Leading small groups is an art, not a science. The adage “practice makes perfect” is only partially true. Even after much practice, the study will rarely ever be “perfect” and usually will not go as planned. But as a leader gains experience, better group results usually follow.
Remember, God’s Word is good seed. The leader’s responsibility is to handle the Word of God properly (2 Tim. 2:15) and to help make the study of it a positive experience. It is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to take that seed planted in a person’s mind and cause it to grow so that it will bear much fruit and bring each individual into conformity with God’s Son, Jesus of Nazareth, with whom He is very pleased.
As a small-group leader, commit yourself to become a modern-day Ezra. Set your heart to study the Bible and obediently apply its teachings to your life. With skill, humility, and compassion, you will lead others to biblical truths.
It truly is a rewarding experience.
Practical Tips for Leading the Small Group
While we recommend reading the booklet in its entirety if you plan to lead or host a small group, we’ve provided a condensed list of practical tips as a means to summarize key points of the booklet and of leading effective small groups.
1. Start and end on time. Starting on time will establish a practice of people coming on time. Timeliness on both ends shows respect for people.
2. Make sure the room setup is such that everyone can see everyone else. In most homes, this will be a limiting factor as to the number of people in the small group. Having people sit on a stairway or in an alcove usually inhibits them from participating.
3. Design the room setup and rules of engagement so that there is a minimum of distractions. Have a policy regarding phone calls and childcare so that these and other issues will not be disruptive for others.
4. If your group is young in the faith, consider having multiple copies of the same translation of the Bible. This is also wise if you have Internationals. Your chaplain may be able to help you obtain these copies for a reasonable price. This also allows you to refer to passages by page number for those not familiar with the Bible.
5. Avoid praying or reading around in a circle. While most of our target audience, the officer corps, is comfortable reading, there are exceptions. The same goes for praying. Take volunteers for these tasks rather than risk losing someone because they felt pressure to read or pray.
6. Include a short review of previous weeks if the flow of thought is important. With the increased frequency of TDY/TAD and deployed assignments, help those who were absent feel part of the group.
7. Start with easy questions. This serves the purpose of getting people talking. Observation questions—What does it say?—are a natural way to do this. You might even employ a “hook”—an observation or question about life in general—that most everyone can identify with to open your discussion if doing so sets the stage for the direction you want the study to take.
8. Seek to involve everyone in the interaction. If one or two people are monopolizing the responses, you will need to stop this. Rather than specifically calling on a person, generically ask for responses by those who have not had a chance to say anything. If this practice continues week after week, you should plan to approach the offending party and let them know you appreciate their participation but ask them to be sensitive to your goal of involving others.
9. Don’t call on specific people to respond. While you may be confident that some people wouldn’t mind you specifically asking them, others might be apprehensive that you could do the same to them.
10. Don’t let all the questions and response come to you, the leader. If you see this pattern developing, ask others to respond to a response. Keep this up until the conversation flow is naturally multi-directional.
11. Don’t allow yourself to become the group expert. As appropriate, you may need to encourage people out of their comfort zones to take leadership. Co-lead a study with a new leader or meet with him or her mid-week to answer questions and be a resource. Look for ways to affirm them after the study. Likewise, don’t allow people to view participating chaplains as the expert. They will appreciate it.
12. Don’t accept a wrong answer for fear of offending. If there is a wrong response, you can ask the person to state the verse or phrase that prompted their response. (By the way, this is a good practice even if the response is correct.) You can also ask others if they agree or if they understand it differently. If a person often gives a wrong answer and you need to have it corrected, look for an opportunity to affirm them when they give a correct answer.
13. Don’t allow statements that denigrate another denomination. The study is intended to be a Bible study, not a justification of one church doctrine over another. There may be a few exceptions if having a variety of responses enhances your purpose. Be careful, however, to ensure this technique will not offend anyone. If the truth is to offend, let that truth come directly from the Scriptures.
14. Be alert to the use of Christian/church-ese. It doesn’t take long for people to invent or use a word or phrase that becomes an “in” expression. Newcomers may feel lost; old-timers may need to wrestle with the concept afresh. When appropriate, ask for basic definitions so that everyone is at the same place in their understanding of the term.
15. Stick with the text being studied. Almost every passage should have its understanding incorporated in the immediate context. Usually the recipients of one of the Apostle Paul’s letters or epistles were not required to have read a previous letter as a prerequisite for understanding the current letter. When in your personal study you find a cross-reference to be helpful, use it carefully. If you want everyone to see that passage, make a statement and direct people there together.
16. Draw the study to a conclusion. Don’t quit without some sort of summation. Usually this is best accomplished before heading into the application phase. Discovering a bunch of interesting facts does not constitute a good study.
17. Don’t forget to do “application praying.” This helps draw the study to a proper conclusion. Don’t be troubled if it takes a few weeks to get everyone in the pattern of doing this.
18. If you serve refreshments after the small group meeting, avoid the practice of “can you top this?” Save the real special treats for a special event. Sometimes, however, the bringing of dessert is the only way a person or couple can be involved. Don’t discourage them.
19. Structure the small group so that you encourage growth and the incorporation of new people. Have natural entry points if the topic is lengthy and will involve a number of weeks. Make sure newcomers feel welcome, even if it means discontinuing your conversations with close friends. A word of explanation to them should be sufficient and will likely encourage them to branch out. Look for ways to involve them in the group early on, such as inquiring if they would want to open their home for a study or bring refreshments.
20. As you grow, plan to divide the study. This needs to be understood from the start so that you do not meet with resistance when the time comes.