According to Rev. Geoff Parker, Program Manager for Journey to the Table at Upper Room Ministries, small groups should always be formative for everyone. This means that both the leader and the group need to grow together on this journey and that small group gathering times should allow individuals to re-center themselves. In other words, small group meetings are a stop along the journey and not the journey itself. A successful journey requires a strong facilitator and engaged, active group members.
Your role as the facilitator
The role of a facilitator is to build a space, or dynamic, where people can share. Spiritual formation does not happen in isolation. While there are components that happen individually, there are also components that happen in a group setting. Therefore, facilitators need to give people the comfort level to be vulnerable and the opportunity decide how much they want to share. Facilitators need to be especially attentive to the dynamic of the group because it builds the atmosphere. Rev. Parker believes there are two things that create an effective dynamic: intentionality of the facilitator and the personality of the group.
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in our small groups got along? Sometimes, a little bit of conflict can be good. A healthy atmosphere and the practice of the group can help you get good out of conflict when everyone is willing to listen, share and be vulnerable. Asking open and honest questions can help make the most out of your gathering times together. Some examples of open-ended questions are: How do the rest of you feel about that? What would you have done differently? Ask questions that you actually want to hear the answers to. People see right through a façade and will be turned off if they know you don’t really care. Part of showing that you care is taking the time to execute the basic responsibilities of a facilitator.
Basic responsibilities as a facilitator
- Be a keeper of group knowledge such as the group’s rhythm (or schedule), meeting location, timing and agreement covenant. Identify which days and what times work best for the group and stick to it. Give the group a sense of comfort knowing it is a priority to meet and establish that reserved time as something to look forward to.
- Write an agreement covenant where everyone in the group agrees to every point mentioned in the covenant. Such as listening while someone else is talking, or having someone do 5 pushups per every minute they are late to the gathering. The process of writing an agreement covenant will allow the group members to grow closer together. Groups that stick together over significant changes are those who agree on a covenant.
- Identify roles within the group. Be open and honest about who will be in each role and why. Many roles happen naturally and that’s ok. However, it is important to write them down. Roles are beneficial for the life of the group but it doesn’t need to limit the group.
- As a facilitator, you are responsible for ensuring that there is someone is guiding the group. It can be you who is facilitating the group but that does not mean you have to lead each week. You may want to have somebody else lead. Nevertheless, it is your responsibility to identify the facilitator.
- Pay attention to the group dynamics. As previously mentioned, the dynamic of the group can really define the success and performance of the group’s gathering times. Other dynamics to be aware of are safeguarding group members from harm or being left out.
- Communicate. What is your communication style as a small group leader? What areas can you grow in to better communicate with your group? It is important to bring awareness of your own communication habits and be willing to speak to the group about communication. Aside from practical communication about meeting times and topics, it is important to set the example of just how much vulnerability we are open to in the group. Group members will see your willingness to share and be vulnerable and will respond to that in a similar fashion. How we set the tone and where we set the level, people will respond. If you have a couple people who are willing to share, others will join regardless of the age group.
By doing these things, you’ll be able to get the most out of your limited time together. How will you know if your efforts are working? Well, well-functioning small groups have certain characteristics.
Characteristics of effective small groups
- There is rhythm. Does your group meet in the evenings for coffee, late mornings for brunch or every other weekend? Each group has their own meeting times that work best for them.
- There is practice between gatherings. Your group cannot be defined by the limited time and actions that occur during gatherings or “stopping points on the journey.” Practices, such as prayer, reading of the Bible and service should actually also happen between gatherings.
- There is active pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is intentional. Similarly, effective small groups are intentional about being present during their gathering times.
- There is a journey of the whole self. This means that the mind, heart, spirit, actions, thoughts, goals and experiences are all brought to the table.
Whether your small group is meeting online or virtually, we hope you are able to get the most out of your gathering times.
This article is inspired by workshop presented by Rev. Parker at Youth 19. See the links below for more resources on small groups.