I've never been a big fan of formalized small-group covenants. But I do think there's value in designating a small-group meeting once a year to go over the ground rules and purposes of your group. If you or your church feels better stating these more formally as a covenant, that's fine. Either way, it is important that you talk about these things and be sure that you all agree. Generally, fall, or near the beginning of a group, is a really good time to do this.
Here are the things you need to discuss and agree on.
1. Purpose. What are we going to be about as a group? What is the reason we get together every week? I think there's value in talking about things like being committed to coming each week and being committed to being involved in other group members' lives. Being a gospel-community means being genuine friends and allies—and that level of relationship requires a commitment to the meetings and each other.
2. Location. Where are we going to meet? I'm a big fan of meeting in homes and rotating among homes. You could meet in a different home each month, rotate each meeting, or have group members volunteer at each meeting for the following week. Meeting in someone's home can allow you to get to know the person in a unique, intimate way. Agree on basic rules that will apply to all homes. In our case, we have the host home provide beverages, plates, and utensils. Someone else in the group is responsible for bringing the snack. You will also need to respect the rules at different homes, especially if there are kids. Be sure to review the house rules at the start of each meeting, or when you rotate to a new home. Different people care about different things, and that's perfectly fine.
3. Expectations. What should you do if you are not able to make it to the meeting? Who will lead the discussion? By laying out these expectations, you can avoid a lot of hurt feelings and confusion. You can also cover expectations that make the group meetings more meaningful, such as being on time, turning off cell phones, or participating in meetings. Equal participation is especially important so that group members know they're invited and expected to share at the meetings, use their spiritual gifts, host, and bring snacks.
4. Confidentiality. What's said in the group should stay in the group unless permission is given to share it elsewhere. This is not to create a dysfunctional group that keeps unhealthy secrets. Instead, it is to create a culture of safety where everyone feels safe to share thoughts and feelings and knows that others will not find out.
5. Children and childcare. If you have children at your group, what's the plan? What is each person's part in making that plan work? There are many ways to handle children, and you will need to decide what will work best for your group.
6. Growth, outreach, and future multiplication. It's important, at least once a year, to discuss the fact that your group isn't going to be an end in itself. You should make clear that your group will seek to have the heart of Jesus and reach out to others, always making room for new members. That means new people are always welcome and everyone must do their best to be welcoming. It also means the group will likely reach a size someday that calls for multiplication, and you need to be planning and preparing for when that day comes.
Depending on your church or type of group, you may find there are other things you need to discuss as well. It's a good idea to spend time praying together for your group to see God work in and through your group this year. Spend time laying out the plan and purpose of your group, making clear all expectations. When you do this, your group will not only be a safe place, but will also be unified around the purpose. You are likely to have less conflict and less confusion, and you'll be able to point back to this conversation if things do get off track.
—Jay Firebaugh is the Director of Small Groups at New Life Church in Gahanna, OH. You can check out practical tools for pastors and small-group leaders on his All About Small Groups Facebook page.