Just a few months into my life as a Christian, I was asked to lead my very first small group.
I was honored, and humbled, and totally surprised because I had barely been in a small group, let alone had any experience leading one. But God had done so much in my life, I was eager to do anything I could to pass that on. And so I showed up that first afternoon with a tentative plan and no clue if anyone would actually come.
Slowly but surely, 27 of the most wonderful women in the world trickled into that room, and that year God transformed our lives completely. Both theirs and mine.
Through that small group I learned that God can use ordinary people — people like me, and people like you — in beautiful, life-changing ways.
I also learned that sitting with each other, sharing our stories, and seeking God together in the midst of our mess really does change everything.
So now — having led and been a part of many, many small groups, I wanted to take some time to share with you some simple small group leader tricks I picked up along the way.
They’re small shifts that take a Bible study from being an obligation each week, to something that actually transforms women’s lives. And that’s exactly what we want for the women we lead. Right? Okay, here we go!
1. What happens in small group, stays in small group
Our first goal as leaders is to make small group a place where women feel safe enough to share vulnerably about their lives.
The freedom and willingness to share vulnerably is the difference between a surface-y small group, and a life-changing one. But before anyone is going to share vulnerably, they have to know that this is a safe place to do so! And that begins with this rule: What happens in small group stays in small group. Establish that rule together next time y’all meet, and that’s the first step to creating a place of safety where your women know that they are free to say what they need to say. That they wont be exposed, embarrassed, or worst of all, judged …
2. Be a judgment-free zone
If your small group is going well, the women you lead might share things with you that surprise you. One of your college students might share a big secret she’s been keeping, or one of your women might confess that she’s having marital problems.
The fact that they trust you with this is a BIG DEAL and a great sign! So meet them in this, but do it carefully.
When people open up, the biggest thing they’re afraid of is being judged or rejected — so be cognizant of your reaction to make sure you’re communicating just the opposite.
The most important thing for them to know is that you love them, you’re not judging them, that they’re not unworthy of being your friend or in your group or at your church because of what they shared with you, and that you’re on their team, there to help them as they work through this.
Having people that love you in the midst of your mess and are there to walk through it with you — that’s what a life-changing small group is all about.
3. Be a safe place for doubt and hard questions
A common insecurity in Bible studies is that we think we don’t know as much as everyone else. We haven’t been a Christian as long, or we aren’t as familiar with the Bible, or we have doubts we feel like nobody else has. Those fears and insecurities keep us quiet, reserved, and keep us from getting a lot out of the small group experience.
And this is why our groups have to be a safe place to express doubt and ask hard questions. They just have to be, because where else can we do that?
A way of establishing that safety and openness is to ask for it — to carve out a time in group for hard questions, or just mention that you’ve available for those conversations anytime!
And the fear is — what if you don’t know the answer? I know, I’ve worried about that too. But that’s really not a problem. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to tell them! Say, “I actually don’t know, but let’s find out together.” And then find some resources you can dig into together, or ask someone older and wiser, and report back!
This honesty is a great way of demonstrating that we don’t have to have all the answers, and a great way of showing them where to look when they have questions.
“THE PROBLEM IS THAT BEING IN A BIBLE STUDY TOGETHER DOESN’T AUTOMATICALLY MEAN WE KNOW EACH OTHER. STUDYING SCRIPTURE TOGETHER DOESN’T ALWAYS HELP US BECOME FRIENDS.”
4. Get real!
A promise I made my first small group as we started meeting together was that I would never leave them out on a limb by themselves. So if they decided to share something vulnerable, I would immediately follow up with, “Gosh, I’ve totally been there” and I would tell my story that most closely related. Sometimes I wouldn’t have a story that was exactly the same but I could share something that was comparable, or a time that I too felt shame. That way when they climbed out on this limb sharing vulnerably, they never had to sit out there alone.
And usually it wasn’t more than a minute or two before the rest of the group climbed out right behind us. When a group of women starts sharing the truth about their lives and working through it together, life-change is right around the corner!
5. Let God lead
One of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to small groups is that we’re afraid to deviate from our agenda.
I was a part of a small group for awhile that had a strict curriculum set by the church. Over time our small group started to deviate from their plan a bit, but we were learning about God in the most real, tangible, transformative ways. It was everything you’d want a small group to become, but because we weren’t sticking to the curriculum, the church shut us down.
It was heartbreaking, and unfortunately something that happens all the time. We get so caught up in what we planned to do, that we stop tuning into what God wants to do. But He’s the leader, and we have to remember that.
And so if something comes up in group that takes you away from the plan but still toward God, go with it! Pick the plan back up next week if it works. But don’t stick so closely to your plan that you stop leaving room for God to move!
6. Give it time
Remember that small group I just told you about? The thing I didn’t mention is that for the first few months, I really didn’t enjoy it. Starting something new is scary and uncomfortable, but I knew it was important so I stuck with it. Well, a few months in, things started to change. I began to love that small group and I never missed another week.
Something for you to keep in mind, and something for you to remind your girls is that small groups really do get better the longer we’re in them. They can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but the longer we’re in them, the more consistently we all show up, the better and richer they become.
7. Start with friendships, and the life-change will soon follow
Like I said before, a few months into my small group, there was a shift, a change, and all of a sudden I didn’t have to be convinced to go. You couldn’t keep me away.
That shift? We all started to become friends.
We talk about community a lot in the church, and we’ve created Bible studies and small groups as a way of cultivating community with fellow believers.
The problem is that being in a Bible study together doesn’t automatically mean we know each other. Studying scripture together doesn’t always help us become friends.
I get emails all the time from women who are in Bible studies but who feel so deeply lonely in their lives and their faith. And I hate that because I know that finding Christian friends can be a game-changer for our faith (and for our lives in general!).
Our lives and our faith are so much easier (and more fun!) when we have girlfriends to walk with.