Facilitating a Successful Small Group

There isn’t really anything like a healthy small group. Your church could have Biblical teaching and Spirit led worship, but if there isn’t a vibrant, grassroots network of healthy small groups existing in your church then it seems pretty obvious that it’s missing an integral piece of discipleship.

However, many small groups I’ve been a part of are not that great to be a part of. Oftentimes, it’s because the person facilitating doesn’t have a good idea as to how to go about it.

And who could blame them? It’s a difficult thing to facilitate anybody let alone a group of people.

Here are a couple of thoughts on what it takes to lead and facilitate a successful small group. It should be said, this is based on my own experience and limited perspective. If you have a style that works then by all means stick with it! This is only me offering a few suggestions if you’re looking for help.

What Does a Facilitator Do?

First off, it might be helpful to write down a “job title” of a facilitator. Here’s one I would offer:

facilitator is responsible for initiating, directing, and landing a successful discussion.

If we agree on this simply definition, let’s talk about what each of these three spaces look like: initiating, directing, and landing.

Initiating:

beginning a discussion worth having.

The first step in any discussion is getting it off the ground with some introductory comments or questions. If your discussion is going to be a success, this section has to transition from the undirected social time to the more focused section of actual discussion.

This is arguably the most uncomfortable section for an inexperienced facilitator. I’ve seen (and experienced) a lot of train wrecks as the facilitator feels the unexpected shift in the dynamic. If done poorly it can be a jarring and really awkward experience. Trust me – I’ve been there!

But with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be awkward! Here’s a suggested blueprint for navigating the initial sections of a discussion:

  1. Thank everyone for coming.
    (i.e. “Thank you all for coming tonight and making space in your schedules for this.”)
  2. Reiterate the vision for the group and why you’re gathering.
    (i.e. “We’re on a journey to continue connecting together as family.”)
  3. Go around the room and have people provide a short update on their weeks.
    (i.e. “Before we dive into our reading for this week, let’s go around the room and rate our week 1-10.”)
  4. Connect the week with the group’s vision.
    (i.e. “Again, thanks for making space for this in your schedule. Whether we’re coming from weeks full with good things or bad, we are in this together to grow as disciples in the context of family.”)

The above is just a standard example on how to initiate a successful discussion. It comfortably takes the group from the unstructured social time most small groups have at the beginning. It also demonstrates off the bat that you know how to handle the dynamic in a responsible and effective way.

Facilitating a group of people is not naturally easy, especially if they’re your peers. Proving yourself and connecting with the group on the initial makes it easier to lead the group through the rest of the discussion. What are some specific things your community group or your style as facilitator needs to make this happen?

My experience shows that following something like the above paves the way to having a smooth and dynamic small group discussion.

Directing:

ensuring the discussion is worth having.

There are a couple of things that are needed of a facilitator poised to ensure the discussion is a good one. In order to hone in on those practices, let’s take a look at a standard set of practices of the way our church does small groups:

  1. Read the book out-loud together. (optional)
  2. Pause at natural section breaks. (recommended)
  3. Start by asking general questions, progress towards a specific direction. (essential)
  4. Ask questions that are textually based as well as attentive to previous comments or questions. (essential)

There is a reason we have these practices. They work! But even if you don’t decide to go in this direction, any facilitator ought to know which direction they want to take the discussion. “Just showing up” doesn’t really work, especially if you don’t have a preexisting relationship with the people in your group to fall back on. You should know what your starting point in the discussion is, and what your ending point is. Knowing how to direct the discussion is instrumental in finding a good landing.

Landing:

bookend the discussion with a conclusion and action steps.

People need to be given a reminder why they came in the first place to your community group. If you don’t give them a tangible, practical, and clear conclusion by the end you wont fully capitalize on what the Spirit intends for your community group or your discussion.

Usually, a conclusion will summarize the central takeaways of the reading. It’s ideal if the facilitator knows exactly what these are before the discussion even begins and is able to intuitively direct their group in that direction. A clear conclusion can even cover the multitude of sins of an unclear discussion. As long as people are able to walk away with a clear understanding by the end of the night a discussion is never really a failure.

But beyond a clear conclusion, it’s best if you give your group something to do or try outside the community group. For instance, at EvFree Fullerton we’re going through Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. As such, a clear assignment is to try our hand at any number of the disciplines he showcases in the book.

Your action steps should match whatever theme or book your group is going through. If it’s not on topic it’s not worth doing.

Hopefully the steps above help equip you in whatever small group community you’re a part of. What things have you found helpful in your context of ministry?

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