Starting a new small group can be daunting, especially if you've never led a group before. You may not know what to do or say to make member and guests feel welcome and safe enough to engage in conversation and be vulnerable in sharing about their lives. Starting well is scary, but not impossible. Making a good first impression is critical for the ultimate success of the small group. You only get one chance at a first impression, so thinking through all the details around that kickoff is important.
The initial location does not have to be in the location where the group will regularly meet. You may choose to have that first meeting at a neutral location like a restaurant or a room at the church. A neutral location can sometimes help people ease into the life of the group. Meeting people at a restaurant is less intimidating than showing up at a stranger’s home the first time. If you decide on a restaurant, choose one that is affordable and has enough room for the whole group to gather around one or two tables.
Good and thorough communication before that first meeting is important. The group members will need an email stating the location and time the group will start. Don’t assume everyone will read through the first email; a follow-up email the day of the meeting is also necessary as a reminder. Include your phone number for anyone who gets lost or has last-minute questions.
If your first meeting is in a home, arrange the chairs in a circle so everyone faces each other. This will help promote conversation and not the expectation that someone will teach the study. If you are using a video-enhanced study, arrange the room for everyone to comfortably see the television or screen.
Provide name tags for everyone for the first several meetings and whenever someone new visits the group. Having name tags will help the group build community faster. It will also help newcomers not feel as awkward during their first visit. I always have trouble remembering names, so my groups will wear name tags for the first six weeks of meetings.
The Group Covenant
It’s always a good idea to begin with a group covenant or agreement. This document will state the facts and values the group will abide by for the duration of the group’s life. Starting with a covenant helps set expectations for group participation.
A good covenant can cover most of the issues that might arise in your group. Group members can also add to the covenant as the group finds its identity. A few details to include on the covenant are location and starting time of the group each week, childcare arrangements, and food expectations.
With a group covenant, members are committing to:
- Grow healthy spiritual lives by building a healthy community
- Give priority to the group meeting and to call as soon as possible if they will be absent or late
- Create a safe place where people can be heard, feel loved (no quick answers, snapping to judgment, or simple fixes), and know that anything that is shared is confidential and will not be discussed outside the group
- Give the group permission to speak into their lives and help them to live a healthy, balanced spiritual life that is pleasing to God
- Build relationships by getting to know each other and praying for each other regularly
- Invite their friends who might benefit from the group
- Recognize the importance of helping others experience community by eventually multiplying and starting a new group
Making a good first impression is critical for the ultimate success of the small group. You only get one chance at a first impression, so thinking through all the details around that kickoff is important.
Staying on Time
It’s important that you strive to begin and end the group at the times agreed upon in the group covenant. Members will consistently show up late if the starting time does not seem important to the leader, and people with childcare commitments will struggle if the meeting goes too long. Although there will be occasional exceptions, there are a few things you can do to help keep the meeting on schedule:
Share the food responsibilities with the group: Group members responsible for bringing food are more likely to be on time or early. They understand the group will be waiting on them if they are late.
Don’t wait for everyone to arrive before starting: If your group has agreed to a 6:00 p.m. start time, commit to starting promptly with the people who are there.
Keep the first twenty minutes informal: The first part of the meeting should be reserved for just hanging out and eating together. Providing this open time is crucial, especially if the group is new and still getting to know each other.
Have a time schedule in mind for the meeting: Calculate ahead of the meeting how much time each element should take and try to stick to it. Keep in mind that if the study includes a video teaching portion, it will cut into some allotted discussion time. However, don’t be so rigid that there isn’t room for the Holy Spirit to work in the meeting. There will be moments where the group needs to stay on a question or a discussion point for more clarity. Be prepared to make adjustments as you go.
Have a transition in mind to get the group to the finish line of the discussion: You always want the discussion to end with action points for the group to carry out immediately. Keep this finish line in mind during the conversation and be ready to transition to it with enough time left for prayer.
Aim to end the meeting fifteen minutes early: Ending a little early will give enough time at the end for group members to continue the conversation informally before heading home. Some of the best discussions will occur after the official study time has concluded. This will be especially true for members who did not feel comfortable speaking up in front of the group. Leave room for those catalytic one-on-one conversations over dessert.
Be available after group, but keep some boundaries: There will be occasions where a group member may need to stay after for an extended conversation or prayer. You should be available, but be aware if it’s a habitual practice for someone. He may need to be gently reminded about the boundaries you have in place for family time. You are in this for the long haul; personal and family health should always be guarded.
Excerpted with permission from Leading Small Groups by Chris Surratt. Copyright 2019, B&H Publishing Group.
Regardless of whether you have never lead a small group or have been leading one for years, all of us want to know how to create environments where spiritual growth takes place and communities are changed. Leading Small Groups leads you through the stages of gathering, launching, leading, and multiplying a gospel-centered small group.