For those who have never led a small group, the prospect of starting such an endeavor might appear daunting and overwhelming given the busy lifestyle of those in the military. However, with the right amount of prayer and preparation, the small group can be a place where deeper connections and fellowship can be forged with other believers.
Since its inception, the heart of OCF has been the small group fellowship. We reached out to two OCF small group leaders, LTC Tom Matelski, USA, and Lt Col Jim Wamhoff, USAF, and asked them to share their insights on starting and effectively leading a small group. Jim credits Tom Austin’s “patient” work on him while he was a USAFA cadet that inspired Jim to start leading small groups in 1999. Tom Matelski’s leadership was launched in 2007 after encountering OCF’s small group ministry at Fort Leavenworth through Tom Schmidt.
What are some of your tips or insights on starting an OCF small group?
Tom: Be available. God will provide the people to attend if you are willing to step out in faith and tithe your time to God and to others.
Jim: I think the most important thing about starting a group is knowing who you want to serve and what you want to accomplish…are you starting a deployed Bible Study in your unit, a couples Bible Study at a large installation, or a workplace study over breakfast or lunch? Are you trying to gird yourself and the other officers in your unit or are you trying to provide fellowship and accountability for families at your installation? Your audience and purpose will impact your preparation and influence the expectations you set for the group. That’s not to say that the Lord doesn’t direct our steps…some of the groups I’ve been associated with went exactly as planned, others…well, not so much. For me, knowing my objective allows me to focus on the important issues. A study with a few guys and gals from my squadron while deployed will be different from a study with families at our home station. The deployed study will likely be more of a pickup game to allow flexibility for the flight schedule; time control will be less of an issue while transparency and time to discuss issues and pray together will be key. In contrast, family study will need to start and end on time…it will need to be super predictable with reliable childcare and a common way of doing things from night to night. Where my fellow deployed aviators need flexibility and have the ability to hang out, our families need structure and reliability.
Deciding what to study?
Tom: Be willing to be flexible to the group’s experience and spiritual walk. Not everyone is ready to jump into deep theological discussions from the start. Be willing to grow into a deeper spiritual study. Side conversations and prayer will reveal which way to take the group. The Bible is the best starting point and you can’t go wrong!
Jim: I used to agonize over this, but my rule is that I’m characterized by simply studying a book of the Bible. I’m open to a book study (like Crazy Love by Francis Chan) once a year.
Be willing to be flexible to the group’s experience and spiritual walk. Not everyone is ready to jump into deep theological discussions from the start. Be willing to grow into a deeper spiritual study.
Tom: Always, always, always start and finish on time. Going extra time for fellowship afterward is awesome, but must be optional.
Jim: Workplace and Family studies need to stick to a schedule. Deployed, not so much. If I have a really chatty group, I’ll set the alarm on my watch or phone to keep me honest. I’ve even printed an order of events and made copies to hand out.
Tom: Ice cream socials and BBQs work well, but also a simple introduction game (toilet paper game, etc works).
Jim: I learned about the question of the week (name, where are you from, what’s your favorite cereal, soda, etc.) from Phil and Shelly Waite in the ‘90s and have never tried anything else.
Tom: Start and end in prayer. We like to also have a communal prayer time, but also a prayer time focused on guys and gals separately. We also during the separated time exchange prayer cards.
Jim: Always the last five to fifteen minutes; I usually ask a regular to keep a prayer journal for us. I also try to ensure that we send PCSing and separating members forth with prayer and laying on of hands
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a small-group leader? How have you handled them?
Tom: We have had people that monopolize time with personal concerns or the same issues. We ask them to limit their sharing time during Bible study, but also offer to meet individually afterward or during the week. We don’t want to shut anyone down, but still manage our time well.
Jim: Denominational issues have surfaced a few times; but you can never go wrong if you have Matthew 18 in mind, “go to your brother…” That said, one too many of these situations prompted me to write an ROE (Rules of Engagement) for small groups:
- Check your rank at the door.
- Except for the question of the week, you don’t HAVE to talk.
- As this is a Bible Study, we will use Scripture to interpret/inform Scripture. We won’t take denominational stands.
- The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the plain meaning of the text.
“The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is primarily with what it means. We should be concerned with both. Exegesis = what the text originally meant. Hermeneutics = text’s meaning here and now. A text cannot mean what it could have never mean to its authors or readers. Whenever we share comparable particulars with the author and readers’ setting, God’s Word is the same to us as His Word to them.”
