The best thing you can do to encourage honesty in your group is to be honest yourself. This doesn't mean spilling your guts about your darkest secrets. Instead, it means asking for prayer in an area of your life where you're genuinely struggling, letting go of the myth that leaders need to appear perfect, and being genuine in your responses to questions.
A great activity that allows you to model genuine sharing and encourage group honesty is having each member share five people, circumstances, events, or places that have left lasting impressions on them, making them who they are today. Because some people have trouble talking about themselves so openly, you can use this visual aid: Have group members trace their hands on a piece of paper. Then have them come up with one person, circumstance, or event per finger. After group members write or draw thoughts, words, or pictures, they can explain their drawings to the group.
If some group members think the visual aid is too cute, that's okay. Different temperaments like different things. The point is to share key influences from their lives, with or without the visual aid.
Ideally, give people 10 minutes to figure out what they want to talk about and draw or write, and then 5 minutes each to share with the group. Understandably, this could take too long. After all, if you have 8 people in your group, that adds up to 50 minutes. Alternatively, you can have group members share just one person or event they wrote down.
Another option is to split into smaller groups of three or four and have group members share and pray together. Sub-grouping multiplies the amount of time each person gets. Plus, you don't have to worry so much about people who dominate and people who are shy. And when you ask someone in each subgroup to facilitate the discussion, you are giving those people a chance to experiment with leadership in a safe way.
Whatever you do, remember that the goal is to develop honesty in your group and to help people open up. When people share personal things, the other group members' responses are crucial. People need to sense that it's safe to tell the truth about themselves. Emphasize that anything shared in the group stays in the group. If you have a covenant, now is the time to refer back to it.
Pay attention as people share, and when they're done, genuinely thank them. Acknowledge when someone says something that moves you. And even if someone shares something that seems bland, let them know you appreciate his or her story as much as the others.
Go first and share your own people and events. You'll model how long to share, what to share, and that it's safe to share deeply. Make sure that what you share about yourself comes from the heart and gives the group a real glimpse of who you are deep down. It will go a long way in making your group a safe place for sharing.
—Brett Eastman is the founder of LifeTogether. Used with permission. All rights reserved.