How to Lead a Small Group: 5 Keys to Being a Great Small Group Leader

The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 132

Ever sat through an awful small group? I may have led a few of them. Being a small group leader sounds simple, but it can be very difficult. When you lead a small group, learning to manage conversations, ensure that the group time is centered on Scriptural teaching and not just opinions, and creating a hospitable environment is a daunting task.

But a few simple tips can help your church’s small group leaders make a deeper impact. These five keys – showing you how to better lead a small group – apply to in-home groups and facility-based groups, alike. Reflect on each point and determine where you need to improve as a leader. Get an outside voice to be honest with you on which of these five areas you most need to grow in.

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1. Don’t be the Expert

Unless your assignment is to actively teach an hour of content, odds are that you don’t need to be a seminary-level trained leader to be a small group leader. In all likelihood, you need to have a good working knowledge of the passage(s) and main points, so that you can effectively navigate the conversation. 

Good curriculum provided by the church should give you all the knowledge you need to be successful. But be sure that you spent some time reading through and reflecting on the curriculum before group time. Nothing looks worse than a small group leader who is just as surprised by the content as the participants.

2. Prompt Lively Discussion

Small group leaders are there to ask the questions, not answer them. Your primary role as the small group leader is to guide the conversation in a way that leads to deeper understanding of the text and builds relationships. A good small group leader can light the fire of good conversation, then step back and let it develop. Like a campfire, the conversation needs tending– you don’t need to poke or prod it too much.

We’ll discuss this more in the following points. But a healthy, lively discussion is one that keeps moving forward. Think of the small group content like a journey. It should have a clear beginning, middle, and conclusion. Your goal as the leader is to ensure that the conversation goes the whole course from start to finish.

3. Reign in Discussion When it Goes Off-Course

Church small groups are notorious breeding grounds for gossip and long-talkers. Take it from a recovering long-talker, we need to be reigned in! When you lead a small group, you need to be mindful of the group time as the whole and ensure that the conversation stays on topic and moving.

The art of moving a conversation forward without hurting someone’s feelings takes practice, but it can be done. For starters, listen for a keyword or phrase that someone says (even if it’s in the context of a tangent) that you might be able to tie-in to where the conversation needs to go next. Politely interject with something like, “Jimmy, are you reading my notes? What you’re saying about stubborn people is a great segue to our next question.” You’re affirming Jimmy while also moving things forward. Self-deprecation can also work, so long as you don’t overdo it. Saying something like, “Guys, I’ll get fired from my volunteer position as a small group leader if we talk about the Dallas Cowboys all night.” Any lighthearted reminder can work as a chance to step in and move the conversation forward.

On this point, it’s worth noting that the small group leader is also there to prevent gossip. If the conversation goes from exploring the Biblical text to spreading rumors or trash talking someone, you have an obligation to put a stop to it. This can be awkward, but as the leader, you are empowered with authority to say, “Hey, friends. I don’t think this is uplifting or God-honoring. Let’s change the subject.”

4. Spend Time on the Substance, not the Icebreaker

It’s normal for your group to linger on a particular topic. That’s ok. Becoming a good small group leader means being able to discern when you’re close to a breakthrough or “aha” moment, and when it’s time to move forward. Just be certain that when the team does linger, it’s not on the icebreaker or something inconsequential.

Budget your time well, but don’t be afraid to skip a few questions if you’re uncovering necessary application points from the Scripture with your group. If you have a couple in your group with a struggling marriage, and the Bible study and reflection is leading them to open up in ways that could transform their relationship, it’s more important to let that happen then to get through all 15 questions. This is a skill you can develop over time, but do your best to get out of your head and “see” the conversation.

5. Shepherd the Small Group Pastorally

Studying the Word of God should be an essential part of leading a small group or Sunday school class. But it’s not the only part. Your church’s community life ministry is the first line of pastoral ministry in the church. Genuine Biblical fellowship means living out the “one another” commandments of Scripture: love one another (John 13:25), be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10), build up one another (Romans 14:19), etc. 

Therefore, as a small group leader, consider yourself as the lowercase “p” pastor of your group. Listen for needs, and instead of expecting the church staff or board to do the shepherding, you do it. Encourage your group to support one another. You start the meal train. You do the hospital visit. Your prayers don’t count any less than the Senior Pastor’s.

This might be a monumental shift in your thinking about small groups, but the churches that are the healthiest have a vibrant community life ministry that sees its role as integral to the shepherding, discipling, and caring for the congregation. Real life happens outside of the small group hour each week. Be involved in people’s lives.

Being a small group leader isn’t rocket science. But it isn’t easy either. These five keys on how to lead a small group can help you unlock better discussions and a more fruitful experience outside of the meeting time. If God is leading you to be a small group leader, remember that He will give you everything you need to be successful. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be afraid to step up to your calling.

BONUS: Watch this episode on YouTube.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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