad that people have ignored the article and focused on a photo of people obviously relaxed together around the Word and with each other. Please don’t try to join my group!

  11. Sean says:

    Really helpful article. There’s been a lot of talk about the picture. Sometimes when leading a group I start by asking an introductory question for people to discuss in pairs/threes and then to come back and discuss as a group to get conversation going – maybe this is what is happening in the picture?!

  12. Ryan says:

    Thanks for the great article. I rarely comment on posts, but I’m so annoyed that the comments were hijacked by a person who seems to despise God-made gender dynamics. Apparently the TGC has a quite a few people trolling the blog for the purpose of tearing apart minutiae. *sigh* Jesus’ small group was made up of 12 men, good thing there’s no picture. Come on people.

  13. loneSparrow says:

    (Ignoring the comments (which deserve no comment) on the picture)… this is a great piece that is distinctive in an appreciable way: Addressing the subject of “newcomers”. Remembering the visitors in a situation is critically overlooked in these discussions. Kevin’s discernment concerning how awkward it can be (especially for those introverts and the less-than-sanguine) hits at the heart of a fellowship being OPEN to new faces and lives. This is encouraging stuff.

  14. Jim Boyer says:

    Good advise but for one of your final sentences: “Good leaders do not always get good followers.”; goes against core leadership principles that I learned in business, military, church, and life. ” A leader can be as good as his group, but never better.”

  15. jose ocasio says:

    i was not going to comment, but i fell into temptation. some of the comments here are to funny. some people look at the position of the women to the men, but fail to see what the main points are about small groups. its funny they pick on that picture, but yet the women are smiling, who knows maybe they took a break and talking about the next meeting, and the women were talking about the next womens meeting.. WHO CARES! i say potato and you say potAto(e) give or take the e..cmon people really?

  16. Julia Miller says:

    I am happy to see men engaging with each other over an open Bible instead of sitting in front of a football game or another choice of “reading material.” Those who seek to be offended, can find it everywhere they look! Lighten up, 8thday, and smile!

  17. 8thday says:

    Julia – The issue was not whether men are doing something better than watching football, the issue was how to lead small group meetings. I am a professional mediator and meeting facilitator. I was merely trying to point out that the graphic did not support what the post (which I agreed with) advocated. In fact, it did just the opposite.

    I was not offended. Nor would I return to a meeting that was run like that picture as it is would be a waste of my time. But to each his/her own.

    For those interested, there are some very helpful ideas for generating for ideas and including everyone in a meetings at

  18. Martin says:

    Three additional tips for small group meetings.

    1) Be careful that one person’s problem does not hijack the whole meeting. Sensitivity to the whole group while showing respect and care to a troubled individual is, indeed, a mark of skilled leadership.
    2) Just don’t meet for Bible study and prayer. Augment your small group meetings with pot-luck dinners and other relaxed get-togethers.
    3) Rotate leadership at times for other mature members to present a topic for discussion. That includes women. Small group meetings do not meet the criteria for “God-made gender dynamics” – even if you are in a complementation church. I am so thankful for the wisdom, knowledge and spiritual insight God has blessed our Creation Care Small Group with through multiple members.

  19. Joan says:

    Great article, Pastor DeYoung. Shared with the women who will be nurturing the small group portion of our women’s study this year. As an aside, I thought the blonde on the left was the leader. ;)

  20. ACS says:

    One can appreciate 8thday’s sensitivity to the obviously “misogynist” small group study photo. But, I’m surprised at his/her insensitivity to other excluded groups. S/he assumes the women “are left to talk among themselves” because the men are “excluding” them. That’s sexist. Why can’t we be witnessing misandry and that it’s the women who are excluding the men who are left to talk among themselves? Why does 8thday assume that only men exclude? 8thday may also be exhibiting an improper hetero-normative bias, but there may not be enough information to show that. I hope s/he is not prejudiced against the LGBT community.

    Moreover, there is not one single person of color in the photo. Doesn’t 8thday notice or care about the obvious racist exclusion of people who are different? I don’t see any wheelchairs. Does 8thday not care about the plight of the differentially abled?

  21. 8thday says:

    ACS – if the Rev. De Young’s post was about encouraging diversity in small groups I would absolutely agree with you and I would argue that the picture is a poor representation of the ideal he was trying to highlight. But his post was not about diversity. It was about tips for leading a small group. So it doesn’t really matter who comprises that group. What matters is that all the participants in the group are encouraged to bring ideas to the group and feel comfortable enough to discuss them.

    I said that the men are excluding the women in this picture solely based on the body language of the men. In fact, one man has entirely turned his back on the women. Do you think that leads to a good group discussion? I don’t. One commenter pointed out that they thought one of the women was the group leader. If that is the case, and she is allowing one group to turn their back on another, I would say that is a leadership fail.

    I have copied this picture to use in clinics to illustrate how not to facilitate small groups. But if you feel that this a representation of a healthy inclusive group discussion, then I suppose you get what you get.

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  23. Meg says:

    Thank you, Kevin. We have led a small group in our home for many years – last year we became 2 groups! YEAH! Tonight we started MC’s new “Recovering Redemption” driven by DVDs. Lesson #1 was excellent and basically on the state we are in because sin has come into the world. The key text was Genesis 1 -3. It was excellent and applicable until one member began telling us that we are focusing too much on all of the negative. What about what Scripture says we are in Christ, etc. etc. The woman who started down this path (basically not discussing the content of the message) refused to “stand down.” Times like this make small groups challenging!

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    Establishing a small group agreement can also help with conflict. Describe the behavior the group wants in the agreement. When members violate the agreement, it usually only requires a reminder of what was agreed to bring it back.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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