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How to Give Direction to Bible Study Groups

Here are five ways you can begin to take back the reins, provide leadership, and lead Bible study groups into a better future.

Several years ago my oldest son began his college education. The one question the academic advisor never asked him was, "So, what courses would you like to take?" She never said something like, "Here at our university, just take whatever you like and we'll give you a degree in something at the end of your 120th hour of class." Students don't tell the university what they are going to study ... the university has leaders and experts who determine the courses of study and they tell the students! The dog wags the tail, not the other way around.

In some churches, though, the tail wags the dog. In some churches, Bible study groups and group leaders have been permitted to self-determine what they study. I actually attended one such group while visiting churches, looking for a new church home after a job relocation. One Sunday morning, a well-meaning group leader stumbled into class late, threw open his Bible, and said the following words (no exaggeration):

"I was so busy this week that I didn't prepare to teach anything, so let's just go to Proverbs 1 and read a few verses, then talk about what we think those verses mean to us." For the next 40 minutes the group languished under the poor teaching and leadership of this ill-prepared group leader. I later learned the group had no ongoing curriculum plan. The group leader simply determined what he wanted to talk about each week. A few weeks after this incident, I learned that only 1/3 of the church's members were even a part of their small-group strategy. It's no wonder they struggled to have great Bible study experiences and to get people connected. What would you do?

If you were in charge of the small groups at a church like this, what would be your steps in correcting this problem? How would you take back the reins and provide new leadership when groups and group leaders have grown accustomed to "doing their own thing?" I actually led a church to do this in my not-too-distant past. Here are 5 ways you can begin to take back the reins, provide leadership, and lead Bible study groups into a better future.

Step 1: Be ready to manage the transition. If you have determined that your groups should have guidance rather than being allowed to continue to self-determine the things they will study throughout the year, please realize that this change won't "get you." Reggie McNeal says in his book, Managing Change and Transition, "It's never the change that gets you; it's always the transition to the change that gets you." Most people will understand your reasons for wanting to provide renewed leadership, but you will have to exercise patience as you bring late-adopters along. Failure to manage the transition to a different future is most likely why staff leaders sometimes accidentally harm their reputations and their tenure.

Step 2: Speak honestly with your group leaders. Humility and apologies will go a long way in helping group leaders hear your heart. Be honest about your reasons for wanting to exercise greater leadership in helping set a plan for small group studies. Let group leaders know it is not about control, but about accountability to God, your pastor, and to themselves, as well. Apologize for any role you may have had in the situation.

Step 3: Emphasize the benefits. There are numerous advantages to a systematic plan for Bible study. First, you can promote studies to potential group members. Second, you can provide Bible study resources for group members that enhance the group experience and challenge them to study throughout the week. Third, new group leaders can be groomed as they substitute for their group's leader using a leader guide and other Bible study resources provided to them by the church as a part of their group's ongoing Bible study plan. I'm sure you could continue to add to this list of benefits; there really are great advantages for everyone concerned.

Step 4: Review the options. Give group leaders samples of different studies to take home and review. Allow them to put their hands on the study guides, leader guides, and the other resources that could help them lead their group. Apple intentionally designed their stores to allow people to put their hands on computers, iPads®, iPhones®, and other products to reduce the customer's anxiety and fear of technology. Touching a physical product made a big difference in helping people get comfortable with the idea of embracing new things.

Step 5: Offer a compromise. As you talk with group leaders about your desire to be more involved in leading them well, just realize that not every group leader will immediately buy in. So anticipate the critic and offer this compromise: you, the leader, will prayerfully determine the Bible study materials used by groups at your church most of the year, but during a designated time, perhaps the summer, groups will be allowed to self-determine a course of study with your approval. The groups can still have a level of autonomy, but you can still exercise better leadership in the process they might use to select a study.

Manage the transition well by not rushing into it, admit mistakes previously made, emphasize benefits that will help the church accomplish its goals, review options, compromise if needed, and above all be patient with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as they process what you are saying and the reasons you are proposing change.

This article is courtesy of Groups Matter, an effort to increase the number of Bible study groups in local churches.

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Ken Braddy leads a group of empty nest adults at his church in Tennessee. He regularly blogs on the topics of Sunday School and small groups. Visit his official blog.