(adapted from Bill Rushing and “How to Read the Bible for all its Worth” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart)
What advice do you have for new or prospective local leaders?
Tom: God will provide. Always be looking for someone to raise up as a future leader or handy on the spot leader in case someone gets sick.
Jim: Start with Colossians and use the NavPress Bible Study book to help you. This accomplishes many things: first, Colossians is focused on Christ and well help you set a Christ-centered tone for your group; second, for a mature believer, Colossians is relatively easy to facilitate; third, Colossians is still accessible for a new believer; and finally, Colossians will ensure that everyone in your group will be exposed to the Gospel from the get go. Colossians also happens to be short…you can easily finish it ten weeks and then decide on the next study as a group. Using the NavPress book gives you a framework and cuts down on the amount of homework you need to do as a leader. I use a NavPress book for every study I lead. I also regularly use Matthew Henry, Strong’s, and Pillar commentaries.
What are some of the best things you’ve encountered or experienced in small groups?
Tom: The long lasting friendships that result. We’ve spent a lot of time crying and laughing through some great times and troubled times but know that God put us together for a reason.
Jim: Our OCF group has been our family. Whether it’s celebrating Christmas at Yokota, having a shrimp boil in Pensacola, or a cheese party at Minot, our OCF group has been our extended family. We’ve had OCF Easters, Christmases, and Fourth of July’s. We’ve celebrated at birthdays, weddings and homecomings, mourned at funerals, welcomed new friends and said “farewell for now” to old friends. Our OCF family has been a part of our lives since Melanie and were married in 1994.
How long have you been leading an OCF small group?
Tom: Since 2007 at Fort Leavenworth.
Jim: Since 1999. I think our longest break was for four months.
When did you first get involved in attending an OCF small group?
Tom: At CGSC at Fort Leavenworth through Tom Schmidt.
Jim: I was on the fringes of OCF at USAFA until I graduated in 1994. Lt Col Tom Austin was patiently sowing seeds in my life while he was stationed at the Academy as an exchange officer. Our first small group was led by the John and Irma Hultman at Yokota AB in Japan. Tom Austin’s work began to bear fruit when I informed my new wife Melanie that we “needed” to be in an OCF study the day she arrived at Yokota. While in orbit with the gentle souls that made up our OCF family at Yokota, I finally surrendered completely and unreservedly to the Lord.
When did you start leading one?
Tom: Winter 2007.
Jim: After Yokota we went to flight training and eventually ended up at Minot AFB two years later. First we were stationed at NAS Pensacola with John and Wanda Roberts and Mark and Julie Ostrye. Then we were stationed at Barksdale AFB with Bill and Judy Rushing. These wonderful couples poured themselves into our lives, showing us what small group leadership looks like. While we were at Barksdale we told our friends Greg and Sheri Pound that if there wasn’t an OCF at Minot we’d start one when we got there. Greg and Sheri got there six months before us. By the time we arrived, the Pound’s advertising agency had been working overtime. I think that on our first night of Bible study we had 17 people and three guitars. Of the 17 people that came on the first night, we only knew the Pounds. Amazingly, we served at Minot for more than a decade. I think we trained three couples to replace us only to farewell them. Our years “up north” are a highlight of my career because of our small group family…our life in Minot happily revolved around our OCF group. God didn’t end His blessings when we left Minot though; our groups in Alabama, Hawaii and here in Nebraska have been amazing. As I contemplate the families whose lives have touched ours over the years, I feel as if I’ve been granted a small glimpse of heaven.
We’re currently at Offutt AFB. Mike Kolster and I are the Local Leaders here. Mike leads a Wednesday morning study at the food court and I lead a Thursday night study in a local home. Both studies have a pretty diverse population; Wednesdays are all rank and include retirees and civilian employees, Thursdays are mostly couples; Lt to Lt Col as well as federal employees.
The Lord has used OCF to bless Melanie and me and our family. We’ve been equipped, trained, encouraged, prayed for, led, served and loved well by OCF. I count it a privilege to have served as a small group leader, a local rep and an area rep. We recognize that much if not most of OCF’s impact in our life has been in the context of our small group. For us, our small group is and always has been where the rubber meets the road. Thanks for allowing me to share a little bit about my experience.